How satellite data is transforming disaster prevention on Earth

Space technology is so often focused on getting us beyond Earth, pushing humans to Mars and beyond, that it’s sometimes easy to forget that it can be a huge benefit to us during our tenancy of our home planet.

How satellite data is transforming disaster prevention on Earth

But amidst all the space debris around our planets are over 4,000 satellites, and some of these are put to very good use indeed. Using over 3,000,000 images collected through the Japanese Space Agency’s DAICHI Advanced Land Observing Satellite, NTT DATA has been able to construct the world’s first five metre resolution map of the Earth.

The practical applications for this may sound limited, but as Dr Ken Tsutsui, project leader of the 3D Atlas initiative at NTT DATA told me via telephone from Japan, the real-world applications can be the difference between life and death, from assisting with ground-water planning in Tanzania to planning against landslides in Sri Lanka. “This is the world’s most precise geographical map,” explains Dr Tsutsui. “At each five-metre interval, there is a 3D measurement by using the satellite.” This is a big step forward from NASA’s previous map, which recorded points at 30 metres, accordinging to Tsutsui.

The map has been available to governments and academics since 2014 (computer power was too weak beforehand, Tsutsui explains), but the upgrade to five-metre resolution mapping could make a massive difference, allowing more detail than ever before for researchers to get to the bottom of public health issues. It’s too early to tell yet, but past improvements have made a big difference.

Take the image below, tracking the possible infection route of polio. The image on the left shows our previous analysis of the region using 30m resolution imagery, while the map on the right shows photography from the Japanese space agency. On the latter, researchers were able to track sewage flow, allowing the World Health Organisation to sample water for polio more accurately.satelite_photos_disaster_relief

Not only can having accurate maps help in the tracking of public health epidemics, but they can also be used to assist in the aftermath of disasters. In the aftermath of Nepal’s 2015 earthquakes, the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) was able to use NTT DATA’s maps to accurately map the country to assist the Nepalese government with resettlement plans to reduce the risk of landslides and future events causing disaster on a similar scale. The map below demonstrates their suggested reconstruction plan.satellite_humanitarian_relief

How big a deal is the step up in resolution? The comparison below should give you some idea. On the left is NASA’s original 30-metre resolution shot: an unusable blur when zoomed in. The middle shot is from the five-metre camera, which still leaves certain parts hard to see clearly. The picture on far right – taken with a 0.5-metre resolution in collaboration with Digital Grove – is possible for certain areas of the planet, but we’re a way off covering the whole globe that way. It’s only in this last picture that specific details begin to emerge: you may be able to pick out a couple of bridges in the middle of the left-hand side.resolution_differences_space_cameras

As resolutions get higher, the 3D map can become even more useful. Take the image below, a 3D model of Yokohama in Japan:satellite_photography_earth_3d_map

The real-world use for this shows that the technology isn’t just limited to humanitarian reasons, as the map was used by a telecoms company to map out mobile phone signal strength:commercial_use_of_satellite_earth_mapping

This level of detail isn’t possible the world over just yet, but nor is it 100% necessary with plenty of problems solvable with the five metre camera. So who uses the data? Governments or academics? “Both parties are delighted to use our solution,” explains Tsutsui, but it’s of more appeal to governments and the private sector for the moment. The reasoning proves a little complicated, so his interpreter takes over at this point: “To begin with, we are focusing on practical and real-life usages, rather than research purposes. For that reason, we collaborate with private-sector companies utilising apps and so on. We provide a paid service, so that’s why there are more governmental and private-sector clients. But we do some collaboration with academics too.”

As a paid service, how much does it cost exactly? From 200Yen (around £1.27) per square kilometre for the least detailed maps. That means, by my calculations, that an area the size of London could be covered for just under £2,000, but the whole of the UK would set you back £309,384 – although there are discounts for bulk orders. Maps with detailed terrain go for considerably more.

That may sound expensive, but the data accessible from an accurate 3D map can be extremely valuable in commercial sectors – optimising the placement of wind turbines, for example – and priceless for humanitarian schemes. While the technology in orbit will hopefully one day lead us across the solar system, for now it’s doing a pretty good job of making life on Earth that bit more comfortable.

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Images via NTT Data and JAXA

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