Remote Sensing in the Mainstream

Figure 1 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.

Executive Director
Broomfield, Colo.
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 enhancing perspective.

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 preserving it.

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.

This 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 Satellite Technologies."

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.

There 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.



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