Dispatches from space
A booming satellite industry is changing the way we do business down below.
Five ways satellites are changing how we do business down below.
Satellite companies are sending more cameras into orbit than ever before, providing an unprecedented near-real-time view of the world. Here are five sectors on the ground that are being transformed by data from the sky.
Analytics companies such as Orbital Insight use satellite imagery to estimate annual crop yields for farmers. North Carolina– based Farmshots digs even deeper: By studying light absorption and land elevation, it can scour individual fields for the presence of pests or diseases. And through a recent partnership with John Deere, Farmshots’ recognition algorithms have been built into tractors and other equipment, so that data gleaned from satellite imagery can direct machines to fields that are in need of additional fertilizer.
Remote stretches of water aren’t often covered by satellites or signal towers, allowing ships with blackmarket goods to slip by unnoticed. Spire’s satellites target these blind spots, scanning for illicit trading activity in the Arctic and piracy in the Indian Ocean. The company is also helping the Indonesian government cut down on illegal fishing activity by analyzing ships’ patterns at sea and flagging suspicious vessels.
In disaster zones, satellite imagery helps governments and aid organizations assess damage and direct relief efforts. A company called Planet uses data from its nearly 150 satellites to create maps that juxtapose images of an affected area before and immediately following a disaster. After a hurricane hit Haiti last fall, workers used the maps to identify roads that were blocked and important buildings, such as schools and hospitals, that sustained damage.
Satellites can be used to track the progression of global warming in areas where access was once limited. Orbital Insight works with the World Resources Institute to monitor deforestation by looking for new roads being built in undeveloped areas. In April, Planet offered its images of important ecological zones to anyone with a university affiliation; researchers from across the world have used the platform to analyze everything from glacier melt in Greenland to vegetation loss in India.
The U.S. government uses satellites for more than just keeping an eye on North Korea. The Defense Department recently granted image analysis company Descartes Labs $1.5 million to study food security in the Middle East and North Africa. Descartes is using the funds to scan farmland— both large-scale operations and smaller fields in rural areas—for early signs of famine, which can precede sociopolitical conflict. “If we see a shortage,” says cofounder and CEO Mark Johnson, “we can send in humanitarian resources rather than waiting for famine and the unrest that often occurs after.”
Eye in the sky A satellite from Planet captured a fire burning through one of the circular crop fields in the Toshka area of
Egypt last year.