Rob Irwin

How long have you been at EarthDaily Analytics?

I started at UrtheCast in 2015 before transitioning to EarthDaily in 2021, so I’ve been working on EarthDaily-like things for more than 8 years.

What is your current position and what you do?

I’m a Staff Software Engineer and I manage a small team focused on a variety of fun engineering projects. The key project we’re working on now is generating high-fidelity simulated EarthDaily Constellation data for functional testing of our Ground Segment. We get to intimately understand the inner workings of our sensors, the behaviours of our orbits, and the concept of operations for the entire constellation. I also lead algorithm development for our optical image mosaicking solution, EarthMosaics (my passion project). Other members of the team are doing work on methane detection using open data, and work for the CSA looking into thermal calibration for the EarthDaily Constellation and SAR data quality assessment.

Have you grown professionally while on our team?

Absolutely. My first job title here was “Junior Mission Planner”, and I got to do some interesting work operating UrtheCast’s “first generation” sensors on the International Space Station. It was fun work, and a great introduction into the complex field of Earth Observation. I was able to transition into software after that, and through the mentorship (and patience) of many, many individuals at UrtheCast and EarthDaily, I’ve been able to lead research projects, present at conferences, and now run a small team of incredibly talented individuals.

What sets EarthDaily Analytics apart?

I think the simplest answer is the EarthDaily Constellation mission. The feeling of working towards launching a project of this magnitude is difficult to describe. Plus, having access to that stream of data once we launch is going to be amazing.

What accomplishment during your time at EarthDaily Analytics are you most proud of?

I had been developing the EarthMosaics algorithms for internal purposes for about a year when Chris told me we had a commercial opportunity to create some mosaics. Generating massive, scientific quality mosaics using tools that I had built from the ground-up, using novel techniques that I had conceived of and implemented. It was an incredible experience. After all, isn’t every engineer’s dream to build something truly useful? I still have a framed picture of that first commercial mosaic that I proudly display on my wall at home.

Describe your values and how they inform your career.

I could talk about environmentalism or being part of a meaningful shift in the industry of Earth Observation, but what I really want to talk about is math.

My academic background was in computational fluid dynamics developing models for simulating large-scale oceanic flows. There was a common saying from the field of statistics: “all models are wrong, but some are useful”. It was meant to convey that it’s impossible to capture all the dynamics of extremely complex systems, but if you rigourously reduce the problem down to meaningful terms, then you can use your model in meaningful ways (e.g., to predict how large-scale oceanic flows evolve over time).

The same concept applies to satellite-based Earth Observation. We’re trying to model how light propagates from the sun, through the atmosphere, bounces off the ground, scatters back through the atmosphere, propagates through an optical system, and then accumulates on a piece of photosensitive silicon on a washing-machine-sized satellite that’s moving at 7 kilometers per second, 600 kilometers above the ground. It’s a challenging scientific problem but being able to approach these problems with the values I learned during my academic career has been the single biggest contributor to the shape of my career.

What do you find most interesting about your job?

Pursuing innovative solutions to problems is the most interesting part of my job. Looking at a problem and saying “I wonder if this will work…” then really digging in and understanding that problem is incredibly gratifying. Taking the results and being able to peel back the layers with some of the most brilliant minds in the field doesn’t hurt either.

What do you think of the arrival of the EarthDaily Contellation?

Incredibly excited. Incredibly nervous. It’s been many years of grinding away at various nuanced engineering problems related to the constellation that it feels surreal that it will launch next year. Thinking about the launch makes me want to cheer and throw up at the same time.

What new viewpoints or opportunities do you anticipate arising within the scope of your work?

Anyone who has worked with optical Earth Observation data knows that clouds are the enemy. Not only do clouds obscure what you’re trying to see on the ground, but you also have to deal with them when performing analysis. You need to mask out cloudy pixels and it’s not always easy to get those masks perfectly correct. This makes the barrier of entry to earth observation research higher and more error prone if people aren’t aware of these nuances.

By getting images of the entire globe every single day with the EarthDaily Constellation, we can synthesize multiple days’ worth of imagery together to get highly accurate representations of what the ground looks like without those pesky clouds. That’s what we’re trying to accomplish with EarthMosaics. Having cloud-free representations of what the ground looks like means that analysis is easier to perform, and less error-prone. The list of applications that could benefit is endless.

What are you passionate about outside of work?

The Toronto Maple Leafs. They’re going to win it all this year. Plan the parade.