DST moots centres of competence in Optronics and Synthetic Aperture Radar.


The Department of Science and Technology (DST) plans to establish centres of competence (CoC) in optronics and synthetic aperture radar (SAR) to support South Africa’s future space programme. Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor made the announcement at the launch of the South African Space Agency (SANSA) and National Space Strategy last week.

The centres of competence will support the country’s formal space programme, to be developed over the next five years, she added. “Our combined efforts at enhancing South Africa’s space capabilities will not only be of immense value to the scientific community in the Southern African region. Our efforts in enhancing space science and technology will also assist in addressing the persistent challenges of health care provision, water resources, agricultural mapping, and urban planning and communications,” said Pandor.

Space science and technology were significant contributors to sustainable development on the African continent and SANSA would help play a role in this regard, the minister added. Pandor continued that the National Space Strategy would promote research in the areas of astronomy, earth observation, communications, navigation and space physics. The strategy would also foster international cooperation in space-related activities; and advances scientific, engineering and technological competencies through human capital development and outreach programmes. Emphasis would be placed on encouraging space science research and development, she added in comments carried by the state BuaNews agency.

Chair of the SANSA board, Maurice Magugumela, said his agency would usher in a new era in the science and technology landscape of South Africa and the continent. The focus on SANSA will fall on the themes of earth observation, space operations, science and engineering, human capital development, science advancement and public engagement, he added.

Acting CE Dr Sandile Malinga said the agency would have four centres – SANSA Earth Observation, SANSA Space Operations, SANSA Space Science, and SANSA Space Engineering. The Engineering News notes that for this year, the focus will be mainly be on “corporate governance” – specifically establishing SANSA as a separate organisation in the DST’s orbit.

During the next financial year, starting April 1, the agency will use its expected R400-500 million budget to kick off the next phase of its development with the incorporation of existing bodies such as the Satellite Applications Centre at Hartbeeshoek and the Hermanus Magnetic Observatory in the Western Cape. “Sansa will be inheriting well-founded and successful entities,” Malinga said.

SANSA should be fully operational in 2012.

South Africa has an existing CoC for optronics in the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), also an agency of the DST. Research and Development is also conducted at Carl Zeiss Optronics (CZO) in Centurion. CZO is 30% owned by state arsenal Denel.

SAR research has previously been conducted at the University of Cape Town as well as the CSIR and at least two systems have been researched and developed there. Professor Mike Inggs, head of the Radar Remote Sensing Research Group in the Engineering and the Built Environment Faculty at UCT last year March told the Engineering News the first of these was produced from 1989 with funding from the state arms agency Armscor.

In his 2007 Master of Science in Engineering dissertation, Georgie George, one of the scientists on Inggs’ team notes the “purpose of a SAR is to provide high resolution images of extensive areas from airborne platforms operating from long ranges.” George writes SASAR, the South African Synthetic Aperture Radar, operated in the VHF band with a bandwidth of 12MHz. “A SAR operating at lower frequencies has better foliage and ground penetration as compared with similar radars operating at substantially higher frequencies.
“The limiting factor of SASAR was that the frequency band of operation was cluttered with interferences from radio communications. Interference suppression algorithms were developed by the RRSG and were incorporated into the signal processor. To achieve a high resolution bandwidth a longer synthetic aperture was required, which implies a longer flight path. This ultimately had implications on the motion compensation of the system.” The SASAR was then mounted on a South African Air Force Douglas C47TP “TurboDak”. Geoge adds the ultimate success and processing of digital images from the SASAR system gave rise to the concept of developing an X-Band high bandwidth SAR system: SASAR II.

Inggs noted the ability of SAR to penetrate clouds, vegetation and even the upper level of the soil. “That makes it an ideal tool for disaster management. It is also ideal for early prediction of crop yields. It really should be used more because we could save millions by ?recognising when yields are going to be poor and buying early.? Radar is also one of the most important weather prediction tools. Using scatterometers, we can measure the strength and direction of surface winds and the height of ocean waves.”

Sadly, the issue of funding has put paid to much of the SAR work that the unit has done, the Engineering News lamented. “I was excited by the possibilities of low-frequency, long-wavelength radar,” Inggs ?explains, “but, in the late 1990s, the defence budget was reduced, so we only managed to have the equipment fitted onto one Dakota. The data it produced was really useful but, after a brief use of the technology for a De Beers geological survey, by 2005, the SAR work was effectively over.”

Inggs had hopes of a revival with the establishment of SANSA.