ESA title


Our Mission

The ESA Φ-lab mission is to accelerate the future of Earth Observation (EO) by means of transformational innovations, i.e. innovations able to completely transform or create entire industries via new technologies, with the aim to strengthen the world-leading competitiveness of the European EO industrial and research sectors.

The Φ-lab is a catalyst for Earth Observation innovative and transformative ideas and a bridge within Earth Observation’s ecosystem of innovative players which connects the actors of Industry, Investors, and Academia to fosters entrepreneurial initiatives.

The Φ-lab has been established to exploit and stimulate the favorable conditions of the European Earth observation market, by boosting its innovative ethos to enable a vibrant and worldwide competitive commercial sector.

Read more on the Φ-lab brochure.

Our innovation model

We operate managing the full range of the innovation pipeline: we create or discover in our network new transformational ideas, select and nurture the good ones, develop the “solution” by testing and maturing them, up to investing in the best ones via the InCubed programme to reach the market adoption (i.e. at least revenue generation).

The Φ-lab is not an R&D lab but an innovation model aimed at generating competitive advantage via unique value proposition (commercial or scientific ones). This is an only model in ESA that can join the deep technical content with the business innovation view fostering and delivering successful commercial investments.This model is now adopted as ESA strategic action to deploy a network of ɸ-labs across Europe as described in the Agenda 2025 (page 8, Boosting commercialisation for a green and digital Europe section).

Our Offices

φ-lab Explore Office

Explore the innovation universe and connect EO sensor revolution with the digital revolution

Team of Researchers
and aninnovation seed funding (FutureEO)

φ-lab Invest Office

Stimulate competitiveness fostering entrepreneurial initiatives growth with investment actions from ESA MSs and private investors

Team of Business Innovators
and commercial co-funding programme (InCubed)

The Φ-lab is organized in two offices, the Explore Office mainly focused in generating innovation from inside and outside ESA and managing the initial part of the innovation pipeline, while the Invest Office takes the generated and discovered innovations to the market via the Invest Actions and the InCubed co-funding programme.

The Φ-lab is based in ESA/ESRIN center in Frascati (Italy), and counts about 35 members from 13 different nationalities, amongst ESA staff, research fellows (about 20% only), Academia and Industry Visiting Researchers, and Visiting Professors.

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Our History

The Φ-lab concept is very recent: Spring 2017. Its constitution has been enriched with ideas from a journey made by some of ESA executives into USA Silicon Valley where they saw examples of organizations nurturing innovation in inspirational environments.

In this short period until today, the ESA Φ-lab have become the reference in Earth Observation sector for transformational innovation and business investment. The Φ-lab has already collected many successes that we report here. This is the kind of pages that is always obsolete, but as of end of 2020 we can present you the followings.

Our Successes

We have contributed to the birth of the Φ-sat programme, supported the AI elements of Φ-sat-1, Φ-sat-2, OPS-SAT and ESA operational mission.
Φ-sat-1 is a first example of AI deep learning functionalities based on Convolutional Neural Networks and was successfully launched in September 2020.
We have signed 16 collaborations with several entities like industries, research entities, scientific AI associations and institutions. They provide the stimuli to many of the activities we do.
The InCubed program, quite recently, has tripled its fund size at the last Ministerial Conference in 2019 and reached 106M€ subscriptions from 18 European countries. We aim to leverage off the achieved successes and the great feedbacks from industries, and expand this programme to all ESA Member States and increase its impact in the ecosystem.
As of end of 2022 InCubed has invested in 56 activities for a total value of 73M€ with an average co-funding rate of 61%.
We have published 59 papers between international journals, conferences and as editors of books.
The Φ-lab, in collaborations with its 10 Visiting Professors, is setting the European Research and Development agenda within AI for the Earth Observation thematic.
Within our open lab programme we have hosted 17 visiting researches from industries (e.g. AIRBUS and ICEYE), universities, research centres etc.
Our Visiting Professor programme entails 10 leading researchers and professors that help us in defining our research agenda.

My collaboration with the Φ-lab has been immensely rewarding, as it offered an inclusive and vibrant atmosphere for both research and industrial collaboration, featuring numerous cutting-edge projects. The people at Φ-lab, its greatest resource, are pioneering revolutionary AI applications and proactively fostering innovation via industrial partnerships and exchanging knowledge across industries, investors, and academia.

Domenico Barretta, visiting researcher from University of Naples Vanvitelli.

My experience at the Φ-lab has been incredibly rewarding. The opportunity to actively engage with experts from different fields, and thus to be able to collaborate in multidisciplinary projects, makes this a particularly professionalizing experience. The multicultural environment creates fertile ground for inclusive and innovative research in AI applications for Earth Observation.

Manuel Lacal, current visiting researcher at the Φ-lab from National PhD course on “Space Science and Technology (SST)” of the University of Trento / University of L’Aquila (operational site)

ESA Φ-lab is an incredibly inspirational environment and a collective of great researchers aiming to solve a wide range of real-world problems. It also stands in a unique midpoint between academia and theoretical research on the one hand, and industry and applied solutions on the other. Finally, the community of people orbiting Φ-lab, in positions ranging from interns and visiting academics to fellows and visiting professors, is very welcoming and supportive

Vit Ruzicka, visiting researcher from University of Oxford

For researchers in the field of Earth Observation there is no more stimulating place than Φ-lab. I had assumed this to be the case before arriving, and my experience at the lab confirmed the fact. I am at the beginning of my PhD and my time at Φ-lab has really opened my mind to new research activities. The people I met there have been of enormous value to me and I hope to be able to continue this fantastic collaboration

Francesco Mauro, former Unisannio Master student

Φ-lab is a place where driven and smart people work on cutting edge research in the Earth observation space. I had a fruitful two-month stay and will definitely continue the collaboration in the months and years to come. I especially enjoyed learning about the many AI for Good projects that are going on at Φ-lab.

Kai Jeggle, ETH Zurich Visiting Researcher

I have now visited Φ-lab four times in the past three years, and without exception, I leave each time with a feeling of joy, renewed inspiration, new ideas, a stronger network and new collaborations - a result of the inclusive, agile and fast-paced research environment that the lab facilitates through its team of kind and talented people. I cannot recommend Φ-lab enough as a superb career step in the world of Earth Observation research and innovation

Andreas Stokholm, DTU Technical University of Denmark Visiting Researcher

Innovative and inspiring solutions, the latest advances in AI for EO data and a great team! This is how I see Φ-lab after my three months spent there. During my stay I was introduced to automated machine learning methods, which then became the core of my analysis. Thanks to my supervisors, I had the opportunity to meet and discuss my research questions with various experts from all over ESRIN.

Daniel Paluba, Visiting Researcher, PhD candidate at Charles University in Prague

I spent two wonderful years at Φ-lab in the middle of the Covid-19 crisis. Even though I worked remotely for many months, I learned a lot from both the incredibly inspiring environment and my colleagues. I collaborated on many projects from on-board computing applications to analysis linking epidemiological data to remote sensing. My experience was also enriched by the collaboration with the Italian Space Agency (ASI), who supported my postdoc at Φ-lab, and the ASI colleagues who guided me toward understanding the PRISMA hyperspectral data.

Dario Spiller, SIA Scuola di Ingegneria Aerospaziale (Sapienza University) Visiting Researcher

The time In spent at the Φ-lab has been extremely valuable, I have encountered an inclusive and dynamic Research and Industrial environment with a lot of State of the Art ongoing projects. Thanks to its main asset, people, Φ-lab is exploring the most advanced and disruptive AI applications and connecting Industry, Investors and Accademia.

Federico Ricciuti, Tre Altamira Visiting Researcher

During my time at the Φ-lab, I was immersed in a dynamic and collaborative research environment. The team's dedication to exploring new AI and machine learning frontiers was contagious, and I left feeling stimulated and inspired. The lab's partnerships with industry leaders and academic institutions provide a valuable platform for innovation. The Φ-lab embodies the spirit of cross-disciplinary collaboration and knowledge-sharing, and I feel fortunate to have been a part of it.

Gianluca Murdaca, Tre Altamira Visiting Researcher

The time I spent at the Φ-lab was extremely inspiring, revealing the vast potential of on-board processing for OroraTech and igniting new ideas for collaboration with ESA. The cutting-edge research and innovative technology left me eager to explore further applications and processing options for our thermal infrared timeseries data. In general, the Φ-lab is providing a rich environment for data-driven exploration and collaboration.

Julia Gottfriedsen, Ororatech Visiting Researcher

Core staff, internal ESA Researcher, external visiting researchers and professors, working in collaboration with the Φ-lab and across ESA

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