Figure 1 Satellite image of Greensburg, Kansas. The satellite image, taken by IKONOS on May 14, 2007, is highly effective for mapping the extent of the tornado damage.

The Future of Imagery

Leveraging an Imagery Constellation

Ron Elsis

EDITOR'S NOTE: Additional articles about constellations from other data providers, such as DigitalGlobe and SPOT Image, will appear in future issues.

How often do you require new imagery collections for your geospatialprojects? In the past, receiving new data was largely beyond your control, as reception was dependent upon when the satellite would be over a given area of interest and what the weather forecast was at the time of potential image collection. Snapshots in time also offered some clues, but the real value of accessing fresh data is being able to identify patterns and rate and impact of change. How fast is the pine beetle destroying the forest? What was destroyed by a tornado or tsunami? How many villages have been destroyed by rebel fighters?

Now, we are entering a new era of imagery collection that will address these critical questions of frequency and temporal analysis. With the addition of GeoEye-1 to its satellite constellation, along with MJ Harden's fleet of aircraft, GeoEye can accomplish timely imagery collection more easily by providing daily collection capability—weather still permitting. An imagery constellation closes the time sequence gap that was once created by limited imagery collection assets.

GeoEye's Imagery Constellation Assets

With the successful launch of GeoEye-1 on September 6, 2008, GeoEye now has two high-resolution satellites. Since September 1999, the IKONOS satellite has been collecting imagery at 82-cm resolution, which means it is capable of seeing objects the size of a car windshield. GeoEye-1 collects 41-cm imagery, which is good for detecting items the size of home plate on a baseball diamond. (Due to current U.S. policy, the imagery is re-sampled to half-meter ground resolution). MJ Harden, a GeoEye company, owns and operates aerial imagery assets, more specifically Digital Mapping Cameras (DMC) and an Optech LiDAR sensor. The DMC collects imagery down to 6-cm resolution, revealing objects on the ground the size of an envelope. The Optech LiDAR sensor is an excellent source for digital elevation data, which is used for accurately determining flood plains, for engineering-grade accuracy and for many other uses.

The GeoEye constellation creates a highly accurate digital, land-base foundation using historical as well as current geospatial data. When integrated with systems that provide data aggregation, analysis, and viewing, these products allow users to implement a variety of different applications.

The Visual Benefits of an Imagery Constellation

The concept of an imagery constellation is one in which an imagery provider is able to leverage various collection assets, either satellite or aerial, to deliver the requirements of customers. For example, with more than one high-resolution satellite, customers are guaranteed not only more coverage of the planet, but more frequency and currency with twice the number of ‘eyes in the sky.' And combining more satellite revisits with aerial imagery enables a time-sequenced, precision image down to six centimeters. A constellation of imagery assets provides the currency, resolution, and accuracy that facilitates response to any developing situation. When combined with the historical archive, such a constellation easily shows the change that has occurred.

Figure 2 Aerial image of Greensburg, Kansas, from MJ Harden, taken May 12, 2007.

Figures 1 and 2 show satellite and aerial images of Greensburg, Kansas, following the tornado of May 4, 2007. The satellite image is valuable for mapping the extent of damage, while the aerial image provides more detail.

In addition to latency of revisits, the biggest concern from potential commercial customers has been the inability of imagery providers to guarantee capacity on the satellite; however, the satellite and aerial constellation addresses this concern. Also, there is ample capacity on GeoEye-1 to meet the company's important obligations to the U.S. government while meeting the many demands of commercial customers.

With multiple satellites and aerial imagery collection assets from which to choose, commercial users can now expect a greater chance of daily coverage, along with a growing archive of rich content. The ‘5Cs' of capacity, currency, clarity, coverage, and content—combined with facilitated distribution of imagery through the Internet and with new geospatial solution applications that no longer require specialized knowledge—are revolutionizing the way the commercial market uses imagery.

The imagery constellation allows for maximizing the 5Cs of imagery collection:

  • Capacity - Having more eyes in the sky increases the likelihood for collection of areas of interest for all users.
  • Currency - Up-to-date imagery and digital elevation models are required for time-sensitive applications such as emergency response and disaster management.
  • Clarity - From 1 meter down to 6 centimeters, the constellation's resolution provides for the most detailed of applications such as forestry, insurance, transportation, and engineering.
  • Coverage - By providing a temporal sequence of data, the archive allows customers to determine the amount of change over an area of interest. This change can help with future planning and portfolio management of existing assets, be they street networks or claims management for insurance.
  • Content - Imagery provides the organizing principle for geospatial data. It allows the user to visualize the earth, while the image map accuracy allows any geospatial content such as streets, demographics, or land use to be easily registered, displayed, and used by customers.

Figure 3 Sirius Star Tanker from Saudi Arabia, which was hijacked by Somali pirates on Nov. 15, 2008. The ship was released on Jan. 9, 2009 after a ransom of $3 million was paid by the owner, Vela, which is based in the UAE, and a subsidiary of the Saudi Arabian state oil company, Saudi Aramco. Image was taken Nov. 20, 2008 by IKONOS.

GeoEye tasked its IKONOS satellite on Nov. 20 to collect an image of the Saudi Arabian supertanker Sirius Star, which was hijacked off Kenya on Nov. 15, 2008. The IKONOS satellite imaged a large area of water off the horn of Africa and was able to locate the tanker about five miles off the Somali coast. The image of the tanker is being used to show authorities how commercial remote sensing satellites in conjunction with other technologies is able to track and identify ships at sea for better maritime domain situational awareness. See Figure 3.

The Constellation Value Proposition to Commercial Market

So what does the future hold? How can a satellite and aerial constellation be used to provide additional insights and to improve business performance?

With a constellation of satellite and aerial assets, another real value is in monitoring areas of interest that are specific to a given customer. In the future, this would allow customers to subscribe to their areas of interest, search the archive for existing data, and order the assets to collect new data based on collection frequencies of their choice.

Figure 4 - Enterprise, Alabama before a tornado. Image taken Dec. 2, 2006 by IKONOS.

Figure 5 Enterprise, Alabama after the tornado. Image taken March 5, 2007 by IKONOS.

The Insurance Market

Considering previous imagery samples will reveal how the property and casualty insurance market can leverage the constellation. High-resolution imagery is used to identify flood zones, to estimate damage to property from natural disasters, and to geographically reference aging structures that are becoming more vulnerable to risk of forest fires and other events.

These images of Enterprise, Alabama show the area before and after a tornado, which is relevant for the insurance industry. The visualization is important in assessing damage. See Figures 4-5.

In addition, high-resolution imagery increases overall risk management and improves underwriting effectiveness and efficiency when combined with other geospatial data to visualize and identify customers. The value proposition is that companies can now view high-resolution archive or newly collected imagery, perform analysis to extract features, and target "good risks," thereby obtaining new revenue that might previously have been overlooked. Conversely, insurance companies can use these techniques to avoid taking on "bad risks."

Insurers can reduce costs of initial underwriting of personal residences by viewing properties in advance and using imagery as a substitute for sending a person (underwriter or photographer) to make a site visit. Underwriters can use imagery to enhance "due diligence" on renewals to assess changes to a property risk profile. By utilizing imagery in archive and new collections from air or space, high-resolution imagery products provide the following value propositions:

  • Underwriters can utilize the archive for renewals to see how the overall condition of the property has changed over time.
  • If change has occurred, underwriters can then determine if the property is a higher or lower or unacceptable risk.
  • Revenue can be improved by using images, geospatial data, and analyses to price individual risks more accurately. Risk can be evaluated on a house-by-house basis instead of just by zip codes.
  • The technology saves time and costs when used to reduce site visits.

High-resolution imagery products, along with mapping and search-engine software, provide the following value for claims management. First, they optimize resource deployment by using current imagery content to replace adjuster site visits where appropriate (e.g. the property is completely destroyed). They create early estimates of potential catastrophic losses, and they manage claims expenses by using images to identify causal factors of a loss and/or using images to conduct a sample audit of claims being made.

An expansive image archive, along with current data, provides the baseline to develop loss models to understand, manage, and communicate portfolio risks more effectively. All properties in the portfolio can be examined to determine the exposure for a specific geographic region. The industry understands that underwriting and portfolio risk management depend on factors beyond the property being underwritten, factors such as landmarks, hazards, and existing geographic portfolio concentrations. High-resolution imagery products, combined with other geospatial data, are critical to understanding these important risk management factors.


Imagery has traditionally been of greatest value to the defense and intelligence community and to select industries that employ geospatial experts required to manipulate it. To these customers, imagery is mission critical. With the advent of a combined satellite and aerial constellation, the future of the imaging market will evolve from serving these traditional customers to one of solving a variety of other customer-specific problems. In a competitive, global marketplace, what makes imagery critical to a broader market is the ability to deliver competitive advantage… that is, the speed of detection, the value of current data, the time value of imagery, the ability to view details on the ground, and even to add the digital elevation data.


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