Space technology helping earthlings to survive

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Space technology helping earthlings survive

Imagery from space, and crowd-sourced information on the ground, is allowing geoscientists to accelerate the world's ability to respond to natural disasters


First published in issue 2 of SOLVE magazine, 2020

In 2017, the Caribbean island of Dominica was in the direct path of hurricane Maria, a devastating Category 5 storm.

Dominica’s terrain, with nine volcanos running down its centre, has tended to restrict human settlements to where rivers meet the coast. In these locations during the hurricane, people were in extreme danger from the combination of flooding from coastal storm surges and debris flows from the steep terrain.

That people would require assistance was obvious; the problem was how to target aid, given the inability to rapidly assess damage in the circumstances.

However, that is precisely the challenge in disaster management that Professor Richard Teeuw has long anticipated. Over the past decade, he has adapted remote sensing technologies, such as satellite and drone imagery, for use by low-income countries to help mitigate the impact of disasters.

This work is undertaken at the University of Portsmouth’s School of the Environment, Geography and Geosciences, within the Risk Reduction and Resilience Research and Innovation Group.

The response of Professor Teeuw’s team to hurricane Maria was twofold: assisting with the immediate disaster response and, months later, carrying out a forensic analysis of the disaster ‘hotspots’ in Dominica.

In the aftermath of hurricane Maria, there was an urgent need for maps showing the extent of damage. Within days of the disaster many volunteers joined a ‘mapathon’, hosted by the University of Portsmouth, in which they used satellite imagery to map damage to buildings, village by village. Those damage maps were then passed to the United Nations Office for Satellite Analysis (UNOSAT) to assist the Dominica disaster response

Funding from the Natural Environment Research Council enabled Professor Teeuw to organise a team of scientists from UK universities to carry out fieldwork, surveying damage to buildings and infrastructure for a forensic analysis of the devastation caused by the hurricane.

“Using photography from drones, we were able to get centimetre-detail of buildings, bridges and roads,” Professor Teeuw says. “Because we had associates filming in Dominica earlier that year, we had ‘before’ and ‘after’ comparisons that also helped us understand the processes that destroyed reinforced concrete buildings, bridges and other infrastructure.”

That understanding has since informed ‘Build Back Better’ guidelines on how Dominica can rebuild in ways – and in locations – that will be safer in the advent of future disasters.

A similar rapid response occurred in 2020 when tropical cyclone Harold, another Category 5 storm, struck Vanuatu. This time it was radar satellite imagery downloaded from the European Space Agency (ESA) that was used to ‘see’ through the cloud cover and rapidly detect severe flooding.

In his damage mapping for cyclone Harold, Professor Teeuw was able to use ‘cubesats’ (each about the size of a shoebox), of which there are now hundreds in orbit providing daily images of Earth’s surface.

Professor Richard Teeuw, University of Portsmouth

Using daily PlanetScope imagery, we were able to examine the devastated islands on the first cloud-free day after the storm. We then mapped damage that would disrupt the disaster response, such as collapsed bridges and landslide-buried roads, and passed those maps to UNITAR [United Nations Institute for Training and Research] to assist the relief efforts.

Professor Richard Teeuw, School of the Environment, Geography & Geosciences

Connected response

This was the connected responsiveness that Professor Teeuw had sought when he established the University of Portsmouth’s Crisis and Disaster Management Master of Science course: “I wanted to provide training that went beyond mapping and assessing geohazards to better communicate that information to emergency managers, reduce the risk of disaster, increase people’s resilience and save more lives.”

He first pursued this in the 1990s, inspired by the increased availability of free satellite images and free and open-source software (FOSS) for mapping. With other digital mapping enthusiasts, he organised workshops and authored a techniques handbook for the Royal Geographical Society.

From Professor Teeuw’s initial interest in developing low-cost digital mapping for researchers with limited funding, he and his team have developed methods of digital mapping, monitoring and modelling that focus on the needs of emergency management and sustainable development in low-income countries.

“The biggest barrier we identified in accessing satellite data and mapping information was what we call ‘digital data poverty’. Typically that translates into a lack of internet availability, limiting access to otherwise abundant sources of online information and training for disaster risk reduction activities.”

The value of Professor Teeuw’s approach was recognised by UNITAR in 2018, when it invited his team to join the CommonSensing consortium. The three-year CommonSensing project, funded by the UK Space Agency, is using satellite imagery to help small island states prepare for – and cope with – the increased frequency of extreme weather events due to climate change.

Crowd power

As part of this capability, Professor Teeuw has incorporated the texting and image capabilities of mobile phone systems to provide and receive information, allowing for ‘crowd sensing’ in which people on the ground provide vital information to the outside world. 

“Mobile phones can take a photo, and tag its date, time and location with GPS,” Professor Teeuw notes. “We store that phone photo data centrally and link back to the satellite image of that area, creating a link between two types of ‘big data’: remote sensing from space and crowd sensing on the ground.”

Research and teaching activities have developed in line with these applications. A disaster response simulation exercise for the Crisis and Disaster Management Master’s course has been developed – in conjunction with Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service – into an international disaster response exercise, the SIMEX. Run annually at locations around Portsmouth, the SIMEX has developed into the largest exercise of its type in the world.

Many emergency response organisations in the UK and internationally are now training their staff and testing procedures and new technologies through the SIMEX exercises.


Eye of the storm: A satellite captures the moment Cyclone Harold arrived at Pentecost Island, Vanuatu, on April 6, 2020 (data source: the European Space Agency, ESA; processed by Dr Mathias Leidig, University of Portsmouth)

Space is much more accessible than it ever has been, with more data being generated than ever before, making many more applications possible. Most people don’t realise it, but every day they are interacting with at least 25 satellites. Space is already integrated in our everyday lives in so many ways, but space data may not come to mind when you’re coming up with new ideas. There are some great opportunities to integrate satellite imagery and other space data into new innovations.

Tom Greenwood, regional ambassador for the European Space Agency


Environmental crisis management

Requests for the satellite imaging mapping are 2Decks in here please growing. For example, satellite radar imagery is being used to peer through the cloud that hovers over Colombian rainforests. Professor Teeuw’s team is using radar images from ESA to map and monitor the devastation caused by illegal gold mining and associated deforestation along rivers in the remote Choco region of Colombia. That information – as evidence for legal actions – is passed to organisations working to reduce the impacts of illegal mining through increased policing and prosecutions.

That now extends to using space-based observations to monitor emerging hazards from climate change. “Sadly, crisis management and disaster response are growth industries,” Professor Teeuw says.

These kinds of altruistic applications of space technology are also being adopted more generally across society. Examples include providing support for COVID-19 suppression strategies, such as relaying information about crowd dynamics in public spaces.

Funding and support are available for organisations and businesses seeking to incorporate space data into new services through the ESA Business Applications programme, part of the European Space Agency. The University of Portsmouth hosts one of the programme’s seven UK regional ambassadors, Tom Greenwood, who works directly with applicants for funding to develop new applications.

Previous funding calls have addressed becoming a plastic-less society, optimising railway networks, accessing cultural heritage and supporting the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

“Not only are we looking to help businesses with this programme, we’re also looking to generate much wider socio-economic impacts,” Mr Greenwood says. “Space is much more accessible than it ever has been, with more data being generated than ever before, making many more applications possible.”

Examples of recent projects include software that uses satellite navigation technology to map routes for cyclists to avoid the most congested and polluted roads, and helping to locate and clean up plastic in oceans.

“Interested organisations can approach ESA with a business case and we can then provide guidance and, in some cases, investment to bring that vision to life,” Mr Greenwood says.

“Most people don’t realise it, but every day they are interacting with at least 25 satellites. Space is already integrated in our everyday lives in so many ways, but space data may not come to mind when you’re coming up with new ideas. There are some great opportunities to integrate satellite imagery and other space data into new innovations. I hope to see the industry continue to thrive in the coming years.”


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