Images show changing patterns of activity at stores in Sterling, Virginia, during the COVID-19 pandemic. Credit: BlackSky

WASHINGTON — Using overhead satellite imagery and analytics software, geospatial data companies track the global impact of the coronavirus pandemic. They forecast trends such as shortages of supplies and identify areas where there could be new outbreaks.

The crisis has led to an “unanticipated global experiment” that has drawn attention to the importance of satellites to gather critical data that will guide policy decisions for years to come, said Carissa Christensen, CEO of Bryce Space and Technology

Recent marketing pitches by geospatial analytics companies gave examples of how data is being turned into intelligence on the pandemic.

Orbital Insight in a presentation slide titled “China’s elite are golfing again” showed the analysis from images taken of a resort island visited by Chinese businessmen and politicians. “As the world questions China’s recovery, we have seen a surge in traffic at the resort, offering a glimpse into the mindset of China’s elite,” the company wrote.

BlackSky in a briefing showed the results of the analysis of satellite images from different U.S. cities that looked at whether the populations were complying with social distancing and how the pandemic was inflicting economic pain. Data collected over Mason City, Ohio, for example, revealed that many large manufacturers in late March were beginning to close despite early claims of minimal impact from the pandemic.

Mark Mozena, senior director of government affairs at Planet, said the crisis is raising awareness of what data can do not just to help governments respond to events but also prepare for future emergencies.

“Geospatial data provided by satellites can help guide decision making and see these impacts even before they occur so that we can plan for them,” Mozena said last week on a webinar hosted by the industry group CompTIA.

By monitoring human behavior such as the size of crowds on Florida beaches, for instance, governments can forecast potential spreads of the disease and move resources to help combat it, said Mozena.

“The impacts of a pandemic like COVID are not just from the pandemic itself, it’s all the reverberations that will now come as a result for the next few years,” he said. “Those patterns of life within communities will be strong indicators to help us better prepare for addressing those challenges.”

Geospatial business weathering storm

The sector of the space industry that provides Earth observation satellite data and analytics was identified in a recent market research report as a silver lining amid the economic doom caused by the pandemic.

Providers of satellite data and analytics services, because of the demand for their products and resilience to disruptions from closures have a “high ability to weather the storm” said a report by Quilty Analytics.

Also playing in favor of this sector of the industry is growing interest from the U.S. government in using commercial sources of data and analytics not just for pandemic-related work but more broadly for national security and other activities.

“More users who are maybe used to more classified sources of geospatial intelligence see how commercial data can complement those assets,” said Mozena.

Maj. Gen. Michael Guetlein, deputy director of the National Reconnaissance Office, said the agency expects a growing demand for commercial geospatial data and analytics.

“Our customer’s requirements are changing,” he said during a Mitchell Institute webinar. “They need both high resolution and rapid revisit,” he said. “There’s a great need for an enormous amount of sensors and the commercial industry can help fill that gap.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...