Tag Archives: satellite technology

5,000 Eyes in the Sky: environmental monitoring

The most advanced satellite to ever launch from Africa will soon be patrolling South Africa’s coastal waters to crack down on oil spills and illegal dumping.  Data from another satellite, this one collecting images from the Texas portion of a sprawling oil and gas region known as the Permian Basin, recently delivered shocking news: Operators there are burning off nearly twice as much natural gas as they’ve been reporting to state officials.

With some 5,000 satellites now orbiting our planet on any given day…. They will help create a constantly innovating industry that will revolutionize environmental monitoring of our planet and hold polluters accountable…

A recent study by Environmental Defense Fund focused on natural gas flares from the wells in the Permian Basin, located in Western Texas and southeastern New Mexico. Our analysis proved that the region’s pollution problem was much larger than companies had revealed.  A second study about offshore gas flaring in the Gulf of Mexico, published by a group of scientists in the Geophysical Research Letters, showed that operators there burn off a whopping 40% of the natural gas they produce.

Soon a new satellite will be launching that is specifically designed not just to locate, but accurately measure methane emissions from human-made sources, starting with the global oil and gas industry.  MethaneSAT, a new EDF affiliate unveiled in 2018, will launch a future where sensors in space will find and measure pollution that today goes undetected. This compact orbital platform will map and quantify methane emissions from oil and gas operations almost anywhere on the planet at least weekly.

Excerpts from Mark Brownstein, These pollution-spotting satellites are just a taste of what’s to come, EDF, Apr. 4, 2019

Satellites and Algorithms against Slaveholders

Brick kilns, tens of thousands across South Asia are often run on forced labor.  Satellite imagery of such kilns can help tally the kilns, enabling organizations on the ground to target slaveholders at the sites…

Some 40.3 million people are held in bondage today, according to the latest estimates from the International Labor Organization, headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland. But finding them is hard… Boyd who works for the Rights Lab estimates, however, that one-third of all slavery is visible from space, whether in the scars of kilns or illegal mines or the outlines of transient fish-processing camps.

Boyd is now using artificial intelligence to speed up the search. As a pilot project, she and her colleagues at the Rights Lab used crowdsourced visual searchers to identify brick kilns. The oval shape of the large ovens, sometimes 150 meters long, and their chimneys are distinctive, even from space. “You cannot mix them up with something else,” Boyd says.

Since then, Boyd has turned to machine-learning algorithms that recognize the kilns after being trained on the human-tagged examples. Last month, in the journal Remote Sensing, she and her colleagues reported that the algorithms could correctly identify 169 of 178 kilns in Google Earth data on one area of Rajasthan, although it also output nine false positives…

Another company, called Planet, has about 150 small satellites that snap images of the globe’s entire landmass daily. The images are lower-resolution than DigitalGlobe’s, but their frequency opens up opportunities to identify changes over time.With Planet data, Boyd and the Rights Lab plan to investigate fast moving signatures of slavery. From space, you can watch a  harvest in Turkmenistan and, based on how quickly the cotton disappears, you can tell whether machines or hands picked it. In the Sundarbans, an area spanning India and Bangladesh, shrimp farms and fish-processing camps employ slave labor to clear mangrove trees—a process satellites can capture.

Excerpts from Sarah Scoles, Researchers Spy Signs of Slavery from Space, Science, Feb. 21, 2018

The Space Rat Race

India, Japan and other space-faring countries are waking up to a harsh reality: Earth’s orbit is becoming a more dangerous place as the U.S., China and Russia compete for control of the final frontier…New Delhi is nervous because China has made no secret of its desire for influence in the Indian Ocean. China set up a naval base in Djibouti, a gateway to the ocean at the Horn of Africa. It secured a 99-year lease to the port of Hambantota in Sri Lanka. It is deeply involved in development projects in Maldives.

India has established itself as a player in the budget satellite business. It even put a probe into orbit around Mars in 2014, in a U.S.-assisted project that cost just $76 million. But it is scurrying to enhance its ability to monitor China’s activities, and the partnership with Japan is part of this.  Another sign that space is becoming a defense focus for India came on Dec. 19, when the country launched its third military communications satellite, the GSAT-7A. The satellite will connect with ground-based radar, bases and military aircraft, along with drone control networks.

China’s success in landing a craft on the far side of the moon on Jan. 3, 2019 came as a fresh reminder of its growing prowess. In late December, China also achieved global coverage with its BeiDou Navigation Satellite System. Only the U.S., Russia and the European Union had that capability.China aims to launch a Mars explorer in 2020 and complete its own Earth-orbiting space station around 2022.  In the back of Indian and Japanese officials’ minds is likely a stunning test China conducted in 2007. Beijing successfully destroyed one of its own weather satellites with a weapon, becoming only the third nation to pull off such a feat, after the Soviet Union and the U.S.

In December 2018, President Donald Trump ordered the Department of Defense to create a Space Command, widely seen as a precursor to a full-fledged Space Force.  There were 1,957 active satellites orbiting Earth as of Nov. 30, 2018 according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit U.S. advocacy group. America had the most by far, with 849, or 43% of the total. China was No. 2, with 284, followed by Russia with 152.  Japan and India had a combined 132 — 75 for the former and 57 for the latter.

Excerpts fromNUPUR SHAW India and Japan awaken to risks of superpower space race, Nikkei Asian Review, Jan. 8, 2019

Killing Machines: Tiny Spy Satellites

As long as we’ve been launching spy satellites into space, we’ve been trying to find ways to hide them from the enemy. Now, thanks to the small satellite revolution—and a growing amount of space junk—America has a new way to mask its spying in orbit…

The National Reconnaissance Office, the operator of many of the U.S.’s spy sats, refused to answer any questions about ways to hide small satellites in orbit.  In 2014, Russia launched a trio of communications satellites. Like any other launch, spent stages and space debris were left behind in space. Air Force Space Command dutifully catalogued them, including a nondescript piece of debris called Object 2014-28E.  Nondescript until it started to move around in space, that is. One thing about orbits; they are supposed to be predictable. When something moves in an unexpected way, the debris is not debris but a spacecraft. And this object was flying close to the spent stages, maneuvering to get closer.  This fueled speculation that the object could be a prototype kamikaze-style sat killer. Other less frantic speculation postulated that it could be used to examine other sats in orbit, either Russia’s or those operated by geopolitical foes. Either way, the lesson was learned…

Modern tracking radar is supposed to map space junk better than ever before. But small spy satellites that will hide in the cloud of space debris may go undetected, even by the most sophisticated new radar or Earth-based electronic signals snooping.

Excerpts from Joe Pappalardo, Space Junk Could Provide a Perfect Hiding Spot for Tiny Spy Satellites, Popular Mechanics, Nov. 30, 2018

Small Satellites-Big Data

Built by the Indian Space Research Organisation, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle threw itself into the sky at 3.58am GMT on February 15th, 2017 It took with it a record-breaking 104 satellites—88 of which belonged to a single company, Planet, a remote sensing business based in San Francisco. Planet now has 149 satellites in orbit—enough for it to provide its customers with new moderately detailed images of all the Earth’s land surface every single day.  The satellites Planet makes—it calls them “doves”—measure 10cm by 10cm by 30cm.

Providing daily updated images of the earth is not enough… Processing the images to answer pressing questions: what has changed since yesterday? Is that illegal logging? What does the number of containers in these ports suggest about trade balances? Planet will be providing more such analysis itself, but there are also third parties eager to play. SpaceKnow, a startup which focuses on turning satellite data into analysis the financial community will pay for, has just raised $4m….

Planet is not the only company using small satellites to produce big data; the launch on February 15th also carried up eight ship-tracking satellites owned by Spire, just a couple of streets away from Planet. The companies hope that, as more and more customers come to see the value of an endlessly updated, easily searchable view of the world, insights from satellites will become ever more vital to the data-analysis market. The more normal their wares start to seem, the more spectacular their future may be

Excerpts from  Space Firms: Eyes on Earth ,Economist, Feb. 18, 2017

Slavery Markets for Kids

Crowdsourcing project Tomnod (part of the DigitalGlobe company) is working with the public-private partnership The Global Fund to End Slavery to produce accurate and public data on slavery.More than 20,000 children are forced into slavery on Lake Volta, Ghana, the International Labour Organization estimates.They work 19-hour days and carry out dangerous tasks which leave many disabled, disfigured or even dead, campaigners say. Yet the size of the lake, 8,500  square kilometres (3,280 sq miles), makes it difficult to map from the ground and provide an exact figure of the number of child slaves, said Caitlyn Milton at Tomnod, part of the satellite company DigitalGlobe..  More than 10,000 volunteers have contributed to the campaign since it launched in mid-October 2015.

Although child labour is illegal in Ghana, thousands of children are sent away by parents who believe traffickers’ promises of an education and a better life.  In reality, children as young as four years old risk their lives diving into the lake’s murky waters to untangle nets, and end up working in such horrendous conditions that many die.  For other parents, selling some of their children into slavery is the only way to feed the rest of their family.  The average couple in the Lake Volta region earns little over $2,000 a year, meaning that a family with eight children will have only $2 a week – the price of a loaf of bread – to feed each child, according to The Global Fund to End Slavery….

“Unfortunately you don’t have to look hard to find children working on the lake, but it takes a lot to mount rescue operations that are backed up by the long-term support necessary to ensure children are not retrafficked,” Kofi Annan said.  Yet hard data could increase the government’s efforts to end slavery, by prosecuting traffickers and providing social support so that there is somewhere for children to escape to, he added.

Tomnod has run other projects including monitoring illegal fishing in Costa Rica and locating elephant poachers in the Democratic Republic of Congo…

Excerpts from Eyes in the sky: online “mappers” track child slavery in Ghana, Reuters, Oct. 28, 2015

Catching Illegal Fishers

From INTERPOL: Between 6 and 13 January, 2005 a Royal New Zealand Naval Patrol spotted the vessels – the Yongding, the Kunlun and the Songhua – hauling gill nets laden with toothfish in an area regulated by the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) where such fishing methods are prohibited.

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The Pew Charitable Trusts, an American research group… reckons that around one fish in five sold in restaurants or shops has been caught outside the law. That may amount to 26m tonnes of them every year, worth more than $23 billion. This illegal trade, though not the only cause of overfishing, is an important one…

The new monitoring system has been developed by the Satellite Applications Catapult, a British government-backed innovation centre based at Harwell, near Oxford, in collaboration with Pew. In essence, it is a big-data project, pulling together and cross-checking information on tens of thousands of fishing boats operating around the world. At its heart is what its developers call a virtual watch room, which resembles the control centre for a space mission. A giant video wall displays a map of the world, showing clusters of lighted dots, each representing a fishing boat.

The data used to draw this map come from various sources, the most important of which are ships’ automatic identification systems (AIS). These are like the transponders carried by aircraft. They broadcast a vessel’s identity, position and other information to nearby ships and coastal stations, and also to satellites. An AIS is mandatory for all commercial vessels, fishing boats included, with a gross tonnage of more than 300. Such boats are also required, in many cases, to carry a second device, known as a VMS (vessel monitoring system). This transmits similar data directly to the authorities who control the waters in which the vessel is fishing, and carrying it is a condition of a boat’s licence to fish there. Enforcement of the AIS regime is patchy, and captains do sometimes have what they feel is a legitimate reason for turning it off, in order not to alert other boats in the area to profitable shoals. But the VMS transmits only to officialdom, so there can be no excuse for disabling it. Switching off either system will alert the watch room to potential shenanigans.

The watch room first filters vessels it believes are fishing from others that are not. It does this by looking at, for example, which boats are in areas where fish congregate. It then tracks these boats using a series of algorithms that trigger an alert if, say, a vessel enters a marine conservation area and slows to fishing speed, or goes “dark” by turning off its identification systems. Operators can then zoom in on the vessel and request further information to find out what is going on. Satellites armed with synthetic-aperture radar can detect a vessel’s position regardless of weather conditions. This means that even if a ship has gone dark, its fishing pattern can be logged. Zigzagging, for example, suggests it is long-lining for tuna. When the weather is set fair, this radar information can be supplemented by high-resolution satellite photographs. Such images mean, for instance, that what purports to be a merchant ship can be fingered as a transshipment vessel by watching fishing boats transfer their illicit catch to it.

As powerful as the watch room is, though, its success will depend on governments, fishing authorities and industry adopting the technology and working together, says Commander Tony Long, a 27-year veteran of the Royal Navy who is the director of Pew’s illegal-fishing project. Those authorities need to make sure AIS and VMS systems are not just fitted, but are used correctly and not tampered with. This should get easier as the cost of the technology falls.

Enforcing the use of an identification number that stays with a ship throughout its life, even if it changes hands or country of registration, is also necessary. An exemption for fishing boats ended in 2013, but the numbering is still not universally applied. Signatories to a treaty agreed in 2009, to make ports exert stricter controls on foreign-flagged fishing vessels, also need to act. Fishermen seek out ports with lax regulations to land illegal catches….

The watch room will also allow the effective monitoring of marine reserves around small island states that do not have the resources to do it for themselves. The first test of this approach could be to regulate a reserve of 836,000 square kilometres around the Pitcairn Islands group, a British territory in the middle of the South Pacific with only a few dozen inhabitants.

The watch-room system is, moreover, capable of enlargement as new information sources are developed. One such may be nanosats. These are satellites, a few centimetres across, that can be launched in swarms to increase the number of electronic eyes in the sky while simultaneously reducing costs. Closer to the surface, unmanned drones can do the same.

Combating illegal fishing: Dragnet, Economist, Jan 24, 2015, at 70