Friday, January 15, 2010

Satellites for Natural Disasters

The first satellite images of Haiti since the Earthquake have been released, and there have been a few good articles about how satellites - including both satellite imagery and satellite communications - are extremely important after a natural disaster. This is an issue that's very interesting and important to me - these are the types of satellite applications that are extremely valuable, but that people aren't always aware exist. If you have time to read all the articles, I'd recommend it (and I've provided links), otherwise I've tried to provide some of the highlights of article each here.

How satellites are being used in Haiti
(BBC) January 14, 2010, By Jonathan Amos
This BBC article is particularly good at describing the basic ways that satellite imagery is used and also how satellite imagery becomes available so quickly.

“The first thing an emergency response needs is an up-to-date view of the land affected. Which roads and bridges are still intact? Which remote areas look to have been worst hit? Where is the best place for a base-camp? And if terrestrial communications are down, which satellite assets can be used to co-ordinate the relief effort, not just for phones but to drive computers as well?”

“Many space agencies have signed up to something called the International Charter [on] Space and Major Disasters. It was initiated back in 2000 by Esa, and the French (Cnes) and Canadian (CSA) space agencies; but then quickly acquired other signatories including important US bodies like Noaa and the US Geological Survey. When the Charter is activated, the signatories re-task their satellites to get the data most urgently needed in a devastated region.”

“[Satellite] radar is particular useful because you can detect how the ground has actually moved by comparing data gathered before and after a quake. This type of information will be important in assessing future seismic hazard in the region, so it's not just in the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster like this that satellites return on their investment.”

Satellites to the rescue
(MSNBC) January 14, 2010, By Alan Boyle
The MSNBC article is great because it goes beyond the value of satellite remote sensing imagery, and also talks about how satellite communications technology is being used.

“When the rescuers arrive, one of the most immediate needs beyond food, water and medicine is the need to communicate. The quake dealt a heavy blow to Haiti's standard communication links. Here again, satellites are coming to the rescue. Telecoms Sans Frontieres, a French-based international relief organization, was among the first on the scene with BGAN terminals. (The acronym, pronounced "bee-gan", stands for broadband global area network.) The BGAN devices are about as big as a netbook or laptop computer, and provide a mobile hookup for phone or data communication (wireless or wired) through the Inmarsat satellite network. Telecoms Sans Frontieres is hooking up terminals to facilitate communications for U.N. relief workers in Haiti, and will eventually let Haitians make free two-minute phone calls to anywhere in the world.”

“The next stage involves putting down small satellite dishes (known as VSATs, or very small aperture terminals) to beef up the communications networks. Governmental relief operations are already getting VSATs on the scene, and relying upon satellite services donated by satellite operators such as SES World Skies. "Satellite networks play a quintessential role in disaster recovery, when speed is of the essence," Rob Bednarek, the company's president and chief executive officer.”

“Every crisis brings new innovations as well: For example, NetHope is putting together a novel combination of VSAT dishes and WiMax wireless networks to cover Port-au-Prince with a net of connectivity. "First, phone connectivity for setting up voice over Internet, so [relief workers] can begin to communicate. The second thing will be Internet connectivity. That will allow for GIS mapping, it will allow for FTP for photos, it will allow for video. ... It provides a full stack of communication technologies for allowing the teams to coordinate and for assessments to be done."”

Satellite Photos Show Destruction from Haiti Earthquake
( January 14, 2010
This article covers similar ground as the BBC article, giving a bit more detail on how the images are examined.

“By comparing before and after maps, officials can pinpoint areas hit the hardest and proceed to identify passable routes for relief and rescue workers. Additionally, they can help to identify areas that are suitable for setting up aid camps where medical support and shelter can be provided to people.”

Satellite images show devastation after Haiti earthquake
(CNN) January 14, 2010, By Phil Han
CNN has the best before and after images available along with their article, though the article itself only briefly mentions the role of satellites, and mostly focused on how google maps is being used for distribution.

“Search engine giant Google updated its Google Maps imagery of Haiti on Thursday in the hopes it will help aid organizations involved in the recovery and relief effort.”

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