Low Earth Orbit satellite observation is revolutionising industry and accelerating our journey towards sustainability.
By Dr Newton Campbell, AROSE Director of Space Programs
Some say the next and most profound industrial revolution in human history is underway in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), 400km above our heads.
According to Tom Vine, the CEO of US-based Space infrastructure company Sierra Space, we are at a turning point in human history, pivoting from 60 years of space exploration to a new era of unprecedented economic activity, manufacturing and growth focused in Space.1
While future Space exploration is likely to have profound impacts here on Earth, LEO satellite observation is generating benefits today.
LEO observation is improving technology, productivity and sustainability across a wide range of industries. Benefits include better land and water resource management, mitigating the impacts of climate change, and enabling greater, more effective use of remote operations.
Creative uses for data gathered from Space abound. Take remote sensing satellites, which use a suite of sensors to generate information about our planet’s surface in near real time. Companies are increasingly turning to remote sensing data to inform business decisions. Whether it’s tracking the number of cars parked at shopping malls, detecting gas pipeline leaks, optimising airline flight paths and fuel consumption, or assessing soil type and moisture content to maximise crop yields.
Satellite imagery already helps us observe and manage our environment and the impacts of climate change, from flood and fire identification to better water and mineral resource management.
Australia’s fire agencies are using artificial intelligence to analyse satellite generated data and images to help plan for bushfire seasons. By analysing historical bushfire data, vegetation growth and moisture, they can identify where fires are most at risk of outbreak. This helps them decide when and where to backburn and where to deploy resources. They can combine this with analysis of social media data, using AI to track key words and images, such as pictures of smoke.2
Satellites deployed with hyperspectral imaging greatly enhance characterisation of the Earth. They can improve the search for deposits of critical minerals required for lower CO2 technologies, including for battery storage and solar panels.
Hyperspectral imaging can also help us characterise longer-term emergencies. Coral Vita, a Bahamas-based organisation specialising in coral reef restoration, is pioneering the use of visual spectrum satellite data and LIDAR to peer down across whole coral systems. This is helping to identify degraded areas for out-planting with site-specific and climate-change resilient farmed corals.3
However, recent research by Coral Vita and NASA has shown there are inherent limitations in standard visual and LIDAR sensors that prevent us fully capturing the complexity and diversity of coral reefs.4
For instance, these standard mechanisms are currently unable to measure some key indicators of coral health, including tissue thickness, skeletal density and symbiont density. These indicators are influenced by factors such as water temperature, light intensity, nutrient availability and disease exposure. They can also vary significantly within and between coral colonies, making them hard to detect from Space.
Some costly solutions to address these limitations include coupling standard remote sensing data with other methods of coral assessment, such as underwater surveys, genetic analysis and physiological measurements.
In the future, more advanced hyperspectral imaging could enable us to narrow down the health properties that currently elude us.
By analysing spectral data, researchers could identify different types of coral species, as well as their health status and environmental conditions. Hyperspectral imaging could help to detect stress, bleaching, disease or recovery in coral reefs by revealing changes in their pigmentation, morphology and metabolism. For example, bleached corals have lower reflectance in the visible spectrum and higher reflectance in the near-infrared spectrum than healthy corals.
Hyperspectral imaging could also help to monitor the recovery of coral reefs after a disturbance event, such as a storm or a heat wave, by tracking the changes in their spectral characteristics over time. This, in turn, would allow us to prioritise more areas for restoration with a precision that was previously impossible.
Sentinel-3 image showing the Murray River plume from high outflows following extreme rains in South Australia. Image courtesy The University of Western Australia Oceans Institute.
Diverse employment opportunities
The application of Space accelerated technologies is also creating a wide range of new and more diverse employment opportunities, in Space and across all Earth-based industries. The future looks brighter for young people contemplating career choices.
One of AROSE’s most important goals is to uncover and widen the application of Space capabilities across on-Earth industries to improve our approach to sustainability and decarbonisation.
AROSE members are at the forefront of these innovations. Many are using LEO satellite observation and communications to improve productivity and sustainability, while creating a more diverse and skilled workforce. Some examples include:
- MDA is helping NGO Global Fishing Watch combat large-scale illegal fishing using the company’s 14-year RADARSAT-2 satellite radar archive, which includes more than 970,000 images. RADARSAT-2 can image more than 250,000 km2 of ocean in less than a minute, regardless of weather conditions and time of day or night;5
- Gilmour Space, Curtin University and UNSW are developing and deploying satellite technologies that will increase Australia’s earth observation capability;
- Curtin University under SmartSAT CRC funding has used earth observation optical data to help the WA rock oyster industry prototype a near-real time monitoring of farming sites.
- Engineroom’s high-performance computing helps companies supercharge the masses of satellite-generated data to increase crop yields, render blockbuster visual effects, develop and simulate medical breakthroughs, calculate re-entry profiles for spacecraft, and give machine vision to robots and autonomous vehicles;
- The Oceans Institute at the University of Western Australia is using AI to analyse satellite data and images to identify plastic dumps in rivers before they enter the ocean and climate change resilient coral formations in the Great Barrier Reef;6
- UWA’s International Space Centre has a dedicated facility developing world-leading hyperspectral infrared sensors, imaging devices, and electronic systems for space-based earth observation.
As we stand at the dawn of this new era in Space exploration, we must be mindful of the environmental challenges we face as a planet. With continued research and development, we can harness the power of Low Earth Orbit satellite observation to help create a more hopeful and sustainable future.
- ‘Firestory start-up uses AI to tackle bushfires’, Australian Financial Review, 1 December 2022, p.10.
- https://www.uwa.edu.au/news/Article/2022/December/Spotting-plastic-waste-from-space-and-counting-the-fish-in-the-seas and https://theconversation.com/spotting-plastic-waste-from-space-and-counting-the-fish-in-the-seas-heres-how-ai-can-help-protect-the-oceans-196222