INSIGHT: Sensing a Sustainable Future from Space

Sept. 10, 2019, 9:01 AM

To gain perspective, sometimes we must step back and distance ourselves from the specifics. When it comes to gaining deeper understanding and control of our sustainable future, observation of our earth from tens of thousands of miles away in space through thousands of sensor-enabled satellites is providing unsurpassed, unbiased data, findings, and a profound perspective about our planet.

In 1994 NASA’s LIDAR in Space EOS (Earth Observing Systems) Shuttle mission mapped pollutants such as aerosols in the earth’s atmosphere and helped look at ozone depletion. Visualizing this information helped inform nations about the severity of pollutants. Furthermore, these missions helped discover a link to cancers being found in fish and amphibians in Australia where the ozone layer was found to be depleted. The information we learn from EOS technologies helps separate myth from fact.

Today nearly 2,000 satellites are orbiting the earth enabled with low-cost sensor technologies that serve far more functionality beyond providing our communications infrastructure by efficiently and continuously gathering a diversity of climate and geographical information. Everything from temperature variations and rainfall amounts to land degradation and crop yields can be gleaned from this powerful panoply of intelligence. What’s more, we can use EOS data to inform decisions and actions around technology to mitigate environmental disasters, more smartly use natural resources, and become more sensitive to changing environmental conditions.

The most prevalent use of EOS is to monitor water resources that can allow for proactive planning for droughts or monitoring crops. Using multi-spectral and hyper-spectral sensors—vastly important technologies that have been around for a few decades—from high above we can get a much better understanding of the state of crops on the ground. Previous sensor technologies did not allow such high resolution and minutely detailed imaging on earth, but with hyper-spectral imaging, a robust dataset is obtained by sampling a wide array of bandwidths and wavelengths. The higher amount of finer spectral wavelength bands enables greater identification of specific conditions and characteristics.

At the same time, such detail actually provides a bigger picture. Broad swaths of water and land are illuminated astoundingly well. When massive amounts of forest have been dry, for example, we know there’s larger risk of fire. If flooding has been pervasive and crops are too wet, that can also have implications for pests like bacteria or fungi. Likewise, data on infestations reveals the efficacy of pesticides and helps farmers protect their crops.

Sure, sensor technologies can be challenged by weather because clouds covering the earth can obstruct satellites’ views. The tremendous amount of data—which is expected to continue to grow exponentially as innovation advances—warrants analysis, and even with the aid of artificial intelligence and machine learning, extracting the critical knowledge from the data can be daunting. But the technology is not meant to replace farmers but rather, give them more power through information as well as the automated tools to help support their livelihoods.

In the past half a century when the satellite era was launched, outsized budgets and rockets propelled by huge amounts of energy were needed. As we look to the next 20 years, that picture will change very fast, and it already is happening. Instead of launching a few satellites several years apart, constellations of dozens of cube-shaped satellites weighing a few pounds and measuring just inches are being launched into low space. Many more thousands of satellites will populate our skies and allow sharp resolution of conditions on earth. Instead of being able to recognize that an object is a car, for example, we’ll be able to easily identify the car make and model.

The implications for environmental sustainability and agricultural advancement are multifold. Rather than using data to observe patterns in weather, pesticide effectiveness, or other impactful activities, farmers may be able to more quickly act as they will see in greater detail and in real-time how their crops are or aren’t progressing. Agriculture itself could look radically different, shifting from industrial farms of massive crops to an expansive micro-farming culture. Using the intricate knowledge of hyper-local conditions, sensor technologies will make it simultaneously possible to manage big tracts of single crops and very small plots of a variety of crops that are fine-tuned to the local conditions.

In developing countries with food shortages and hunger, more than 70 percent of the food consumed there is grown by small-scale farmers. Sensor technologies and data from space brings the future promise of empowering these under-resourced agriculturalists with the knowledge needed to make the most of the small land they have, optimizing their yield.

There are vast ways data from the skies benefits our lives. Observing the planet from space will become an oracle for the future of sustainability. But the possibility of enhancing food security and addressing world hunger are the ultimate promise that technology looking down on earth can herald for humanity.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

Author Information

Jose M. F. Moura is President and CEO, IEEE, Philip L. and Marsha Dowd University Professor at Carnegie Mellon University.
Dr. Karen Panetta is an IEEE Fellow, and Dean of Graduate Engineering at Tufts University

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