From the Frontline: Italy’s Fight Against Coronavirus, With Satellite

Italy has been on the frontline of the coronavirus as the country was hit particularly hard. The virus made northern Italy look like a warzone as the country suffered huge numbers of fatalities from February to April. It was images from Italy that in many ways showed a sense of foreboding and what was to come for other countries.

Luigi Pasquali, Space Activities coordinator for Leonardo and Telespazio CEO.

Luigi Pasquali, the Space Activities Coordinator of Leonardo and CEO of Italy’s largest space company, Telespazio, has been leading Telespazio through this unprecedented era where Italy has been a harsh lockdown for months. While he admits the satellite industry cannot directly fight the virus, he believes it can support law enforcement’s monitoring of safety directives related to the lockdown.

Satellite technology touches areas from work, healthcare, medicine, education, free time, and human relationships. Pasquali talks of the integration of satellite-based technologies in the areas of communication; Positioning, Navigation, and Timing (PNT); and Earth Observation (EO). He says this integration, combined with the recent technology trends such as cybersecurity and blockchain, 5G, Internet of Things (IoT), big data and analytics, Artificial Intelligence (AI), and Machine Learning (ML), allows the satellite industry to help the fight against the virus more than others can.

He gives a very current example. Leonardo, through e-GEOS, has been providing satellite maps to the Italian Civil Protection under the framework of the rapid mapping Copernicus Emergency Management Service (EMS) project for the European Commission since early April. These satellite maps have been provided valuable information to the Civil Protection Authorities operating in Turin, Italy. “This is the first time the service has been activated during the coronavirus emergency,” says Pasquali.

In rural parts of Italy, satellite offers the capability to monitor the health status of affected people remotely through telemedicine and remote healthcare. The satellite channel is one of the utilized links in order to guarantee ubiquitous coverage. “It is combined with an application layer able to manage a multimedia exchange among patients, specialists and the network of involved sanitary infrastructures: video meeting, images, and digital information exchange,” says Pasquali. “Furthermore, the use of algorithms to process the location analytics obtained collecting data from different sources and the relevant correlation with different geographical areas is of great support to identify areas where virus could potentially further develop; and, as said before, the location analytics origin is clearly satellite based. The information that can be obtained with such a service is both predictive, with the aim of isolating new possible outbreaks of the epidemic, and related to monitoring and supervision of infrastructures [such as] traffic jams, parking areas, and population movements.”

While satellite is on the frontline in Italy in terms of telemedicine and remote healthcare, it also plays an expanded role in remote education. Universities and schools have been closed across Italy, putting many students at risk of missing out on education. Similar to healthcare, satellite has been used in conjunction with terrestrial infrastructure. Thanks to satellite, professors, tutors, and students can have multimedia exchanges, in essence creating a collaboration-type platform for schools and universities.

Law enforcement services in Italy have taken on extra responsibilities as they look to take care of peoples’ safety, and transport goods from logistic centers to local urban hubs. Italian law enforcement has received government approval to use drones to monitor citizens’ movements to manage the current crisis.

“The use of unmanned system, and particularly of drones, can exploit a satellite-based Beyond Radio Line of Sight (BRLOS) connectivity to ensure a continuous control from a remote location, but it also requires a combination of geo-information as well as navigation and positioning data for accurate data collection and correlation — the so-called location analytics techniques,” Pasquali says. “Drones, together with the information collected by satellites, thanks to the many Earth Observation satellites, such as PRISMA, COSMO-SkyMed, and the European program Copernicus, are becoming more and more useful in our daily lives.”

Business Continuity

Pasquali believes through a combination of ground solutions and satellites, Leonardo, together with Telespazio, can guarantee the transmission of information to both institutional and business clients, which is vital at a time like this.

It seems like hybrid networks like satellite, fiber and wireless, in which satellite takes on an enhanced role are the best answer to those needs, especially in areas that are suffering more because of limited and poor connectivity. Pasquali highlights initiatives such as the Governmental Satellite Communications (GovSatcom) project in Europe, which he thinks will get even more support now, because a strong infrastructure for critical use will now be considered mandatory.

Leonardo, together with Telespazio and Thales Alenia Space is involved in defining and designing the Ital-GovSatCom system in Italy, a public-private partnership between industry and the Italian government, which will also be a key pillar in the deployment of a European infrastructure. In terms of its future investment in satellites, Pasquali says, “It is far too early to define how this changed scenario is going to impact the schedule for new satellites. The currently planned systems already envisage significant more capability, interoperability, and flexible payloads to adapt to different needs. Also, Telespazio is continuing to guarantee operations from its space centers in Italy and abroad. As soon as in the next few weeks and months, the launch activities will resume everywhere (they have never been suspended in China or Russia, for example), we can experience a certain continuity, at least at the beginning.”

In terms of the overall impact on Telespazio’s business, Pasquali says the crisis, which he believes can be compared to World War II, will leave a lasting impact. He says Telespazio is actively working to continue providing safe and high quality services to its customers, while defending its most important assets: the health and safety of its employees, subcontractors, suppliers, and clients. “We are progressing in defining and finalizing all the ongoing recovery actions. The final figures will depend mostly on how long the crisis will be and on which will be the global reaction. A coordinated effort and support at national and European level is a key element to restart the economy and specifically support satellite activities,” he says.

He says it is inevitable that the pandemic will induce an economic shock to the system, with all companies facing significant financial impacts. Companies like Telespazio will need to readapt and reorganize to navigate this new normal. “It is true that you need to manage tightly in days like these, but you cannot kill good business opportunities supporting resilience and growth. It is necessary to secure a good balance between the two, investing and preserving cash.”

Protecting Staff

Every company has a responsibility towards the welfare and safety of its employees at times like this. Leonardo is recognized by a number of governments as a strategic supplier of equipment and services which are considered critical to national security, such as satellite systems management, support to Helicopter Emergency Medical Services (HEMS) fleets, physical and cyber security for national infrastructures and support to Armed Forces and Security Forces. As such, Pasquali says Telespazio is doing everything it can to maintain business continuity and deliver projects and programs to its key customers at home and overseas: “Our priority remains the safety and wellbeing of our people. When possible, both Leonardo and Telespazio have swiftly defined and adopted a sharp action plan in order to maximize the possibility for our employees to work from home. In this way we intended to limit to the maximum extent the chances of contamination linked to the need to commute every day in order to reach the workplace."

He admits efficiency has been impacted by recent events, but the impacts have been much lower than expected. “People have understood the situation and done their best to support the business with great commitment and dedication, and I am grateful to them for this,” he says.

Special measures have been put in place to secure essential services, which has meant more shiftwork for employees, with these shifts being done in isolation. From the onset of the emergency, Telespazio has guaranteed the operation of its space centers in Italy and in all the countries where it is present with its subsidiaries.

“Given the sensitive nature of the activities of space centers and teleports, any suspension of services may affect national security, public utilities, and health services,” says Pasquali. “We are all trying to cope with the special time in which we live. There is a great spirit of cooperation in making available products and expertise in order to minimize the impact due to some customers unavailability or lack of flexibility.”

The scars of COVID-19 will be felt for years to come. Pasquali highlights that in the short term, capacity needs arising from traditionally strong markets such as aviation and cruises has decreased dramatically, but at the same time, the need to provide connectivity to support smart working, as well as emergency services, dispersed healthcare organizations and field hospitals, remote teaching and learning, etc., have determined surge requests for additional capacity. “The new approach which will characterize our way of life for the future will further drive the need for safe, secure, reliable, and available networks,” he says. VS

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