Startup shares disaster imagery, but at what cost?

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Government space agencies and multinational corporations have well-established mechanisms in place to respond to requests for imagery in the wake of fires, floods or other disasters.. For Iceye, the Finnish firm that launched the first small radar satellite in 2018, the frequent requests pose challenges.

“There is something happening every day: earthquakes, floods, fires, landslides, avalanches,” said Rafal Modrzewski, Iceye founder and chief executive. People fill in forms on Iceye’s website and the company tasks its Iceye-X2 synthetic aperture radar satellite to capture the imagery.

“There is no situation in which we would charge people for [this] data,” Modrzewski said. Still, Iceye is a new company that needs to make money in order to survive. Perhaps governments should provide some type of support to ensure companies like Iceye can continue sharing geospatial data in the wake of disasters, he added.

“The problem is no one thinks about disasters before they happen,” Modrzewski said. “We are there to provide data when they do. We may not be there unless governments realize they have to support us.”

Iceye’s disaster response work began after the Indonesian volcano Anak Krakatau collapsed in December, triggering a tsunami that killed people along the Java and Sumatra coasts. In response to a request by an Indonesian government agency, Iceye-X2 captured data.

Iceye wasn’t alone in providing imagery of the volcano and subsequent tsunami. International space agencies and satellite operators supplied free imagery after the International Charter on Space and Major Disasters was activated Dec. 23. Also capturing electro optical and radar imagery were Airbus Defence and Space’s Pléiades and TerrSAR-X satellites, Maxar Technologies’ GeoEye and Worldview-2 satellites, and MDA’s Sentinel satellites.

After a Brazilian dam collapsed Jan. 25, Iceye received another request for radar imagery because heavy cloud cover in the region blocked the view of electro optical satellites. Radar satellites collect data day and night and through clouds.

Iceye tasked its X2 satellite to view the dam Jan. 28 and shared the imagery along with scenes captured Jan. 16, before the dam collapsed. The three-meter resolution data, while not orthorectified (corrected to remove distortions), “were sufficient to estimate the extent of changes to the soil after the event, and with a time series, could be used to measure whether the sediment has stopped moving,” a representative of Brazil’s Federal Police agency, said in a letter to Iceye. “Our assessment is that with a proper orthorectification workflow, [Iceye-]X2 imagery would be invaluable to provide reliable large-scale monitoring in case of bad weather.”

In the wake of the dam’s collapse, Brazilian agencies also obtained imagery from: China Brazil Earth Resources Satellite-4; Radarsat-2, a satellite owned and operated by MDA, a Maxar Technologies company; Planet’s RapidEye imaging satellites; and Sentinel-2. Planet’s Disaster Data Program provides only PlanetScope three-meter resolution imagery. In addition, one of Planet’s customers, the German Space Agency DLR’s Earth Observation Center, provides RapidEye imagery under the International Space Charter.

Emergency response officials relied heavily on 6.5-meter resolution imagery from Radarsat-2, the Brazilian representatives said in the letter to Iceye.

“Sometimes it feels like there are so many satellites but people lack data anyway,” Modrzewski said. Iceye is continuing to improve its satellites both in terms of resolution and data-collection capacity “but we can’t do that unless we start making a profit. It would be good for people to think long term.”

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