Tomasz Stepinski worked for years mapping craters on Mars. Now, he moved on to racial diversity in the United States. Learn about how an astrophysicist realized a single map was the most effective way of converting Census data into actionable knowledge.
The phrases “satellite data” and “improving worldwide healthcare” aren’t typically used in the same sentence. In fact, a vast majority of satellite data conversations are focused on a few narrow applications in the natural resource industries (i.e. mining, oil & gas, forestry, agriculture, energy, etc.). But satellite data, and more specifically earth-observation imagery, can be used for many causes outside this small scope. The healthcare industry is a great example. By looking for a variety of different clues within satellite imagery, we can learn a great deal about the health and health-risk of a population. Armed with this information, healthcare organizations can be more proactive and responsive in treating patients around the globe. The following are 5 ways satellite data can be used to improve global health.
According to the United Nations, as of 2013, over 2.5 billion people do not have access to safe drinking water. And this number is only increasing. Water management will become one of humanity’s most crucial tasks in the not-too-distant future. As populations continue to grow and climate change impacts our hydrosphere, access to clean water - even for nations which currently enjoy this luxury - may not come easily. Monitoring the water levels in rivers and lakes, the volume of evaporation, ground moisture content, and the proportion of pollutants in the air which can affect water quality (i.e. acid rain), is no longer just interesting. It is necessary for the survival of millions. This is where climate satellites can help. After they have been placed in orbit, satellites are a low-cost method of observing the Earth’s water cycle. The information they provide can be used to help ensure the health of as many populations by optimizing safe and clean water access around the planet.
Mosquitoes are known carriers of a wide range of deadly diseases like malaria, yellow fever, tuberculosis, and more. While these tiny killers themselves cannot be detected by commercial satellites, we can identify the environmental characteristics of their habitats. Appropriate breeding ground for mosquitoes vary by species and can be identified based on the combination of plant type, ground cover, air quality, and volume of water present in a specific area. Remote sensing specialists use both multispectral and hyperspectral satellites to identify the location of mosquito breeding, the inhabiting species, and the risk that these insects have come in contact this a deadly disease. This data allows healthcare professionals to more accurately estimate the extent of treatment required and the strategy behind a response. This technology directly impacts those in areas where healthcare is lacking and mosquito-borne diseases are prominent.
“Filtering particulates from air makes a significant [and] measurable diff[erence] to health.” This is a quote from Elon Musk, which he tweeted in May after announcing his electric vehicle company would be working to integrate an air filtration system into their latest model. While this is not a new or revolutionary idea, it highlights the fact that the business community is starting to invest in a cleaner world though their products. Removing solid pollutants from the world’s air must be a priority, and we can use satellite data to understand which citizens of our planet are at the greatest risk for particulate-related harm. Prior to 2010, it was nearly impossible to create a particulate distribution map, as individual satellites cannot distinguish particulate levels at different altitudes (and in this case, we only care about air quality levels near the Earth’s surface). But then, two scientists in Canada combined the datasets of multiple NASA satellites to create a vertical profile of the Earth air-borne particulate levels. With this information, health care experts can assess the impact of pollutant-heavy air on public health and, therefore, create targeted solutions for this health risk.
Chances are either you or someone you know is affected by seasonal allergies. In America alone, over 40 million adults are subject to itchy eyes and a runny nose come springtime. And unfortunately, these symptoms will only become more severe as levels of atmospheric CO2 continue to increase. The plants which cause these allergies - ragweed, ryegrass, mulberry bushes, etc. - grow very quickly and very large in carbon dioxide rich environments. Even compared to friendlier vegetation like corn, rice, and apple trees, these weeds grow faster in higher levels of when CO2. With more growth, comes more pollen and more severe symptoms for those who are allergic. This means that itchy eyes and a runny nose becomes chest tightness and breathing difficulties. Over-the-counter medication becomes visits to the emergency room. Healthcare professionals must be ready for an increase in patients; satellites can help doctors and nurses prepare for this fluctuation. Satellites like NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO-2) can be used to detect areas with higher-than-usual levels of CO2. This information can help in predicting which regions of our globe will receive a higher number of allergy patients in their emergency rooms.
Climate change. Two words that are terrifying to our planet’s next generation of inhabitants. While climate change doesn’t affect humans in the same straightforward way as ingesting air-borne particulates, a hotter Earth can indirectly impact the health of our population. Higher greenhouse gas levels in our atmosphere leads to an increase in tropical storms, wildfires, tornadoes, flooding of coastal cities, and other natural disasters. This means more people are displaced from their homes and “displaced populations have notoriously poor health statistics,” says Aaron Bernstein, Associate Director of the Harvard Medical School’s Center for Health and the Global Environment. Satellites, like NASA’s MOPITT and TES, are monitoring the global levels of greenhouse gasses in the troposphere. While current technology cannot yet identify individual carbon emitters, regional levels can be measured. International pressure can then be placed on the world’s greatest polluters to increase carbon regulation. And once technology has improved, crackdown on large, industrial carbon emitters will vastly decrease the volume of greenhouse gas we are pumping into our planet’s atmosphere. This, in turn, will allow more people the remain happy, and healthy, in their homes.
There are hundreds of satellites currently observing our Earth and hundreds more which will be launched into orbit in the coming years. These instruments allow us to develop a greater understanding of our planet and the effects of our actions on the world’s health. Let’s use this advantage to help improve healthcare around the globe.
If you know of any other ways satellite data can be used to improve healthcare, let us know down below. And if you liked this post, don’t forget to share!
What are SpaceX’s missions for?
SpaceX’s most recent mission, CRS-9, which was set in motion this week, was the ninth of twenty SpaceX resupply missions commissioned by NASA for $1.6 billion. The goal of CRS-9 was to deliver a Dragon cargo carrier to the International Space Station (ISS) and return the Falcon 9 rocket safely back to land.
Wait, hasn’t a Falcon 9 exploded before?
Yeah, twice. Last year, a loose helium tank caused an unmanned Falcon 9 rocket toexplode two minutes after the CRS-7 mission launch. Another unmanned rocket from the CRS-6 mission exploded in June because of an unstable landing caused by a stuck valve and a resulting mechanical issue. However, this was only a secondary mission. The CRS-6 mission was successful in delivering its Dragon cargo carrier, but the attempted first stage landing resulted in the Falcon 9’s destruction.
Did this rocket survive?
The Falcon 9 rocket used for CRS-9 successfully detached from its second stage, thenlanded solidly at Cape Canaveral. This created a sonic boom experienced by spectators and people in surrounding areas. A flood of calls to 9–1–1 were placed by people reporting that they were woken up by an explosion.
The CRS-9 first stage landing was SpaceX’s second successful land-landing. Additionally, three first stages have landed successfully on the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS). As was demonstrated by CRS-9 this week, SpaceX is improving on their goal to bring their rockets safely back to Earth after depositing cargo, as one of SpaceX’s main objectives is to reuse its rockets. Previously, after rockets detached from their second stages, they jettisoned into the ocean and were either rendered useless or they required extensive and expensive repairs in order to be used in another mission. By soft-landing its rockets, SpaceX is saving time and money, and looking pretty cool, too. After several successful Falcon 9 landings, it seems that reusable rockets will become standard as spaceflight becomes more frequent and expands to the private sector.
Did the Dragon make it to the ISS?
Yes! After a successful rocket launch, separation of the first and second stages, and return of the first stage to Cape Canaveral, Dragon reached its orbit in ten minutes. The spacecraft chased down the ISS for two days, then was grabbed by a robotic arm and positioned at a docking port. Dragon will return to Earth on August 29.
What is the Dragon carrying?
The Dragon cargo carrier has on board over 5,000 pounds of equipment and science experiments. This includes a new docking port, the first of which exploded in the failed CRS-7 mission. The docking port will act as a parking spot for “commercial space taxis”. NASA is looking to private space companies to fill the docking port, expecting that a module will lead to the creation of a space station from the private sector once the ISS retires.
The Dragon was also carrying equipment for about 250 scientific experiments never before performed in space. A DNA sequencer will help identify diseases and could later be put to use analyzing extraterrestrial life. For now, it will be performing tests on a virus and a mouse, who, unfortunately, will not ever make the trip back to Earth. In the Dragon delivery was also a sample of live, beating heart cells. These will be tested after a month to check for changes in size, shape, and function. Another test will investigate bone loss in zero-g and compare it to the same test performed in a zero-g simulator stationed on Earth. If the results of the space test and the Earth test are close enough, future experiments will be conducted on Earth. Additionally, Dragon delivered tomato seeds that will later return to Earth to be planted, and microbes that grew out of the radioactive environment at Chernobyl. These microbes will be tested for changes in zero-g and could yield valuable discoveries about radiation treatment.
When Dragon returns on August 29, it will be carrying the results of these experiments, having left the docking port behind for future trips.
Who’s up there to greet the Dragon?
Two NASA astronauts, including one who worked with the team that developed the DNA sequencer delivered by Dragon, are currently working in the ISS. Additionally, one Japanese astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts are stationed there. A Russian cargo ship, Progress 64, arrived at the ISS two days before Dragon, delivering food and extra supplies for the crew. Progress 64 will stay at the ISS for six months while the crew fills it with trash, then the spacecraft will depart and burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere.
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With over 400 imaging satellites orbiting our globe, a bird’s eye view of Earth has never been cheaper. Analysts have taken advantage of this access and, with advanced machine learning, derived many ways to use satellite imagery for more than just the gorgeous view. While benefits from the geo-intelligence movement have been reaching a wide variety of industries, it is the financial sector where satellite imagery analytics can have the largest impact. Check out four ways investors are using satellite imagery to understand markets and assist in the ongoing quest to beat the street.
4. Predicting Global Commodity Supply
Did you know that the volume of oil in a storage tank can be estimated by the shadow it casts on the side of it’s container? And, if you are able to measure the shadow in every tank on the globe, you can accurately predict the world’s supply of oil. While this method of projection was impossible just a few years ago, improvements in satellite technology and analytics tactics have made efforts in this area feasible. While political turmoil and extraction technology developments have caused great uncertainty in the oil markets, satellite data analytics can help keep investors updated with accurate, frequent reports. And the power of these analytics doesn’t stop with oil; satellites can track the build-up of stockpiles on a mine site, the progress of a forestry operation, or the growth of crops on farmland across the globe. The insights gained through this kind of observation have the power to alter the way investors assess opportunities.
3. Measuring Economic Fluctuations
While one satellite image on its own may give its viewer a glimpse at valuable insight, the real benefit of earth observation comes from watching the world change at a macro level. In finance, this benefit goes from interesting to game-changing. Economies, typically measured annually by a census and other methods of self-reporting, are difficult to project. But what if you could watch these same economies grow and shrink in real time? Satellites give us this opportunity. Tracking the progress of infrastructure projects in central China, the increase in nighttime activity in Ghana, or the change in number of ships in and out of ports in Brazil — these are just a few of the activities which can give insight into the economic state of a region or country. This information can help investors understand the geopolitical landscape of areas in which they are considering investment.
2. Projecting Revenue at Big Box Retailers
While counting cars in parking lots is not a new concept, the extent of such an operation for more than a single retail location was beyond the scope of feasibility just a few years ago. Information that once required thousands of labour hours to acquire can now be derived from a single dataset of satellite imagery. With advances in machine learning technology, and the availability of 30 cm resolution imagery, cars can now be detected by satellites 400 km above them. With this identification comes the ability to track and model the parking lot traffic of massive retailers like Walmart and JC Penney. Fluctuations in this traffic appear to correlate accurately with store revenue. Investors with access to this kind of information can make more guided decisions in their strategy for the upcoming quarter and beyond.
1. Tracking the Progress of Invested Assets and Their Competitors
You can’t lie to satellites. This is a key advantage of utilizing satellite imagery when tracking the progress of an asset or creating a competitor analysis. After an investor has sunk valuable capital into an investment, continuous monitoring is required to assess when an exit is the optimal strategy. Typically, this kind of analysis relies upon self-reporting from the asset itself. And while many regulations have been adopted in order to keep self-reporting companies honest, sometimes things fall through the cracks. Investors can be much more confident if they track their assets themselves. For example, using satellite imagery to watch the progress of a real estate development can give investors information that would otherwise be uncertain. The same method of analysis can be done for the competitors of an invested company. This proprietary information would be nearly impossible to procure by traditional investigative methods. However, satellite images give a bird’s eye view of every square mile on earth (yes, that includes North Korea — check out our previous blog post if you want to learn more about that). Observing a foreign wheat farmer’s harvest, or tracking the production of cars at a European auto manufacturing plant, is fair game. Satellite imagery is changing the rules of investing.
Satellites have been observing our world for over five decades. In that time, they have gone from producing grainy images of a faraway earth to the augmented colour, high resolution imagery available today. This imagery, as well as advancements in machine learning and artificial intelligence, is continually improving our understanding of the changing planet. Investors are just beginning to grasp the true value of this imagery and the impact it makes on the world of finance.
Are we missing any ways investors are using satellite imagery? Let us know down below. And, if you liked this post, don’t forget to share!
Satellite imagery was made available to the public when NASA launched their first Landsat mission in 1972. Forty-four years and 100+ satellites later, humans have found countless ways to use this technology for commercial, humanitarian, academic, and personal reasons. So we decided to put together a list of the 5 coolest ways that the power of satellite imagery is being harnessed.
Have you ever been on Google Earth and, as you are scrolling around, found something (a building, tree, river, forest, etc.) that looks like a letter of the English alphabet? Well MIT alumni Joey Lee and Benedikt Groß have and they decided to use such serendipitous occurrences to develop a new font. Its name is Aerial Bold and it is being created using only vectors found in satellite imagery. And these two ambitious typeface designers aren’t stopping there. Aerial Bold will not be composed of just 26 letters; the goal of the project is to create a searchable database of letters found in satellite imagery. Other designers will have access to this API would be able to mix and match lettering to create and revise their alphabet when new letters are found by the Aerial Bold algorithm.
In a country so shrouded by secrecy, satellite imagery allows outsiders insight into the lavish lifestyle of North Korea’s elite family. A few miles east of the Pyongyang city proper lies Ryongsong Residence, the home of Kim Jong-un, Supreme Leader of North Korea. The compound, completed in 1983 by North Korea’s founder Kim Il-sung, comes complete with a manmade lake, equestrian stables, an Olympic-sized swimming pool (and correspondingly large waterslide), and an automobile racetrack. And if that isn’t enough, there appears to be a dedicated train line to Pyongyang with a single station stop on the Ryongsong Residence property. A BBC source inside the country confirmed the residence depicted here to also have been the main residence of Kim Jong-il, who was succeeded by his son in December of 2011. Satellite imagery used to study North Korea creates a visualization of the stark contrast between the lifestyles of the country’s elite and its general population. You can also check out a live Google Mapsversion (although to warn you, the newest images of the Residence are conspicuously cloudy).
Sarah Parcak is on a mission to reveal the world’s hidden history using satellite imagery. Winner of the 2016 TED Prize, Parcak considers herself to be a space archaeologist and wants you to become one as well. Her goal is to use the power of the public to scour over satellite photography, hopefully finding clues to the locations of historical activities and relics. Her vision is Global Xplorer, a platform for amateur space archaeologists to collectively identify some of the hundreds of thousands, even millions, of currently undiscovered ancient sites. The platform will consist of imagery from both the visual and infrared spectra, and will require participants to examine vegetation changes which can signal man-made objects which have been buried over time. Parcak is reshaping modern exploration, and she hopes to one day send her own archaeologically-focused satellite into orbit, but for now a global network of amateur remote sensing analysts is enough to change the way we think about archaeology.
In 2014, the country of South Sudan underwent the worst food crisis in recorded history. This shortage lead to a civil war, forcing more than a million people to flee their homes and gather in refugee camps supported by international organizations like the United Nations. The growth of these camps was, and still is, rapid. Their evolution means an increased challenge in the planning done by support organizations. Satellite imagery can help, providing valuable information that can be used to plan for the supply of life-sustaining resources like food and shelter materials. The UN also utilized imagery of the crisis in South Sudan not only for response cases but also to track human migration and predict the areas likely to experience future conflict. Earlier this year, imagery helped the UN refugee agency to track the movement of more than 38,000 people from South Sudan to Sudan following another bout of unrest. These people are likely to face a food crisis of their own, but this time, the UN will be active and ready to help immediately.
In 1986, a 5 year-old Saroo Brierley fell asleep on a train while waiting for his brother, whom he was supposed to meet at the station. Fourteen hours later, he was lost in Calcutta with no idea where his home was or how to get back. He lived on the streets alone for three weeks until he was placed in an orphanage. He was adopted by an Australian couple and raised in Tasmania, living there until the age of 30. Brierley spent many years trying to locate his old home, using satellite imagery to trace rail lines leading out of Calcutta. After sifting through thousands of bird’s eye satellite photos, he found Khandwa and recognized a waterfall he remembered playing in as a child. He immediately packed his bags and set out to this village. Using the only knowledge he had of his parents — their names — he spoke with residents of the village. A few minutes later, one of those residents returned with his mother. Childhood memories and satellite imagery allowed Brierley to reunite with his family after 25 years.
Satellite imagery has come a long way since the first photograph of Earth was taken more than half a century ago. As higher resolutions become available to the public, more opportunities for cool use cases open up. If you are familiar with more instances of satellite imagery being used in a unique way, let us know down below.
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Digital Elevation Models (DEMs) produced from satellite data aren’t as well-known as other elevation products generated from more traditional platforms such as fixed-wing aircraft. Hence, satellite-generated DEMs are unfairly dismissed despite their excellent value for money and high suitability for many industrial applications. If this were a playground, these DEMs would be picked last :( — a true underdog
Though DEMs provide a very similar insight compared to the more familiar aerial LiDAR survey, the perception of its complexity and the lack of general understanding means that it’s an underutilized technology. We’re here to shed some light on that.
Satellite imagery generated from orbital instruments varies in resolution from tens of metres down to tens of centimetres and at each resolution a large range of spectral wavelengths are also available. These images are typically orthorectified (aka orthoimages or orthophotos) and provide immense value on their own, but at the end of the day it’s just a 2-dimensional image. It’s the next level of products(referred to as value-added products) that provides even more insight and value to those who know how to use them. An example of such a value-added product is, yup, you guessed it, a DEM, which is a generalized term that includes Digital Terrain Models (DTMs) and Digital Surface Models (DSMs).
What exactly is a DEM?
In a nutshell, DEMs are a digital 3D representation of a terrain’s surface created from elevation data. This information provides value to a number of industries, including mining, oil and gas, and forestry, where the terrain profile and topography have an immediate impact on the operations and activities, and ultimately their bottom-line.
It is possible to acquire the information a DEM provides through more traditional manual surveying or custom aerial surveys, but often times this proves to be very time consuming and limits the area that can be covered. On the other hand, DEMs from satellite data can be a cost effective and efficient option, due to the variety of sensors and methodologies to generate such models are readily available and proven for mapping applications. Who doesn’t like to save time and money?
How are DEMs created and used?
DEMs can be created through a few different ways, but satellite technology best achieves this through 3 methods:
- 2 passes over an area with a synthetic aperture radar (SAR) instrument (e.g. RADARSAT, TerraSAR-X);
- Single pass over an area with a synthetic aperture radar (SAR) instrument with dual antennas (e.g. SRTM, ASTER);
- Stereoscopic pairs of optical satellite imagery captured at 2 different angles of an area (e.g. Pleiades, WorldView-2/3).
The quality of a DEM is measured by how accurate the elevation is at each pixel and the topographic feature it represents(which makes sense!).
Common uses for DEMs include:
- Extracting terrain parameters for geomorphology for exploration activities
- Calculation of stockpile volume
- Relief maps
- Base mapping
- Surface analysis
DEM data contain the elevation of the terrain over a specific area, at a fixed grid interval (tens of metres) over a set surface area. In order to create a DEM, it requires the combination of pre-existing elevation data as well as contour data or ground control points (GCPs). This external data improves the accuracy of a DEM from tens of metres to just a few metres horizontally and vertically — SCORE!
DEMs Win on Quality
Several factors influence the quality of DEMs such as: terrain roughness, sampling density, grid resolution or pixel size, and vertical resolution, to name a few. The quality of information provided by an accurate DEM allows for anybody, from the ground crew to the office staff to have the data needed to develop strategies to meet specific objectives, prior to crews being deployed into the field — you wouldn’t start an off-roading adventure without a map and an idea of the terrain you would be traversing, would you?!
The level of preparedness directly translates to cost efficiencies of personnel and related capital expenditures (again with the cost savings… AND having happy, well-prepared staff). There is an ever-increasing demand for DEM information use in the mineral exploration and mining industries, and ever-present pressure from multiple industries to develop models of higher spatial resolution, higher accuracy, and better overall reliability anywhere in the world.
DEMs Win on Cost
Mining activities can take place in fairly remote regions of the world, with many mining companies typically relying on aerial surveys (LiDAR) to capture the information they require about the terrain. However, weather conditions and aircraft availability can substantially impact the project timelines. Even seeking permission to fly aerial photographic surveys can be problematic, often resulting in losses in the tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. In such cases, space-based methodologies can be vital because they can provide medium-high resolution data over large areas at reasonable costs (few thousand dollars, comparatively) and at different times of the year (unlike aerial surveys, which are limited to the dates in which they were undertaken). The information acquired from a satellite can create an accurate, up-to-date DEM able to meet the needs of a mining company without having to rely on a LiDAR survey.
In summary, DEMs can provide high accuracy topographic data of your site in a timely fashion, at a low cost and with little effort on your part — just imagine what you can do with all that spare time and money!
And now you know.