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How Satellite Data is Contributing to Global Food Security

Editor’s note: This article was written as part of EO Hub – a journalistic collaboration between UP42 and Geoawesomeness. Created for policymakers, decision-makers, geospatial experts and enthusiasts alike, EO Hub is a key resource for anyone trying to understand how Earth observation is transforming our world. Read more about EO Hub here


 

One in 10 people go to bed hungry each night, according to data from the UN’s World Food Programme. Globally, enough food is produced to feed every person on earth, but despite this, up to 811 million don’t have enough to eat. The number who can’t afford a healthy and nutritious diet is even more staggering: 3.1 billion, almost half the world’s population.

The situation is exacerbated by climate change, geopolitical tensions, and massive supply chain disruptions due to the COVID-19 pandemic—all of which tend to hit developing countries the hardest. The restrictions imposed by pandemic-driven lockdowns and travel bans, for example, were felt most strongly by low-income households, which simultaneously lost the ability to access markets as well as their own livelihoods.

In an episode of the Minds Behind Maps podcast on Food Security in Africa, Dr Catherine Nakalembe, Program Head of NASA Harvest Africa, makes the crucial point that access to food means both that the food is available and that it is not overpriced. “If there’s food at Whole Foods but I can’t buy it because it’s so expensive,” she explains, “I don’t have access to it.”

A new tool to fight hunger

Thankfully, technology is providing solutions to the food security crisis, and one of the most promising tools is remote sensing.

In fact, satellite data and advanced geospatial analytics have been used by various development institutions for some time. One of them is the World Food Programme (WFP), which is the world’s largest humanitarian agency, and one of the most advanced when it comes to using remote sensing in its operations. The agency and its local teams use both satellite and drone data, and it even has a dedicated task force—called Vulnerability Analysis and Mapping (VAM)—running the analysis.

The key focus for WFP’s local teams and the VAM platform is the use of Earth Observation data to monitor the impact of natural disasters, armed and political conflicts, extreme weather events, and other factors affecting agricultural production. They do this while also monitoring global and regional production levels to predict where problems may occur, enabling them to prepare accordingly. According to Dr Nakalembe, “Agricultural production is where remote sensing has a huge contribution.”

Satellite image of soy fields. source: https://www.cofcointernational.com/stories/satellite-images-play-major-role-in-building-sustainable-soy-supply-chain/

 

There are dozens of applications for remote sensing data when it comes to improving food security, from yield prediction to identifying environmental ‘hotspots’ or potential disaster areas.

The WFP uses different types of satellites to serve very specific purposes, with RGB imagery and multispectral data playing important roles. However, the most significant variable dictating which data will be applied to a specific use case is spatial resolution. Depending on that resolution, data can be used to provide a clear picture of various factors that could affect agricultural production or a disaster related risk in a particular area.

 

Applications of low–medium, high, and very high resolution satellite data

High-resolution data (between 1–10m) allows for detailed monitoring of changes to land use, crop type, and other hotspots, and is available from the Planet and Airbus constellations. Very high resolution imagery (below 1m), from Maxar and Airbus, can inform on population movement, settlements, infrastructure, and more.

Although many applications do require imagery at a high or very high resolution, the lower resolution, open-source data (from Sentinel and Landsat) can still be a powerful tool for providing a periodic overview of large areas of land or predicting climate conditions such as drought.

Seasonal Monitoring and Drought Prediction

One of the key applications of this type of climate data for the WFP is in its ‘Seasonal Monitor’, which analyzes the latest satellite data streams and seasonal forecasts to identify any developments that might be of humanitarian concern.

One of the most devastating factors when it comes to crop performance and yields is a prolonged period of drought. Early prediction of drought is therefore vital for the WFP and other organizations focused on food security, to help them anticipate how crops will perform throughout the current growing season and in future years.

In rural and impoverished areas, traditional methods of drought prediction are used, which usually comes down to in-situ physical rain gauges. These can be impractical, unreliable, and they only provide a relatively short-term forecast. Furthermore, all too often there simply aren’t enough of them—it’s easy to misinterpret data from a few isolated rainfall stations.

WFP uses data from CHIRPS (Climate Hazards Group InfraRed Precipitation with Station data) which combines information from local rain gauges with infra-red satellite data:

An even better early predictor of drought is to measure soil moisture, and it is now possible to do this from space. EUMETSAT’s Metop satellite carries an ‘Advanced Scatterometer’, which emits microwaves capable of penetrating several centimeters into the ground, where water molecules have the effect of ‘scattering’ the waves. The strength of the signal corresponds to the amount of water in the soil.

Satellite data provides better coverage, is more reliable, and gives more warning about impending drought than local gauges. The power of the technology is demonstrated by this chart of soil moisture levels in the Western Cape of South Africa, which clearly shows the strikingly dry conditions during 2017 compared with previous years:

Soil moisture anomalies in Western Cape, SA — https://www.eumetsat.int/features/how-satellites-can-help-detect-impending-droughts

 

Remote Monitoring of Agricultural Production

To manage food security, it is vital that the WFP is first able to monitor agricultural production. By performing spectral analysis on satellite imagery, the organization is able to identify crops, assess growth, and predict eventual yields at harvest time. This method works by tracking the reflectance of the crop canopy throughout the growing season and using vegetation indices like NDVI to assess chlorophyll content—and it requires high-resolution data.

Satellite-based yield prediction has proven to be far more reliable than traditional methods in giving an accurate and early prediction of eventual yield, and is becoming increasingly relevant in managing food security. By mapping this data, the WFP (as well as other companies and organizations) can accurately forecast grain supplies and make contingency plans.

Specific information on crop health can also be combined with other data sources to provide further insights regarding agricultural production in specific areas. The data can help in terms of preparing crop rotation plans, mapping soil productivity, assessing crop damage, and more. In fact, one of the most important applications for the WFP is providing evidence to advocate for humanitarian intervention.

Recently, another UN body, the Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD), partnered with China to make their ‘CropWatch’ system available to developing countries battling food insecurity. The international program will give developing countries the agency to monitor their own crops in real-time, as well as providing an infrastructure platform to enable them to analyze this data. The primary aim is to increase national food security, but the system can also be customized to meet the specific needs of individual countries, including achieving SDGs.

Beyond Crop and Climate Monitoring

Monitoring crop performance and climate conditions may be the most obvious applications for remote sensing and food security, but development institutions like the WFP are finding many more uses for satellite data.

For instance, very high resolution data can be useful in monitoring ‘hot spots’: large-scale environmental changes, whether positive or negative, which might have an impact on agricultural production. These are often caused by human activities, including population movement, informal settlements, and armed conflicts. Satellite imagery can be used to detect such hot spots and determine any changes that will specifically affect agriculture—for example, diversion of water sources or changes in land use.

Through very high resolution imagery, sufficient data can be gathered for organizations to make accurate predictions on what impact these situations might have on food production, whether any intervention is required, and whether food shortages are likely. For example, in 2019, the WFP was able to use satellite data to detect and measure abandonment of cropland in Mali:

Other development institutions are increasingly turning to satellite data to inform and facilitate their activities, including infrastructure projects. For example, in 2016, Germany-based development bank KfW began financing the construction of an irrigation perimeter for the purpose of improving food security in Niger. The result was the creation of an area of wetlands which effectively tripled rice yield for around 8,000 smallholder farmers, each of whom supports a family of around 10 people, meaning 80,000 people have improved living conditions as a result of the improved irrigation.

However, in 2020, flash floods occurred across Niger, and there was a pressing need to assess the extent of any damage caused to the infrastructure by the flooding. Due to the challenging local conditions, exacerbated by travel restrictions imposed during the pandemic, the only option for assessing the damage was to use remotely-sensed satellite imagery, so

Following this, satellite data became a more permanent solution for KfW’s infrastructure monitoring challenges. The company has now established a dedicated geospatial information service, which provides data that can verify the implementation of financed projects and monitor impact, as well as aiding in the selection of adequate project sites, and ensuring that appropriate safeguards are in place throughout implementation.

The Challenge: Access to Data and Machine Learning

Development institutions and food security programs face a big challenge when it comes to satellite data: Although access to data has improved significantly over time with the use of platforms such as UP42, there is still a deficit when it comes to high-resolution data—as well as the processing and analytics resources required to work with it.

Data of the highest resolution is particularly useful, explains Jean-Martin Bauer, the WFP’s country director for Haiti, partly because it can be used in conjunction with other sources of data, and can thereby provide insights more accurately and rapidly. Unfortunately, this type of high-quality data is not easily available, and as a result the WFP primarily resorts to using open data from Sentinel and Landsat. “With the private companies […] cost is still a barrier,” Bauer says. “That data is still behind a paywall.”

There is a similar issue when it comes to the AI and machine learning technologies that are needed for data analysis to be performed at scale. Currently, to monitor events like natural disasters and their impact on food security, the WFP extracts data manually from both satellite and mobile phone imagery. Conducting this process takes considerably longer for a human than it would take an AI.

“I’d love to see an Open AI movement, where the satellite data itself and the libraries could be totally open for humanitarian purposes,” Bauer says. However, “that space has to be designed so that the private companies do not lose their competitive advantage.”

What’s Next for Satellite Data and Food Security?

Earth Observation data is already a critical tool in the ongoing quest for global food security. It gives us the ability to view vast areas, including those out of reach by conventional methods. It provides rich, multispectral information that can’t be seen from the ground or with the human eye, and where archive satellite data is available, it even gives historical context to aid in understanding baselines and geospatial dynamics.

Soon, development organizations will be provided with even more tools to aid the fight against hunger. NASA has been leading the way with research projects to improve our understanding of agricultural methods, offering insights for long-term agricultural planning—and, consequently, food security. One of their projects is the Harvest program in Thailand, which aims to understand the effects of land use change on biomass emissions and soil quality. Specifically, it assesses the effects of crop type and management practices, and their impact on soil carbon levels and general rural wellbeing. The data produced by the project is expected to be used to inform land use and policy on a regional scale—however, the hope is that the methodology could be extended to other developing countries in South Asia.

Another NASA project aims to create a prototype Cropland Carbon Monitoring System to improve existing methods of estimating carbon flux—the process by which carbon is absorbed, stored, released or transferred through various agricultural processes—and its environmental impact.

Satellite data is helping to save millions of lives each year, by providing development institutions with the tools they need to increase food security. However, there are significant areas for improvement. In an ideal world, the WFP and other organizations need access to datasets from private companies, as well as the advanced AI models which permit advanced data analysis, to make the most of the technology available. If that can be achieved—and what companies like UP42 are doing is certainly a step in the right direction—then anything’s possible.

 


 

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Who Occupies Space? An Analysis of the Number of Satellites Launched Up to May 2022

Editor’s note: This article was written as part of EO Hub – a journalistic collaboration between UP42 and Geoawesomeness. Created for policymakers, decision-makers, geospatial experts and enthusiasts alike, EO Hub is a key resource for anyone trying to understand how Earth observation is transforming our world. Read more about EO Hub here


 

Satellites have transformed the world in countless ways, from communication and navigation to Earth observation and monitoring climates. Satellite technology has opened up new horizons for all.

Over the course of recent decades, the industry has experienced tremendous progress and growth. However, the real boom, called “New Space”, started a few years ago with certain technology advancements, disruption caused by many different factors including: new micro satellites, decreasing cost of launching satellites to the orbit and an inflow of capital and talent to the industry.

The number of satellites above us has grown exponentially, from several dozen to several thousand, and the number of countries with space aspirations is also ramping up.

We depend in our article on analyzing data from UCS Satellite Database provided by the Union of Concerned Scientists and updated till May 1,2022.

Satellite Industry Democratization

Since the first launch of an Earth-orbiting satellite by the USSR on October 4, 1957, the space industry has been dominated mainly by the USSR and US. Until 1966, only six countries had launched satellites, while today, more than 100 countries have at least one satellite in space. This shows that the technology barrier to launching an object into space has lowered. It also shows that, on the one hand, being a part of the space industry is a strategic activity for some governments, and on the other hand, market trends are pointing toward the democratization of the satellite industry.

One of the trending sectors in the satellite industry is earth observation (EO), where EO satellites utilize remote sensing capabilities to gather information about planet Earth’s physical, chemical and biological systems. It’s used to monitor and assess the changes in the environment and human landscape, and provide humans with situational awareness on the global scale. In the last half-century, EO satellite development has played an important role in enhancing our understanding of earth-system cycles, focusing on scientific research and military purposes. We have counted about 170 earth observation satellites that were launched before 2013. Since then, in the decade to May 2022, at least 966 remote sensing satellites have been launched.

Several events have driven the growth of the New Space sector. In 2013, Planet launched its first commercial microsatellites – Dove 1, 2, 3 and 4, followed by over 200 more satellites launched until recently. In 2015, Barack Obama signed the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, and the sector, which was considered strategic, opened up to private initiatives. This changed the purchasing model of space agencies, who moved from merely paying for the construction of a solution they had designed themselves, to buying the whole solution, thus making room for innovation in the private sector.

Another factor has been the initiatives of billionaires such as Elon Musk, Richard Branson, and Jeff Bezos, followed by venture capital interest. The more they invest in the development of space technologies, the more they decrease the cost of associated projects, such as building space launchers and rockets. At the same time, they have enabled dozens of startups across the value chain that want to launch their own satellites or build solutions based on satellite data and space technologies. A good example is UP42, which is a digital marketplace for satellite data and processing infrastructure that offers for its users easy access to high quality geospatial data from multiple satellite data providers.

Although there has been a remarkable increase in the number of countries that have entered the satellite industry, the United States is still leading the industry, followed by China. Russia, which was a major competitor to the US in the 1960s, has fallen to fourth place in terms of satellite-owning countries.

Interestingly, commercial companies have launched more satellites than government and military agencies put together. Although the numbers are driven by SpaceX (2219 satellites) and Planet (215 satellites), the overall number of satellites in the commercial segment for communications and earth observation is higher than the government and military combined. And this activity has happened in just the past few years.

Top 10 Companies Launching Earth Observation Satellites into Space

Looking at private satellite companies in the earth observation sector, we have come to an interesting conclusion. The private market is dominated by the US and China. Although the US has the most satellites owned by private companies, China has more private companies in total. Planet and Spire dominate the sky owning together 338 satellites but interestingly, data suggest that China has 21 companies that have at least one earth observation satellite in orbit, with 12 companies based in the US

Crowded Sky

"Space is getting crowded" is not an exaggeration; it reflects the huge increase in the number of satellites in space. The World Economic Forum Global Risks Report 2022 identifies lack of governance and the overcrowded space, especially at low level orbit, as a threat in the coming years. This is a threat that may have a serious effect on life on earth, given that the satellite industry plays an important role not only in the global navigation and communication sectors, but also in other fields such as broadband internet, TV, radio services, and supply chain monitoring.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), the Covid-19 pandemic did not have a significant effect on the flourishing satellite industry.  On the contrary, the number of satellites launched into space in 2020 exceeded 1000 for the first time in history, and in 2021 around 1673 satellites were launched, which was almost equal to all the satellites launched into space between 1974 and 2019 (1971 satellites).

As the presence of satellites in space continues to increase, many new threats and challenges have emerged. Space congestion is obscuring the stars; the night sky will appear very different and become dominated by the moving lights of satellites orbiting the earth if their number increases by a factor of 10 or more. Negatively altering the night sky impacts astronomers, environmentalists, amateur stargazers, and Indigenous groups. For Indigenous groups, changes in the night sky may adversely affect spiritual and cultural practices involving the stars. Losing 70% sensitivity in certain frequencies due to interference from satellite mega constellations is a major concern for astronomers. According to a statement published in 2007 by UNESCO and the International Astronautical Congress, "an unpolluted night sky that allows the enjoyment and contemplation of the firmament should be considered an inalienable right [of humankind] equivalent to all other sociocultural and environmental rights."

According to Marla Geha, a professor of astronomy at Yale University, by the end of 2021, there were more than half a million pieces of space junk orbiting the earth, moving at a speed of 17000 miles per hour. She added that although space may be large, satellites are crowded in fairly specified areas, which will increase the threat of damaging the bulk of satellites that we depend on in our daily lives due to the huge amount of space debris that could be generated from the explosion of a single satellite, and consequently may lead to a series of explosions in other satellites.

The Future

The satellite sector is one of the most important forms of human development, power, and creativity. The invaluable capabilities and advancement of EO satellites in space create a great opportunity for assessing and mitigating environmental catastrophes, and exploiting new opportunities in exploring and managing natural resources. This great progress in the space sector was accompanied by the advancement of methods and techniques for analyzing and processing satellite output, which provides great opportunities for developing and improving the speed and quality of investment of this output, by taking advantage of the various services provided by analysis companies such as UP42.

We humans must take advantage of these opportunities to enhance and develop the environment and not turn them into an existential threat to our land and our gender.

 


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