Remote Sensing in the Mainstream
This image of the High Park Fire near Ft. Collins, Colorado (taken June 10, 2012) shows how imagery is being used during emergencies. This is a false color satellite image, where red areas are healthy vegetation and black areas are burnt. Image courtesy of DigitalGlobe.Popocatepetl Volcano image taken with TerraSAR-X High resolution
SpotLight, recorded on May 10, 2012. The ground resolution is 3m.
Credit: Astrium Services / Infoterra GmbH.
MICHAEL SIMPSON, PhD
Secure World Foundation
The more rigorous our tasks, the more important it is to step back
from time to time and look at what we have accomplished in perspective.
This is particularly true for those of us interested in remote sensing
and Earth observation, since at its root everything we do is about
In January 2011, as Cyclone Yasi bore down
on Australia, where I was on assignment for the International Space
University, I was struck by the extent to which newscasters and public
officials alike routinely referred to space-based data that only a
decade before would not have been nearly as available. Of course, there
were the satellite storm images from weather satellites that so many of
us have come to take for granted, but there were also elevation charts
showing the risk of flooding for coal mines and analysis of coastal
areas at greatest risk from storm surges. All were amply illustrated by
satellite imagery, and all the imagery was presented as if it were the
most natural thing in the world to have ready access to visual
illustrations captured by highly effective instruments orbiting Earth
high above the tempest.
We may occasionally feel frustration that
so much of what we have struggled to make possible through inventive
science, demanding engineering and skilled analysis goes unappreciated
by people who see it as just another part of the universe of images with
which they are confronted every day. In fact, there is reason to feel
elated that we have contributed to the creation of tools so effective
that they have been integrated into many of the most critical moments in
human life, and especially into the most challenging moments of
In the interest of bringing some of this
perspective of accomplishment to bear, I want to share just a few of the
upcoming events in which the technology and technique we have labored
to develop is being presented to audiences whose interest in satellite
imagery and multispectral data comes more from their quest for tools
equal to down-to-Earth challenges than from a fascination with any
aspect of how the data is gathered.
In late September, Space
Generation, the largest organization of young professionals in the space
sector, will gather for their 2012 Congress under the banner of "Space
for Humanitarian Relief." Imaging technologies will be high on the list
of satellite applications tailor-made to address problems cause by both
natural and anthropogenic disasters. In this sophisticated audience, we
can expect full awareness of the technical prowess that underlies these
technologies, but we can also expect more.
The rising leaders of
our space sector not only want to increase the use of space, they also
want to make major progress improving life on Earth. Like the
Instrumentalist philosophers of the Nineteenth Century, they see an
integrated system between tool and result, and they want the system to
benefit human kind.
These young professionals are thus
simultaneously the heirs of the huge progress we have made in the barely
50 years since the beginnings of satellite remote sensing and the
progenitors of creative applications for the benefit of humankind of
which we can only dream. Expect to read more about the preliminary
results of their work in future issues.
Fortunately, it is not
just the youngest of our colleagues who have gotten a firm grip on the
tools we have been fashioning with the intent of carrying out
humanitarian work. In May of this year, the Polish Government organized a
simulation workshop entitled, "Satellite observations – Support in
Crisis Situations." Heavily focused on the use of satellite Earth
observation data, this simulation assembled participants from both
governmental and non-governmental organizations from inside Poland and
beyond to address a scenario based on massive flooding.
fall, many members of parliaments from around the world will gather in
Naples during the annual International Astronautical Congress to explore
the topic, "Satellite Applications: Tools for Policy Implementation and
Verification." In October, the Organization for International
Cooperation and Development (OECD) will hold a one-day invitation-only
meeting on the subject, "Monitoring Global Threats: The Contribution of
In November, representatives of many
African countries will meet in Kenya for a workshop on how best to use
the satellite imagery now beginning to become available to address
challenges of community planning, flash flood management, and coastal
development. This coming January in Adelaide, Australia, the
International Space University’s Southern Hemisphere Summer Space
Program will challenge its students to develop a white paper on the use
of space assets to support sustainable development on Earth.
are, in fact, even more examples. What I have shared with you is only a
portion of those with which the Secure World Foundation has been
privileged to be a partner. What these examples tell us is that we have
managed to integrate space-based imagery into the fabric of policy
making and humanitarian planning. We have overcome difficult challenges
in the lab, on the test bench, and in the field and have given our
species one more example of what seems to set us most apart from other
living things: tools.
However you approach the fascinating
articles in this issue, I invite you not to forget that, for a growing
number of people, what matters most is that the imagery we have been
able to create is an indispensable part of the positive impact they are
working to achieve. So next time you engage in some self-observation in
the mirror with those two sensors in your eye sockets, give yourself a
thumbs up for helping make the world a better place, and then keep the
science and engineering coming.