The tsunami that devastated a number of Indian Ocean coastal areas in December 2004 showed how important satellite imagery can be in disaster situations, according to remote sensing industry officials. But they also believe it demonstrated that their technology can be better used and better coordinated in the event of future disasters.

The role commercial imaging companies played in tsunami relief efforts was the topic of a July 14 panel discussion in Washington sponsored by Women in Aerospace.

Dawn Sienicki, director of Washington operations for DigitalGlobe, said a lot of the imagery taken of the tsunami and its wake was collected successfully by satellites due to pure luck.

“Our satellite happened to be in the general area where the tsunami hit at the right time,” Sienicki said.

The images can be used to show dramatic depictions of disasters like the tsunami, Sienicki said. Before and after pictures, when compared to each other, detail how much of the shore had been washed away, for example. One can see bridges standing in a before picture, and later uprooted and swept to a completely different area in the after shot.

Spot Image spokesman Clark Nelson said different remote sensing companies provide different benefits for disaster workers — DigitalGlobe’s technology can provide the kind of detail needed, while companies like Spot Image of France give a big-picture perspective, he said.

DigitalGlobe’s Quickbird satellite has a .61-meter resolution, compared with the Spot 5 satellite, which has a resolution of five meters.

The technology particularly is handy for more predictable disasters such as hurricanes, panelists said.

During December’s tsunami, images often were transformed into physical maps so response teams could take them into the field, Nelson said.

“It’s not digital; it’s old school,” Nelson said. “They’re hard copy maps but they’re very effective.”

But satellite imaging also needs to be used before disasters occur, the panelists said. For example, satellite imagery can be used to create detailed geographic information systems that plot the location of hospitals, police stations, shelters and other key landmarks. Maps on computers can be connected to data points that contain critical information. If an individual clicks on a shot of a hospital, he or she can bring up the number of beds, how many burn units it has and other critical facts, Sienicki said.

Howard Klayman, senior director of federal civil programs for Dulles, Va.-based Orbimage, said there were some communication problems when the tsunami occurred. Officials at the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) did not always specify the coordinates they were looking for, resulting in wasted images taken. The mode of image desired was never clarified either, meaning the company had to decide what to take, and as a result just took panchromatic shots by default, Klayman said.

NGA also requested that all remote sensing vendors take pictures of the same coordinates, so it was a race of who could get there first rather than a division of responsibilities among the market, Klayman said.

NGA spokesman Stephen Honda said the agency sometimes did not have exact geo-coordinates for sites to be imaged, because reporting was fragmentary during the tsunami.

He said he couldn’t respond directly to the companies’ specific concerns since NGA did not participate in the panel, but that the agency has learned from the tsunami experience and changed some practices for the future.

“The tsunami crisis taught us valuable lessons about how to maximize our systems capabilities, production capabilities and improve our coordination with our commercial satellite partners.” Honda said.

Nelson said he believes it is necessary to develop some sort of international disaster coordination center to direct relief efforts from the imaging perspective in the future.

Remote sensing companies also are faced with the disadvantage of having to absorb a lot of extra cost during a disaster, Klayman said. Orbimage shot 41,000 square kilometers of data during the tsunami, but only about 14,000 square kilometers of it was purchased.

Another challenge the industry faces is that those entities that would benefit from the technology — such as nongovernment organizations — cannot necessarily afford it. Even state and county governments do not always have the funding for the technology, industry members said.