Satellites to the rescue after natural disasters

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Natural disasters showcase the widespread utility of satellite imagery. After earthquakes, landslides, hurricanes and floods, government agencies, nonprofits and emergency responders often turn to electro optical and radar imagery to gauge the severity of the damage, plan rescues, deliver aid and begin rebuilding campaigns.

Since 2000, international space agencies have shared data free of charge through the International Charter on Space and Major Disasters. Increasingly, private companies also publicly release disaster-related imagery and data.

Maxar Technologies shares satellite imagery and information to aid disaster response through its Open Data Program. “We publicly release pre- and post-event imagery over a whole series of natural disasters,” said Rhiannan Price, Maxar’s Sustainable Development Practice director. “It is a powerful program and a big part of our data philanthropy approach.”

Planet began sharing imagery as an unofficial contributor to the International Charter in 2016. In 2018, Planet made its participation official, becoming the first private company to contribute data directly to the International Charter.

Hurricane Harvey struck Port Arthur, a town 140 kilometers from Houston that houses the largest U.S. oil refinery, in August 2017. Planet publicly released images showing Port Arthur before and after the hurricane and flooding. This image is shows before the hurricane. Credit: Planet

The Charter is activated when a representative of a civil government agency logs into the Charter’s online portal to request support related to a disaster. An on-duty operator verifies the information and forwards the information to an on-call officer, who analyzes the request, considers the disaster’s scope and plans a course of action.

Planet supplies PlanetScope imagery, orthorectified, multispectral data with three-meter-resolution, to the International Charter directly. The German Space Agency’s Earth Observation Center, a Planet customer, supplies to supply imagery from Planet’s RapidEye constellation to the International Charter.

“We also make imagery available to humanitarian organizations, volunteer organizations and first responders looking to assist in these types of large natural disasters all over the world through Planet.com/DisasterData,” said Brittany Zajic, Planet’s Disaster Response Operations lead. “It’s a fundamental part of our mission-driven company and our stakeholder company values.”

Maxar and Planet embrace the philanthropic aspect of sharing disaster imagery and data. They also see how disasters showcase the unique attributes of their space operations.

Before Planet established a constellation large enough to acquire daily imagery of Earth’s whole landmass, people usually had to task satellites to gather views of disaster sites. In those cases, it was often difficult to find imagery of the same site immediately before the disaster, said Tara O’Shea, Planet’s forest and land use programs manager.

“It’s very difficult to plan your response when you don’t know what’s been impacted because you can’t see the site before the disaster,” O’Shea said. The disaster response community helped demonstrate the utility of daily global imagery, she added.

Similarly, disasters offer Maxar an opportunity to display the breadth of its capabilities. Maxar satellites gather high resolution electro optical and radar imagery and data. In addition, Maxar has expertise in applying machine learning and crowdsourcing techniques to help customers make sense of the data, Price said.

This image shows Port Arthur after Hurricane Harvey. Credit; Planet

Years ago, only geospatial experts knew how to obtain satellite imagery and decipher the information the files contained. Thanks in part to cloud computing and artificial intelligence, geospatial data customers no longer need to store enormous files on local computers or spend years learning to manipulate data As a result, more government and private groups are working with satellite imagery.

“The value of remote sensing and what it can do to deliver timely, actionable information in these kinds of crisis situations is more broadly understood,” Price said. “A lot of nongovernmental organizations, international civil governments and governments of the Global South are starting to leverage geospatial information because imagery is becoming much more accessible for those communities and more valuable. They can put it to good use on the ground as the emergency response is unfolding.”

In addition to philanthropy, disaster preparation, response and monitoring offers commercial opportunities.

Maxar sells subscriptions to FirstLook, an online service for emergency managers offering pre- and post-event imagery for hundreds of events annually. The database for an event is updated around the clock as Maxar satellites travel over the area, Price said. Civil government agencies also subscribe to EarthWatch, a Maxar product for monitoring, mapping and change detection.

Planet sells Earth imagery subscriptions to civil government agencies. Within days of Northern California’s destructive Camp Fire in 2018, Planet was supplying imagery to California’s Office of Emergency Services. That work led to a commercial contract, Trevor Hammond, Planet chief of staff, said by email.

This article originally appeared in the May 20, 2019 issue of SpaceNews magazine.