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The many uses of satellite photography

Despite the Orwellian feeling satellite photography might cause, it can still be a powerful tool to improve people’s lives.

The technology has certainly improved since the first satellite photography of Earth back in 1959, which was taken from satellite Explorer 6 launched by the US. Today, the same photography of Earth is just a click away by using any computer that has Google Earth.

Although most of the uses given to satellite photography are known, such as road navigation, there is a whole lot of information it can provide that can make food production, forest control and disaster rescue missions more successful.

“Today we have a quality of 50 centimetres pixels in colour and geo-referenced. This has infinite uses in urban planning and sustainability,” Rubén Artesi, a cartography expert at the Italo-Argentine telecommunications company Telespazio, told the Herald.

Municipalities, through satellite photography, can analyze many variables of their sector.

For example, take a municipality that wishes to analyze its waste situation. They can do that easily with the help of ground work and pinpoint the areas which are more affected by garbage. With the help of a photo of their area, they can improve the efficiency of their garbage collection, thus sparing unaffected areas, Artesi said.

Although Google Earth provides free access to a complete photograph of the world, it cannot provide specific information that can be used for professional purposes.

It may be expensive for one single person to get a satellite photograph of an area and its further analysis, but for municipalities it is not that costly to invest around US$ 3,500.

“How the city is growing, which type of construction is growing, and how wealthy that area is. There are infinite ways of learning about an area through satellite photographs. For example, a map for the police forces can help them create a crime map, a map for planning officials can help them with planting and maintenance of trees,” said Artesi.

“In Argentina, there is no satellite photography conception, people have still to grasp the potential of this tool,” he said.

Argentina is still a growing market in terms of this technology, “they still have to grasp the opportunities it can provide. The potential is huge, and the quality of the image is extremely good,” Artesi said.

“We are not working as much as we should be working. Municipalities should be coming and asking for photos of their sectors for the many uses they can give them,” said Artesi.

Municipalities could keep a record of photos. In case of floods or droughts they could check past files and compare the consequences and prepare emergency actions.

“The tax use obviously exists, but it also helps municipalities’ officials learn about the reality of their sector,” said Artesi.

“I wouldn’t say it can prevent disasters, but at least it can prepare the areas that were affected the last time a similar crisis occurred,” said Artesi. “An image can allow you to do preventive work for a specific area, in terms of natural disasters.

“In cases of national parks, this tool has a huge potential. In terms of animal sighting, in the classification of tree species, or even in cases of wildfires one can beforehand trace the best routes to reach the fire. And even trace the boundaries of these parks, which many times are not very clear, and you can stop people from building in them, ” Artesi said.

“The potentials are amazing, but government officials seem to lack an interest in investing in it,” said Artesi.

Not only is this technology useful for urban areas, but it also has a large use in the agricultural sector.

Peter Towers, CEO of Agrisat, a leading Argentine company that works in seven countries providing satellite and aerial photography analysis, explained to the Herald the many uses satellite photography has on farmlands, and how it can help both yields and the protection of the ecosystem.

“We offer the service of satellite photography to analyze crop classification, in other words, to tell the client how many hectares of each crop he has on his land. This has many uses, on the one hand as a market study in the case of seed companies. For example, seed companies may want to know how much penetration one of its products had in a certain area. So by analyzing a satellite photo from the specific area it can obtain that information. And it gives them additional information as to where it is being used specifically,” Towers said.

Satellite photography analysis can also be used to estimate harvest yields, and who is doing a certain crop, which is very useful information for grain brokers, explained Towers.

“In the case of farmers it is very useful when it comes to the analysis of terrain by zones,” said Towers.

The sowing of land by zones instead of the traditional squared plots is an ongoing debate in the agricultural sector. In a squared plot the quality of the land is uneven, hence there could be a waste of fertilizers or herbicides in parts where they are not needed. The mapping of zones, through satellite photography, manages to create different plots of similar characteristics making the use of agricultural inputs much more efficient.

By analyzing different areas of a field and therefore applying herbicides and fungicides in a much more efficient way, it prevents the excess of this products from entering the ecosystem, which will then be damaged. This leads to a much more bio-friendly activity.

“In other countries we are doing analysis of cattle ratio per hectare in arid areas. This means that we analyze the capacity of the land to maintain its sustainability of grass for livestock. We can tell from the photos where there is grass, what type of grass, its quality and how to transform this feed into kilograms of meat. This is a very useful tool for farmers in arid areas that tend to have large plots of land due to its low feeding capacity,” explained Towers.

Violation of privacy

With the latest NSA scandal, the idea of satellites looking into our daily lives with great definition tends to scare people, and condemn such activities, but in the right hands it can prove to be extremely useful.

“There is a feeling that this is a violation of privacy, but if one checks Google Earth it is very hard to find people, and if you find them you can’t even recognize them. But in aspects such as crime control, natural disasters, this technology is invaluable,” said Artesi.

Argentine future

The National Space Activities Commission (CONAE) is the civilian agency of the national government in charge of the national space programme. The agency is currently on a mission to launch in 2015 the satellite SAOCOM, which will provide Argentina with valuable information of its territory.

SAOCOM (Argentine Microwaves Observation Satellite) is a planned Earth observation satellite.

The project contemplates three objectives. To optimize sowing time and the use of fertilizing agents in the area Pampa region. To optimize the use of agrichemicals for crop disease control and minimize the economic loss due to flooding and optimize the activities regarding future flooding warnings in Argentina.

“This will allow to know the water capacity of a specific terrain without having to do field work. This will allow for yield predictions as well as sowing plans. And this being about water it could prove very useful for farmers as this is their main resource,” explained Towers.

Argentina is also developing a hyperspectral camera which they hope to send in the future to space. What this camera will allow analysts to do is measure the impact of a nutritional deficiency of a crop in a direct way. Decreasing the cost of doing groundwork and allowing for remote pest control. Therefore carrying out variable dosage, which decreases the inefficient use of herbicides, thus preventing water and land contamination.

@deibidhughes

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