World Space Week: How satellites, data analytics are saving the planet

World Space Week: How satellites, data analytics are saving the planet


World Space Week began on Thursday 4 October – a global series of events hosted by the United Nations. This year’s theme: ‘Space unites the world’.

To coincide with these events, three new reports published by the UK Space Agency emphasise how the potential of the space industry lies not just in gazing out from Earth to the cosmos, but also in looking back to Earth from orbit in order to solve terrestrial problems.

The reports reveal how the industry can help to save lives and livelihoods from natural disasters, address the major challenges confronting the agriculture sector, and deliver better management of forests to improve production and protect nature on a global scale.

Developing tech for developing countries

The first document, Space for Disaster Resilience in Developing Countries, explains how the space sector is well placed to contribute new types of information to help combat or prevent disasters.

Since 2000, natural disasters – such as cyclones, hurricanes , floods, droughts, earthquakes, and volcanoes – have impacted 3.5 billion people, causing an estimated $1.9 trillion in economic losses.

Developing countries are disproportionality impacted by disasters. According to the UK Space Agency, the average annual damage from 1980 to 2015 was 1.5 percent of GDP in developing countries, compared to just 0.3 percent in developed countries. More, the average share of affected population over the same period was 3.0 percent in developing countries, compared to 0.4 percent in developed economies.

The unique benefit that space solutions provide is “global, repeatable, scalable data that can deliver high value insights about our dynamic planet,” says the report – especially in developing countries where existing data and insights may be poor.

Space technology can help people understand the risk of disasters occurring, it says. For example, Earth observation (EO) techniques, via satellites, improve the accuracy of forecasts.

Strengthening disaster risk governance is another benefit, because EO improves governments’ planning and prioritisation of disaster responses, adds the report. EO also supports a robust insurance market through the improved calculation of risk.

Finally, space technologies advance and enhance disaster preparedness. For example, satellites provide a critical national communications infrastructure, particularly when terrestrial networks are damaged or absent in remote regions.

Food for thought

The second report, Space for Agriculture in Developing Countries, sets out four major food challenges facing the world: low agricultural production contributing to hunger and malnutrition; growing demand for food and decreasing availability of land brought about by population growth; extreme weather patterns, together with loss of land and changes in growing conditions caused by climate change; and declining access to natural resources such as land and water, due to their unsustainable use.

Analysis of Earth observation data can help meet these challenges too, said the UK Space Agency, via better decision-support tools, the creation of early warning systems, and the development of targeted insurance and finance options to help local farmers.

For example, EO data can help increase production by improving the accuracy and relevance of decision support, empowering growers and agricultural support services to make better farming decisions.

EO provides high-quality data on crop performance, competing land use, and modelling to identify any problems that may reduce yield.

Analysis of EO data can also deliver information on risk and land degradation, which can be used by organisations providing finance to small-scale producers to reduce uncertainty and, in this way, make finance more accessible and affordable.

EO data can also support the supply chain, and provide information for the improved monitoring and detection of crop productivity at field and farm scale. More, it can help local producers to farm more efficiently and sustainably through by improving the management of natural resources.

Finally, EO and meteorological satellites help to create effective early warning systems for extreme weather and conditions likely to result in pest outbreaks.

In August, the British-built European Space Agency’s Aeolus spacecraft was launched, which will help to deliver improved weather forecasting.

Seeing the forest from above the trees

The third report, Space for Forestry in Developing Countries, paints a bleak picture of forestry today, with challenges including: soaring carbon emissions from deforestation and forest degradation; loss of tax revenue from illegal logging and land-use conversion; risk to timber assets from fires, with many caused by climate change; the imperative to increase forest resilience to the loss of biodiversity – and of forest-dependent livelihoods; the need to balance economic development with maintaining ecosystems; and the lack of deep data on all of these problems.

In each case, space technologies can boost the Earth’s defences, said the UK Space Agency, by improving: the monitoring of deforestation and forest degradation; mapping and the conservation of forests and biodiversty; and commercial forest management and land use.

The report says, “While satellites capable of imaging forests have been in orbit for decades, the sector is undergoing a revolution. There is a profusion of satellites imaging the Earth’s surface with radar and optical sensors operating at a range of temporal and spatial resolutions, providing a huge increase in EO data.

“Crucially, some of the new data is being provided free of charge, for example from the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Sentinel satellites. Furthermore, there is a parallel revolution in computing and data science allowing for software to automatically process EO data to extract patterns and insights.

“A rapidly-growing ecosystem of space analytics companies are applying technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine learning and cloud computing to develop management solutions and decision tools for the forestry sector.

“As costs fall and analytical products and platforms mature, space solutions will increasingly provide the opportunity to tackle some of the world’s largest environmental problems while improving sustainability and and profit margins in the forestry sector.”

Interest comes from both the public and private sectors, it says.

Ray Fielding, head of the UK Space Agency’s International Partnership Programme, hailed the three reports, saying: “With Britain’s world leadership in small satellite construction and Earth observation technologies, our space sector is well-positioned to support humanitarian assistance efforts abroad while growing science and jobs back home.”

Internet of Business says

World Space Week has more in store for the UK, according to the British government.

On 5 October, for example, new opportunities will be revealed for graduates to engage in the thriving space sector through a new series of industry placements.

These will offer “talented and enthusiastic people an opportunity to engage in a growing global industry, providing practical experience to gain news skills and insights”, said the government.

In particular, the UK is committed to get more women involved in the space sector, and in science, engineering, technology, and maths (STEM) subjects generally.

On 8 October, the UK Space Agency, in collaboration with WISE, will release a new resource pack to schools to boost the recruitment of girls into STEM subjects post-16, particularly physics and engineering.