The power of remote sensing is increasingly being realized in global development efforts, spurring significant investments in the domain. Historically, remote sensing data had often been prohibitively expensive outside of commercial and federal applications and carried with it technically demanding storage and processing requirements. As capture, processing pipelines, and storage and serving of sensor data becomes more efficient, not only are commercial imagery prices becoming more competitive, but existing open sensor data resources are more approachable for global development and humanitarian organizations. This new level of access has exposed the value of earth observation information for solving critical global problems and highlighted the need for increased access and data coverage within implementing organizations.
Organizations like the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) have been exploring the scientific uses of remote sensing data for global development for many years with studies spanning climate change, politics, human-environment interactions, and many other applications. This research is resulting in increased localized investments in remote sensing data as well, with UNDP country offices issuing requests for continuous imagery delivery contracts around the world. Additionally, large government entities are increasing efforts to make satellite data available to researchers and as public goods, recognizing the immense value of these data resources. Much of this work takes the form of partnerships with large commercial imagery providers and governmental organizations and NGOs. These larger entities are utilizing their resources to create a bridge between resource restricted global development organizations and researchers and commercial providers to ensure equitable access to technology and data.
NASA’s Commercial Smallsat Data Acquisition (CSDA) Program is one such example, focusing partnerships and efforts on an end goal of societal benefit. CSDA has resulted in numerous agreements with commercial providers, and will be critical in prioritizing further future investments in opening access to earth observation and earth science data. This initiative is complemented by other large NASA initiatives, such as Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Sciences (ROSES) centered on exposing the value that earth science holds and socializing EO concepts and technology.
In Europe, the Copernicus Programme, previously known as GMES (Global Monitoring for Environment and Security), is the European Union’s Earth observation programme supported by ESA, and is focused on the use of earth observation satellites for global development and humanitarian applications. This programme utilizes the Sentinels satellites to provide various climate monitoring capabilities and has integrated additional partner sensor data from commercial providers to increase the fidelity and value of their insights.
Through Norway’s International Climate & Forests Initiative (NICFI), users can now access Planet’s high-resolution, analysis-ready mosaics of the world’s tropics in order to help reduce and reverse the loss of tropical forests, combat climate change, conserve biodiversity, and facilitate sustainable development for noncommercial uses.
High demand for satellite data has been met by an increase in commercial satellite and launch service providers and domain competition over the last decade as well, indicative of the value such technology holds. With this competition comes decreasing prices for launch services. Companies like SpaceX and Rocketlab are now offering launch pricing at a fraction of what it cost only several years ago. This trend will only serve to improve accessibility of remote sensing data.
There are also organizations that focus specifically on the use of satellite data for global development.
The International Charter “Space and Major Disasters” is a worldwide initiative launched in 2000 that aims to provide satellite data and imagery to assist relief workers during major disasters. The charter has more than 50 member organizations, including government agencies, space agencies, and disaster relief organizations. The charter provides free satellite imagery to disaster relief organizations in order to help them respond to natural and man-made disasters. To date, the charter has been activated over 1,700 times and has provided imagery for events such as the Haiti earthquake, the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and the Syrian refugee crisis.
These investments are only a sample of the ever-expanding interest in remote sensing within a global trend towards increased adoption of the technology and resources for use in global development.