While recent events have highlighted the role of satellites in defence and security, humanitarian aid has been and remains a strong suit for space-based earth observation (EO) satellites.

Satellite imagery has been available to the public for over 30 years, but its use was largely limited to military and scientific applications during the first half of that period. Today, the remote sensing industry has matured. New information and communications technologies are being applied successfully to tackle humanitarian emergencies, allowing for the provision or collection of critical data and imagery and also for the strengthening of communications in hard-to-reach areas.

 Humanitarian organisations provide relief in response to a wide range of natural and man-made disasters, often in unfamiliar areas and in complex situations involving large groups of affected people, government agencies, non-governmental organisations, military and other agencies. Accurate and relevant geographic information is vital, yet until only recently, many in the humanitarian community have found it difficult to access or manage the information they need to make decisions efficiently and fast.

Depending on their specific mandate, organisations have different information needs, of which some can be met using various types of imagery acquired by orbiting satellites. Such EO images can cover large areas with low spatial resolution, or small areas in a high level of detail. Satellite images are processed and analysed according to the specific needs of the agencies and distributed to users in the field and/or decision-makers in regional offices or headquarters.
What’s up there

Just some of the satellite services currently available to humanitarian organisations:

  • EarthSat – plays an important role in humanitarian relief and disaster response, providing government agencies with disaster planning and post-disaster relief support.
  • SPOT Image– the world’s leading supplier of geographic information from optical and EO satellites, serving a wide range of users.
  • Landsat 7– images of land surfaces and coastal regions, renowned for its quality, low cost and liberal copyright rules.
  • Ikonos – detailed imaging capabilities and in-orbit programming for shorter re-visit intervals.
  • Radarsat– providing imagery over cloud-covered regions.
  • AVHRR (Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer) – radiance data from polar-orbiting satellites for investigation of day and night cloud distribution, land-water boundaries, snow and ice extent and sea surface temperature.
  • Envisat – measurements of the atmosphere, oceans, land and ice.

Casamance region of Senegal – MERIS

With more proven processing and analytical methods, extended spatial and temporal coverage and improved software for desktop publishing, several humanitarian agencies have expanded their programmes and applications to include satellite imagery as an everyday tool. Satellite imagery is now used through various phases of humanitarian operations, ranging from preparedness and climate monitoring to emergency response and reconstruction.

Natural disasters

When natural disasters occur, it is critical for a national government to get an accurate and timely assessment of what has occurred and what the consequences are. In many instances, a natural disaster disrupts local transportation and communication systems making it extremely difficult to arrive at a clear understanding of conditions on the ground.

Whether it’s a flooding river, a forest fire or an erupting volcano, effective response means accurate monitoring of the ongoing situation and surveying of after-effects.

Due to the panoramic nature of satellite imagery, it has become a vital resource for natural hazard planning, mitigation and response. Satellite imagery can provide a significant amount of information, especially when coupled with information such as population density and infrastructure.

Case study: 2001 earthquake in El Salvador

After the disastrous earthquake in El Salvador, civil protection authorities were faced with a devastated capital city. Access to rural areas, needed to provide aid and discover the extent of the damage, was virtually impossible owing to heavily damaged roads.

Satellite images were gathered a few days after the disaster. By combining the information derived from the images with a topographical map, authorities were able to produce maps showing precisely where damage had occurred, even in the most remote and inaccessible areas of the battered country.

Man-made disasters

The use of satellites to support man-made disaster relief operations, such as refugee management, is relatively new within the humanitarian relief community. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was among the first to use this technology for applications directly related to refugee assistance in the early 1990s. For humanitarian organisations, the focus is now on applications directly supporting their mandates.

Case study: Aid to Liberia

The West African state of Liberia was stricken by a devastating civil war that lasted through most of the 1990s. Recently, after a few short years of peace, conflict has resumed, with government troops fighting rebels less than ten miles from the edge of the capital, Monrovia.

The small number of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) personnel who have carried on working in the besieged city – as well as MSF logistics planners – are using a city map based on satellite images, provided by the European Space Agency (ESA).

Huge untapped potential

Rapid technological advancement in this field requires that users stay up-to-date on a wide array of possible applications, but also on the potential sensitivity of high-resolution satellite images. The very nature of digital remote sensing images can streamline the transfer of information from one agency to another. Thus, the technology can act as a catalyst of inter-agency collaboration.

While a few humanitarian organisations have now amassed considerable experience in the use of satellite imagery, there is still a great potential for further development, as the technology remains relatively new for most of the actors.

With more and more satellite sensors in orbit, more competitive prices, liberal copyright provisions, increasing computer power and more user-friendly analytical software, emphasis is now being placed on awareness raising among decision-makers, with the various agencies and institutions seeking to act collectively to maximise the benefits of this powerful tool.

New EU Research Aeronautics website launched

14 July 2003

Providing news, research results, and links, the new ‘Aeronautics Research’ website aims to keep readers informed of ongoing developments in European-Aeronautics under the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6).

As part of the European Union’s ongoing mission to promote greater transparency, the new ‘Aeronautics Research’ website provides news and information, demonstrating to European citizens how they benefit from aeronautics-related research. It also keeps researchers up to date on the latest developments in their fields and helps them to understand and participate in EU research programmes.

 A new priority

Under FP6, launched in November 2002, funding for industrial research, including specific research in the field of aeronautics, is now provided under a number of ‘thematic priorities’ designed to support the creation of a European Research Area. Support for aeronautics, now grouped together with space research, follows on from the Growth Programme key action on New perspectives in aeronautics under the previous Framework Programme.

Project profiles provide updates on ongoing EU-funded research, focusing on Competitiveness, Environment, Safety and Capacity, while interviews will feature prominent members of the aeronautics and aerospace industries.

The ‘Aeronautics Research’ website is now online.