Sheffield Aerospace Students win £5k Prize in UK Space Agency Challenge

Three Aerospace students from the University of Sheffield have won a £5k prize after entering a UK Space Agency challenge with their proposal for an automated person detection system for use in humanitarian response to natural disasters.

The SatelLife Challenge, now in its second year, was open to young people aged 11 to 22, looking for innovative proposals on how to use data collected from space to benefit our economy, health or the environment.

The UK space industry builds 40 per cent of the world’s small satellites and 25 per cent of the world’s telecommunications satellites.

Judged to have one of the best submissions in the whole competition, the Sheffield students - Ben Schofield, Tom Green and George Nightingale - submitted a proposal that uses satellite data and machine learning to improve the efficiency of response to humanitarian crises.


Their system would use drones to survey a wide area, searching for people buried under rubble after an earthquake, for example. Drones enable a much larger area to be searched much more quickly than using traditional methods.

Their system uses machine learning - the development of computer systems that can learn from and make predictions on data. The drone would produce an image using optical, thermal or sonar technology, and then send it to a remote ground station, where the image would be put through a neural network (a complex algorithm loosely inspired by the networks which exist in animal brains) which has been programmed to detect humans.

Ben Schofield, one of the project team members, said: “We learnt of this competition through SELA (Sheffield Engineering Leadership Academy), which George and I are part of. We thought that it was a great chance to work together on such an engaging project and we were delighted to win one of the £5,000 prizes.

“Our solution would save time and reduce costs and manpower requirements in the long term. We would be able to find people much more quickly in a crisis and potentially save many more lives.”

Science minister Jo Johnson said: “Satellites are shaping our society and increasingly important for our economy. Every second they send information around the world, keep shipping lanes and flightpaths clear and help us get to where we want to be.

“Young people today will be an integral part of our mission to grow the UK’s share of the global space market to 10% by 2030, as set out in our industrial strategy. We need to ensure the potential benefits of space are felt across the whole economy and encourage young British entrepreneurs to develop ideas that rival the best in the world.”

The SatelLife challenge judging panel was made up of industry experts including representatives from the UK Space Agency, the European Space Agency, the Satellite Applications Catapult in Harwell and industry. The total prize fund was £50,000 across all the age groups and categories.

In June, the University of Sheffield team will pitch their idea to a panel of ‘dragons’ from the space sector who will offer prizes. Two of the project team will also be undertaking a research placement at the University this Summer through the SURE (Sheffield University Research Experience) programme researching the use of neural networks and drones, which will be funded by SELA.