Out of this World: The Rise of Space-Based Surveillance

Out of this World: The Rise of Space-Based Surveillance

Satellite imaging is now being used to assist NGOs to determine everything from the size of refugee camps to the retreat of glaciers.  

Last February, India’s space agency made history by launching 104 satellites into space over the course of just 18 minutes. The send-off, which took place on Sriharikota, a barrier island off India’s southeast coast, nearly tripled the previous record for a single-day launch. It was also high-risk as the satellites were released in rapid-fire succession every few seconds from a single rocket as it travelled at more than 27,000km/h (16,777 mph).

But the feat was also significant for another reason. Eighty-eight of the satellites released were Doves, small shoebox-sized satellites manufactured by Planet Labs, a start-up based in San Francisco. By launching large “flocks” of satellites into space the company is able to capture daily imaging of the earth’s entire land mass. Rippling snowdrifts near Winnipeg, industrial ponds outside Ningbo, coral-fringed islands in the Caribbean, a single plume of black smoke rising from a Saudi Arabian oilfield – the Dove satellites record the whole planet pixel by pixel. Once the data reaches earth it is calibrated by company software and transferred to the Cloud where it is available for download. “We’ve built a data pipeline and software product that gets imagery data from space onto a customer's laptop in less than 24 hours,” says Rachel Holm, director of communications at Planet Labs.

Planet Labs is a leader in the rapidly evolving field of space-based surveillance and communication and competes with firms like Astro Digital and DigitalGlobe to record large swathes of data and develop algorithms to rapidly interpret it. Several companies in the Computer Vision and Machine Learning space are using Planet Lab's data to develop algorithms that can do everything from counting crops and commodities to measuring the world’s oil supply.

“What’s coming is a world where we can ask: ‘show me every solar panel in China’, or ‘tell me how many acres in the Amazon were deforested this month’, and the programme will extract the information,” says Andrew Zolli, an adviser to Planet Labs who focuses on the technology’s humanitarian applications.

An image of La Pampa, Peru, an active mining site

An image of La Pampa, Peru, an active mining site

Planet Labs' data has already been used to interrupt illegal deforestation in the Amazon and illegal mining in Peru. Previously the Amazon was too vast to monitor, but satellite imaging has allowed for a more comprehensive picture to emerge. The first thing loggers will do is to build a road to reach their target area, Zolli says. “It’s like being able to watch criminals before they rob the bank.”

Typically, satellites are about the size of a school bus. They take years to design and build, weigh around 3,000kg and cost as much as US$300 million (HK$ 2.3 billion). Because they are so time-consuming and expensive to make and launch, conventional models often run on antiquated computing systems for the decade or more they are in use.

Planet Labs was founded in 2010 by three former Nasa scientists who were inspired by the possibilities opened up by smartphones and set out to build a satellite that was lighter, cheaper and easier to assemble than traditional models. The Dove satellite is roughly the size of a loaf of bread, and stays in use for a couple of years before burning up in the atmosphere. The prototype was created using a disassembled Android phone bought at a local electronics store. The engineers connected antennas, a large battery pack and other electronics to the smartphone’s innards, and a few months later, following initial testing in the lab, the prototype successfully delivered data to Earth from a high-altitude balloon.

One of the unique advantages of launching the smaller, lighter models en masse is that they function as a kind of complete scanner, or as Zolli puts it, “a permanent living sensor” of the Earth. Each Dove occupies a unique position from which it continuously photographs a swathe of the planet. On average, each satellite collects around 10,000 images per day across an area of roughly 2 million square kilometres, about the size of Indonesia.

The Dove satellite can take roughly 10,000 images per day

The Dove satellite can take roughly 10,000 images per day

The images beamed back are analysed by a diverse range of interest groups. Hedge funds comb Walmart car parks to measure traffic flow while farmers monitor crop health and assess optimal harvest times; scientists map coral reefs and track ice flows and NGOs track the population in Rohinga refugee camps. Some of Planet Labs' biggest clients include the Mexican government, the German space agency and agricultural companies like Monsanto and Bayer CropScience. As part of Planet Lab’s humanitarian mission, non-profit organisations and news media are granted free access.

Zolli, who is based in Brooklyn, has spent much of his career thinking about the civil and social impact of new technologies. Before becoming an adviser to Planet Labs, Zolli ran a non-profit organisation called PopTech, which brings together innovators from various fields to work on creative, collaborative solutions to global challenges. He is also a thought leader in the social science of disruptive change, having authored the 1992 book, Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back.

In recent years, Zolli says, the dialogue among many scientists, social innovators, NGOs, governments and corporations has shifted away from the idea of sustainability and toward resilience – finding ways to help vulnerable people, organisations and systems recover and thrive amid disruption. These days, disruption is around every corner by way of globally  connected economies, inevitable superstorms, and technology’s endless reinvention.

“Many of the world’s toughest problems are complicated, interconnected and only partially understood”, he says. 

The earth is vastly larger and more complex than our ability to readily comprehend, and it moves at speeds and scales and with interdependencies that do not conform to our everyday modes of thinking, he says. Satellite imaging gives us a more complete picture of the changes happening. Using algorithms and artificial intelligence to extract information, Zolli says, will greatly impact our ability to adapt and respond to unforeseen changes. “It’s a paradoxical moment we’re in: We have more powerful problems than ever before, and more powerful tools.”


“It’s a paradoxical 

moment we’re in: We have 

more powerful problems 

than ever before, and 

more powerful tools”

- Andrew Zolli, advisor to Planet Labs

Following Hurricane Sandy, Zolli penned an editorial for The New York Times arguing that the sustainability movement’s politics and marketing have led to a popular misunderstanding that a perfect, “stasis-under-glass equilibrium” is achievable. “The world doesn’t work that way”, he writes. “Rather, it exists in a constant disequilibrium — trying, failing, adapting, learning and evolving in endless cycles.”

Lower Manhattan, the area hardest hit by Sandy, contained the highest number of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design-certified buildings of any New York neighbourhood (a result of post-9/11 rebuilding). But while the buildings were “sustainable” they had redundant power systems that were unable to withstand storm surges.

Today, city planners are starting to incorporate resilience thinking into their strategies. One proposal, for example, calls for planting oyster beds and sea grasses on the island perimeter to help absorb the shock of future storms. Policy change is slow, but Zolli hopes that data from Planet Labs will help jump-start a collective response to our most pressing issues.

Satellites data could help to mitigate food shortages, for example. According to the World Bank, the world may lose up 25 percent of its crop yields to climate change. But when geo-spatial information systems and remote sensing technologies are used in sync with satellite imaging, they are capable of precise food production forecasts and could provide enough lead time to manage a life-saving response. “When you have indicators over a long period of time, not only do you see signs of changes, you also see the precursors of change,” Zolli says.

In 2016, when a glacier collapsed in Tibet’s Aru Mountains, it set off a massive ice avalanche. Within minutes, 65 million cubic metres of icy debris were discharged, killing nine herders and their livestock. The event occurred without warning and was unexpected for an area considered one of the world’s most stable glacier regions. By reviewing Planet Labs' data, researchers were able to study the behaviour of the glacier in the months preceding the collapse.

“A researcher was able to rewind the tape and notice the ways in which the glacier was changing. It was compressing and moving in a funny way,” Zolli says. The researcher also noticed that another nearby glacier was exhibiting similar patterns. This time, he was able to read the impending signature and alert local communities – and no one was injured in the second collapse. Meltwater was later identified as the cause of both collapses. 

Satellite images of the glacier in Tibet's Aru Mountains after an ice avalanche in 2016 provided new data on what was once considered among the most stable glacier regions in the world.

Satellite images of the glacier in Tibet's Aru Mountains after an ice avalanche in 2016 provided new data on what was once considered among the most stable glacier regions in the world.

Dove satellites have also captured other bizarre planetary behaviour, including giant crater-forming explosions in Inner Mongolia, a phenomenon caused by thawing permafrost. Methane builds up below ground, depressions form, and eventually the build-up results in an explosive collapse. “The Earth is literally blowing up,” says Zolli. “You can only deny certain forms of change at this point by purposefully not looking.”

Planet Labs has also started an initiative to map the world’s coral reefs. A complete map does not yet exist, and with rampant bleaching being recorded from Australia to the Maldives, a more comprehensive picture is needed.

Already scientists who work on the reefs have described experiences of weeping when faced with the devastation. “It’s much worse than the public thinks,” says Zolli. “It’s literally traumatising the people who study it.”

Overwhelming as all of this may seem, Zolli says Planet Labs’ mission is to create a revolution in the stewardship of the Earth by giving the public knowledge of the changes underway. “This allows people to take part in the action and say: ‘I’m not responsible for everything, but I’m responsible for this piece.’” 

Zolli’s optimism has not been tempered by US President Donald Trumps scepticism towards climate change. There may be an abdication of leadership at the top, he says, but this is only accelerating political efforts on a local level.

When we speak, he is gearing up to attend the 2017 United Nations Climate Summit in Germany along with several American governors and mayors who have publicly pledged their commitment to fight climate warming.

An image of Krasne Lake,Crimea, taken on December 14, 2016

An image of Krasne Lake,Crimea, taken on December 14, 2016

But his enthusiasm is accompanied by a sense of urgency. Collective action is needed and philanthropy, he says, is going to be critical moving forward. “All of this monitoring, this responding to disasters, all of this only happens with the help of philanthropists. We need people with profound access to resources and people who have profound access to technology to work together.”

Philanthropists need to be funding not just the most acute cases, he says, but also leveraging up their investments in innovation. “Right now the problems we are facing are so big, we need people to treat philanthropy like venture capitalism,” he says.

Zolli cites the example of giving US$1 million dollars to 10 organisations: even if seven of them fail, at least three are able to deliver and have the kind of impact that’s needed. “In an era where bits of permafrost are exploding, it’s more important than ever.” And he believes the kaleidoscopic world view provided by Planet Labs has a psychological and even spiritual impact. “This sensory revolution that has accompanied the data revolution carries profound implications for our stewardship of the planet.”


This story appears in the December 2017 issue of The Peak

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