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Fragile with Enel: monitoring the Earth’s surface and innovating the energy sector

Fragile with Enel: monitoring the Earth’s surface and innovating the energy sector

The Italian startup Fragile creates detailed geological models by combining InSAR analysis with site investigation and ground-based monitoring. This is in order to provide customers with precise displacement information in both urban and rural areas, and for the relevant infrastructure.


Planet Earth is alive – as are the mountains, the trees and the soil: that’s why they move. Indeed, geological phenomena can have significant impact on human activities such as construction. For example, many active geological processes are evident in deformation and, if they interfere with engineering or housing projects, the detailed understanding of their kinematics can be extremely useful. That’s exactly what the Italian startup Fragile monitors: the geological movements of the Earth’s surface.

All members of Fragile’s staff were previously part of the Applied Geology Research Group at the University of Bologna. As experts on remote sensing and landslides, as well as consultants for the regional Civil Protection agency and the Italian State Railways, they realised they were able to study the implications of deformation processes from a unique standpoint.


There are several factors which can influence these types of natural and man-made processes. In the words of Fragile’s Chief Geological Officer, Silvia Franceschini, “Examples include the influence of rainfall on landslide deformation, liquid extraction on land subsidence and uplift, but also the spatial extent of earthquake deformation fields. For this reason different monitoring instruments may be used to understand the cause and evolution of recorded displacements.” In order to monitor the geological processes, the startup utilises different techniques of satellite radar interferometry (InSAR), a technology that’s based on the repeated acquisition of radar images by a satellite.


Technology at the service of prevention and sustainability 

Fragile offers customised InSAR analyses by using different processing strategies aimed at getting the most insight out of the data that has been collected. To do so, it uses various techniques that can be divided into two groups, as Franceschini explains: “The first group contains traditional interferometry that enables us to obtain spatially continuous deformation maps, also in remote areas with little in the way of urbanisation or vegetation. The second group includes the so-called multitemporal InSAR techniques that aim to reconstruct relatively precise and accurate time series for highly coherent pixels, which are mostly represented by houses, infrastructure and rocky outcrops.”

Through these techniques, the startup is able to provide precise displacement information in urbanised areas and in infrastructures, as well as semi-quantitative spatial deformation maps for rural environments. “Wherever geological hazards and deformation processes interfere with human activity, InSAR data can help mitigate fatalities or potentially save money, for instance, by improving the design of ground-based monitoring systems or mitigation works,” says Benedikt Bayer, Fragile’s co-founder and CTO.


Fragile’s clients include Civil Protection agencies and companies that manage large infrastructure, such as dams and pipelines. This includes, of course, the energy sector. “In areas where geological and geotechnical problems such as landslides and sinkholes are common, InSAR can be a powerful tool in monitoring deformation under the power plant and in the surrounding areas,” says Benedikt. Other examples of infrastructure may include levees, windmills or power lines.


“Innovations are novel techniques or procedures that will be used afterwards for a considerable amount of time”
Benedikt Bayer, co-founder and CTO of Fragile


Prevention is one of the fronts on which Fragile is most active: “Deformation processes are often noticed only when they result in damage, but most of them persist, for a significant amount of time before causing any visible destruction,” Silvia explains. InSAR may help identify critical areas before significant damage or loss occurs; additionally, it may be used to interpret the kinematics of movement and the possible natural or anthropogenic causes behind it.


Enel Green Power and Fragile, on the same page

Not everyone believes in coincidences, but this was a case of being in the right place at the right time, even if virtually, on the web, through a famous business social media platform. At the time, Enel Green Power was developing a project that involved InSAR processing for various critical infrastructures. “After a technical test that yielded satisfactory results, we took part in a tender to become a supplier,” Benedikt recalls.

The co-founder explains how the contract with Enel Green Power has been instrumental in Fragile’s growth and expansion. “It clearly changed our perspectives in many ways, in terms of both hardware instrumentation capacity and personnel,” he says. He also highlights Enel’s stand-out organisation, which helped them work better. Giuseppe Tomaselli, Innovation project manager at Enel Green Power, underlines the importance of the innovative solution: “Since our structures have been in operation for some time, it is increasingly necessary to employ advanced tools capable of monitoring the state of health while, at the same time, increasing the resilience of the systems and enabling preventive maintenance work in case of anomalies. This guarantees the improvement of the safety in the areas where our hydraulic facilities are located.”

Fragile is currently monitoring its first site abroad, in Chile, and is already looking towards the future and its next goals. “We are considering several ways of developing our processing schemes. We are testing different strategies to automate part of our processing chain, in particular by using machine learning and Artificial Intelligence approaches,” Silvia explains. Furthermore, new generation satellites will be launched in the near future, so it will be possible to acquire even more accurate information from the space. It seems that clear nothing can stop the Earth’s movement – or this startup’s will to grow.