Image Is Everything: Satellites Zoom In On Target

By | February 1, 2005 | Feature, Government

By Peter J. Brown

Much development in the satellite remote sensing industry has occurred since the 1990s and new government and commercial applications continue to emerge on the arena. Today, all eyes are on the satellites, the next-generation sensors and imagers, and the steady progression of new software tools which are making satellite imagery easier to access and more useful in the process.

"Satellite imagery is compelling, informative and beautiful, and as resolution increases, the potential uses increase too," says Allen Carroll, chief cartographer at the National Geographic Society. "Making imagery more easily accessible and affordable to a broader–non-specialist audience–is a goal that the industry should aggressively pursue. It is still more difficult and expensive to find and acquire than we would like."

Is satellite imagery easy to use? Not terribly, admits Carroll who points out that the combination in a single presentation of satellite imagery and cartography –specifically imagery and elevation data — to create oblique and dimensional effects can be a challenge in particular.

"Often the result is a map that is hard to read and an image that’s ruined by the map detail atop it," says Carroll, who prefers to publish an image and do a separate map, but space limitations often prevent this. "It is not an easy process and difficulties often arise with the workflow involved, but the results can be spectacular."

Data fusion has the imagery industry abuzz as more products are emerging which bond imagery from satellites together with imagery from other sources including very high resolution photography taken by aircraft or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). At Seattle-based Incident Tactics, for example, simulation and assessment tools for emergency readiness and response training are taking shape.

"Acquiring data from satellites, video sources, audio sources and animated segments allows us to model, rotate, reorient, destruct and reform shapes, patterns and waves in ways that mimic the mind’s eye," says Incident Tactics CEO John Mitchell. "Our distance measurements and response time calculations are frequently created or verified using satellite imagery and aerial photographs."

Global satellite imagery-related revenues will grow to $6 billion by 2012, according to research funded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing, published early last year.

One market adding to this growth is disaster recovery. Dexterity and the ability to be on site quickly are increasingly important for both government and commercial customers when responding to emergency situations. When the Space Shuttle Columbia crashed in the U.S. Southwest, for example, Space Imaging immediately lit up their Ikonos satellite, which was of great benefit to both FEMA and NASA.

"We rapidly identified the Shuttle glide path and started collecting data on an ad hoc basis. We were able to feed imagery for debris field mapping to the FEMA disaster response team in its command trailer in Texas within six hours," says Howard Klayman, director of customer service/channel partner operations at Colorado-based Space Imaging Inc.

All Eyes On The NGA

The U.S. government will spend up to $1.5 billion on commercial imagery and new satellites for U.S. companies throughout the next five years, according to Clark Nelson, global communications executive for Spot Image Corp. The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) is the focal point as it intends to address future commercial remote sensing imagery acquisition issues including resolution, assured access, prioritization of tasking rights, area coverage and licensing terms via NGA’s Nextview and Clearview programs. Nextview is a contract vehicle, which will expand the existing NGA Clearview licensing, among other things, and eliminate several image redistribution restrictions.

Often referred to as a key combat support agency, NGA specializes in image analysis. Nextview will bring NGA directly into the arena of satellite design, and the process of defining requirements starting with a five-year, $500 million commitment to Colorado-based Digitalglobe Inc.

"The U.S. federal government heavily encourages–and requires–all government agencies to rely on commercial satellite imagery whenever possible. The government’s effort to improve and foster geographic information systems (GIS), information sharing and data fusion has created a strong boost in the demand for data from companies like Digitalglobe," says company spokesman Chuck Herring.

"The U.S. government is having a highly positive impact and has ensured the future, at least for the short term, the viability of the U.S. satellite imaging sector," says Joe del Rosario, senior analyst and regional director for Asia Pacific at FL-based Northern Sky Research. "Government backing should pave the way towards greater development of this industry."

Orbimage Inc., another Nextview contract award winner, operates both the Orbview 3 high-resolution satellite launched in 2003, and the Orbview 2 ocean and land multispectral imaging satellite. In order to bring the Orbview 5 satellite into service in the second quarter of 2007 — that is when Orbimage will start receiving NGA funding under the Nextview contract — the VA-based company will spend more than $500 million.

The NGA, however, cast a shadow over Space Imaging when the company was not included in Nextview. This creates problems for the company when it comes to attracting next round financing for any planned follow- on sensors, says Klayman. At press time, he could not address the details surrounding the contract award because Space Imaging was protesting it.

According to Klayman, while Space Imaging faces an enormous challenge as it seeks to maintain its dominant market share going forward, its Ikonos satellite is the most prolific sensor in use today. "It comes down to the fact that we simply could not simplify our business model to accommodate the NGA," says Klayman. Does the door now open for consolidation in this industry via a possible acquisition of Space Imaging by either Digitalglobe or Orbimage? Klayman cannot rule out this possibility.

A Growing Commercial Market

In a report issued in early 2004, analysts at Northern Sky Research estimated that the revenue base of the commercial remote sensing sector would grow from $216 million in 2003 to $500 million by 2008, with cumulative revenues of more than $2.2 billion within a six-year period. Everyone from high-end art collectors and wildlife biologists to insurance company executives and risk analysis experts are discovering the advantages that satellite imagery can offer.

"The use of interferometric radar for flood mapping is not new, but what is new is that insurance companies have now joined the ranks of remote sensing data users," says Robin Thompson, instructor at the SAIT Applied GIS Degree Program and secretary for the Alberta Geomatics Group in Canada.

In the consumer art market, for example, the constant search for high-quality prints has a lot of people looking up, way up. In November, Digitalglobe announced that it was partnering with Bird’s Eye Images to market and sell high-resolution images collected by its high-resolution imaging satellite.

Another example of the growing demand for satellite imagery surfaced last November. As Digitalglobe’s Quickbird passed 280 miles above the Bronx Zoo, scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society used this satellite to count zoo animals as part of an ambitious plan to evaluate the potential role of imaging satellites in the efforts to monitor wildlife populations in remote sites worldwide.

"In 2003, about 80 percent of Digitalglobe’s total revenues came from the U.S. government. In 2004, the ratio has balanced–it is approximately 50/50 (U.S. government versus other customers) as a result of our on-going education efforts among commercial markets," says Herring.

According to Klayman, the dominant users and resellers of remote sensing data include companies like Radarsat and Photosat in Vancouver, British Columbia; Vargis in Virginia; NavTeq in Chicago; and Earthsat in Maryland. Other companies like Harris Imagelinks in Florida and ETerra in Alaska use satellite data extensively for visual simulation databases used in pilot training.

"More companies and governments are investing in ground receiving stations to obtain data directly from satellites, as opposed to buying scenes of imagery. Most of the satellite provider companies are finally admitting that this is a government market industry and is primarily driven by military sales in the U.S. and abroad," says Spot Image’s Nelson. "Commercial (non-government) sales are a minor part of revenue, though they should not be ignored."

More Eyes In The Sky

Digitalglobe sells high-resolution commercial satellite imagery with 60-centimeter resolution. The company has ties to 50 traditional satellite imagery resellers worldwide, along with partnerships with Landsat and Spot Image, to offer lower-resolution satellite images, and aerial mapping companies that can provide customers with higher-resolution, higher-accuracy aerial imagery for smaller geographic areas.

While Quickbird is expected to remain in full operations until 2009, Digitalglobe is working with Ball Aerospace, Eastman Kodak and The Boeing Co. to build and launch Worldview, an 8-band multispectral imagery platform, no later than 2006. It will be capable of collecting 50-centimeter panchromatic and 2.0-meter multispectral resolution images. Worldview will offer substantially improved collection capacity with greater on-board storage and a higher data downlink rate.

Spot Image entered the satellite imagery market in 1986 with the launch of Spot 1, which was retired in 2004 after 18 years of operation. Today, Spot Image operates three satellites providing imagery with resolutions of 2.5-meter, 5-meter, 10-meter, 20-meter and 1-kilometer. Global elevation models can also be generated from a dedicated sensor on the Spot 5 satellite. The standard image swath is among the largest in the industry, according to Nelson, up to 120 km wide and 600 km long. Standard scenes are often delivered as cells that cover a 60 x 60 km area taken from within that swath.

"Thanks to our constellation, we can acquire imagery everyday of any location on Earth, and can deliver imagery very quickly in terms of disaster response," says Nelson. "Spot has a long-term continuity plan and has consistently had at least one or usually at least two satellites in orbit."

"It is fascinating to be in this industry because it is very global in context, there is so much churn right now and the rate of change is so great. The United States is confronting its previous ‘isolationist’ approach and slowly adopting a more global perspective, which is very healthy," adds Nelson. "U.S. companies are about to embark on another round of consolidation, and one year from now, it will look very different."

What Is Driving The Growing Demand For Satellite Imagery?

The increased number of imaging satellites along with the rapid maturation of GIS software and desktop tools are providing users with lots of options. "After more than five years of Ikonos operations, the GIS software is finally where we want it. Companies like PCI Geomatix with its Geomatica 9 solution, along with entire ARC suite have made impressive strides," says Klayman. "The next step involves a real-time adaptation of imagery via an Extranet. Right now, we are at near real-time."

"As more users realize the benefits and cost savings, they increasingly turn to the products that can improve efficiencies and make better planning and mapping decisions," says Herring. "The commercial satellite imaging industry has a history of targeting too many user markets at once. Providers must regularly take a hard look at market adoption rates and at how the products are being used, then focus on successfully serving those markets with relevant products."

Digitalglobe has been engaged in projects involving a mix of either higher-resolution aerial data or lower-resolution Landsat data with its Quickbird imagery. This growing emphasis on fused products is an important trend.

"For flight simulation, for example, you may have an entire region covered by 15-meter resolution imagery, but as you approach the airport and your elevation decreases, you need-higher resolution imagery; so Quickbird .6-meter resolution imagery of the airport and immediate area around the airport is fused into the product to give the detail necessary," says Herring who stresses the need for reliable customer service, quick processing and delivery, and partnerships with value-added companies.

Besides, ensuring that U.S. users have access to a full range of imagery available worldwide, Nelson sees a constant need for improved service and the delivery of easy to use image products. "The focus is becoming narrower, not broader. This is a good thing as it allows companies to focus on what serves that market best," says Nelson.

Nelson sees the fusing in real-time of satellite imagery with imagery generated by other remote platforms — aircraft or UAV — as a trend, but one that will be slow to develop, and driven mostly by users, rather than providers.

"Unfortunately, providers are slow to pick up on developing and providing solutions because the costs for doing this are so very high," Nelson says.

Asia, Middle East Increasing Their Imagery Play

Nelson was in China in late 2004 and reports that China is on the fast track when it comes to satellite imagery and remote sensing. "Chinese government agencies have invested in spot coverage of the entire country. Nobody in the world has such vast resources nor made a commitment to image use on the scale that we are now seeing in China. It far exceeds the activity of U.S. civilian agencies and it is very self-contained," says Nelson. "Asia in general is a big growth area and several countries are investing in spot receiving stations."

China declared that it intends to launch more than 100 Earth observation (EO) satellites before 2020. Sun Yanlai, director of China’s National Space Administration, announced last November that China would launch a constellation of eight EO mini-satellites by 2010 for meteorological, resource and ocean observation purposes.

China and the Brazilian Institute for Space Research issued a joint announcement concerning a new EO satellite last October. Scheduled for launch in 2006, this will be the third EO satellite produced by this partnership, following those launched in 1999 and 2003. Expect more satellites in the future as China and Brazil expand and share their expertise in the role of satellite imagery in disaster response, urban planning and resource /forestry development, among other things.

Many other countries are moving ahead with respect to EO and satellite imagery-related projects, including India and Israel. Within India, for example, scientists have used satellite pictures to combat deforestation, monitor desertification, predict crop yields and trace the course of an underground river in northwest India that some scientists say could be used to irrigate the Thar Desert in Rajasthan. Satellites could also be used to assess how sedimentations reduce the storage capacity of reservoirs, affecting power generation.

While the market for global images and immense archives may be quite limited or finite, the scope of the future demand for medium- and high-resolution imagery data in real-time is still open to question. Regardless, the golden age of satellite imagery lies dead ahead, and when it come to creative new imagery software tools and solutions in general, the future is wide open.

Peter J. Brown is Via Satellite’s Senior Multimedia & Homeland Security Editor. He also volunteers as a satellite technology and communications advisor to the Maine Emergency Management Agency.

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