Why Outer Space Matters: Krystal Wilson on Humanitarian Uses of Space

NASA's Earth observation satellites, both current and future missions. Credit: NASA

NASA's Earth observation satellites, both current and future missions. Credit: NASA

Krystal Wilson is Project Manager at Secure World Foundation where she focuses on the Human and Environmental Security initiative, which promotes improved governance and cooperation in the delivery and use of information derived from space systems. Previously, Ms. Wilson worked in international development as a Monitoring and Evaluation Manager at Development Alternatives, Inc in Afghanistan supporting US military and local government initiatives and as Senior Program Assistant at the National Democratic Institute in Africa and Washington, DC working on sustainable governance projects. In this second post of the Why Outer Space Matters series, she discusses the humanitarian uses of space. 

It’s easy to think of space as far away, as the domain of wealthy countries, as science fiction, as cool technology, as something far off in the future. In reality, it’s essential for being able to respond to humanitarian crises right now. Space-based capabilities, particularly weather, communication, navigation, and Earth observation satellites, contribute to every phase of humanitarian work from damage assessment to early recovery to community building to disaster and conflict risk reduction. Satellites are an integral part of forming a comprehensive understanding of a location in crisis, supporting logistics, ongoing decision-making, and even public outreach.

Even something as basic as knowing past and future weather conditions, which is essential for humanitarian work and particularly in locations that experience extreme weather, depends on satellites. Data from geostationary satellites, which orbit the Earth 36,000 km above the equator and thus can monitor an entire hemisphere continuously, and polar orbiting satellites, which orbit a few hundred kilometers above the Earth on a roughly north-south path and thus can provide full global coverage at high resolutions every few days, are the backbone of all weather prediction technologies. In the U.S., these satellites are operated by NOAA and the Department of Defense, and the data eventually filters down to familiar user-friendly websites and mobile phone applications.

Communications satellites currently make up the majority of satellites in orbit, and provide everything from television broadcasting to internet to telephone services. In many places, where sparse populations, difficult terrain, or just large distances make it too expensive to install terrestrial systems, long-distance and emergency communication is possible only with satellite services. They are also critical when disaster or conflict cause ground-based communication infrastructure to be overloaded or damaged. Advanced warning systems usually rely on satellites for providing critical information to affected populations. Satellite broadband technology can even be a way for local users to bypass government internet controls in authoritarian states.

Specifically, interoperable satellite phones and portable terminals from companies such as Globalstar, Thuraya, Iridium, and others provide voice communication from fixed and mobile locations with increasing options for global coverage. Slightly less mobile, Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT) technology connects to a system of geosynchronous satellites, and is commonly used to provide high-speed internet, data, voice, and video to fixed or even mobile infrastructure in remote locations.  Companies such as O3b Networks and OneWeb are seeking to extend more robust broadband connectivity to the entire globe using larger networks of small satellites in low Earth orbit with lower-cost ground equipment.

Satellite navigation and positioning provides the location information required for humanitarian operations. There are multiple Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) in operation or development, including the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS), Russian GLONASS, European Galileo, Chinese Beidou, Japanese QZSS, and Indian IRNSS. These satellite systems allow for a flexible, accurate, and low-cost method of tracking position for persons and large equipment. This same technology can be used to crowdsource real-time information on location from crisis-affected citizens. The Internet of Things, the growing network of connected devices, will likely have a significant role in humanitarian work through providing situational monitoring, network resilience, small asset tracking, and many other possible applications.  

One of the fastest expanding space applications for humanitarian work is derived from Earth observation satellites. In contrast to some technologies, observation and analysis based on satellite data can be done in a non-intrusive, objective, and repeatable manner, which provides more balanced and informed decision-making. Remotely sensed data can safely provide information about locations that are too difficult or dangerous to access immediately. By analyzing a series of images over time, you can create elevation and surface models, reconstruct a sequence of events (natural or man-made), or provide detailed feature extraction for mapping—all critical components of assessment, planning, implementation, and prevention in humanitarian activities. Satellite data is particularly important when starting work in an area where detailed maps are not already available.

High resolution images, such as those from the Airbus Pléiades or UrtheCast Deimos satellites, can be used for investigating highly targeted phenomena with a narrow field of vision during a specific timeframe. Low resolution imagery, such as those from the EU Sentinel 2 or NASA MODIS satellites, is better at depicting regional phenomena that may require more systematic and repetitive collection. Data for these interventions come from a variety of satellites ranging from government-supported data such as the Landsat and Copernicus programs to commercially available data such as that from DigitalGlobe, Planet, or Blackbridge. Government-sponsored data is usually provided free of charge with relatively simple licensing agreements while commercial data can be obtained at a range of price points and with varying licensing rules.  

Just a small sampling of the current use cases include: emergency mapping, identifying areas at risk of famine, tracking and responding to election-related violence, analyzing migration patterns to identify early warning of conflict, and documenting human rights violations.

Recognition and support for using the unique information offered by Earth observation satellites goes as far as the 1986 United Nations Principles Relating to Remote Sensing of the Earth from Space. In late 1999, the European and French space agencies initiated the Charter On Cooperation to Achieve the Coordinated Use of Space Facilities in The Event of Natural or Technological Disasters, which obligates signatories to provide rapid access to satellite data in the event of a disaster. Numerous countries have since joined, and it’s been activated as recently as this month following the devastation caused by Hurricane Matthew. Many other resources also exist to help interested users find and access data. 

The United Nations is also quite active in encouraging the use of satellite data in humanitarian work. The Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) serves as the general coordinating body of several programs and initiatives. The Operational Satellite Applications Programme (UNOSAT) provides capacity building directly to developing countries as well as training and resources for humanitarian actors. They also serve as a clearinghouse for the data itself in times of emergency. UNOOSA partners with the United Nations Development Program on a project called “Space-based Information for Disaster Management and Emergency Response” (UN-SPIDER) that also seeks to maximize the use of space applications for disaster management.

Using space-assets in support of humanitarian activities is not new, and trends in the space industry and emerging technologies, such as hyperspectral imaging, ensure this critical contribution to humanitarian situations will increase rapidly in the coming years. New European- and U.S.-sponsored satellite systems will be coming online in the near future. The growth of the small satellite industry is particularly encouraging in terms of coverage and cost as well as the fact that many start-ups have made improving conditions on Earth an integral part of their mission. Established companies, such as DigitalGlobe, are considering implementing different pricing models and streamlined licensing for humanitarian actors. Better tools and models to understand, locate, analyze, and distribute space-derived data are being developed.

Space infrastructure and assets certainly cannot fix every problem faced in humanitarian work, but it is an extremely valuable tool. Despite the already common use of satellite technology and data and the growing potential of the industry to contribute even more, knowledge and use of this technology remains somewhat confined to a subset of humanitarian professionals—a situation that needs to be remedied.   


Schedule of blog posts:

This blog series comes out of the October 2016 Inaugural Plenary of the MILAMOS Project in Montreal, Canada sponsored by the McGill Centre for Research in Air and Space Law (CRASL), the University of Adelaide's Research Unit on Military Law and Ethics (RUMLAE). The ICRC participated in the plenary as an Institutional Contributer.


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Krystal Wilson

Krystal Wilson is Project Manager at Secure World Foundation where she focuses on the Human and Environmental Security initiative, which promotes improved governance and cooperation in the delivery and use of information derived from space systems. Previously, Ms. Wilson worked in international development as a Monitoring and Evaluation Manager at Development Alternatives, Inc in Afghanistan supporting US military and local government initiatives and as Senior Program Assistant at the National Democratic Institute in Africa and Washington, DC working on sustainable governance projects.