The barriers to our understanding of land change and interactions with Earth systems are on the cusp of coming down, thanks to the many ways that our ability to sense are improving and becoming more accessible and affordable. There are so many new (and coming) sensing abilities that it’s a difficult time to chart the path forward in terms of technology investments and sensor and system architecture.
Where we once may have struggled for yearly or bi-yearly airborne imagery, we will now have so many options for regular updates from above as well as more ubiquitous and accessible in-situ sensing. The ability of geospatial technology to make sense of all of this data will prove to be of wide benefit to increasing number of end users. The question that you’re likely (or should be) asking yourself is, “how many sensing options are out there and how will they improve my insight?”
This year has marked the legitimacy of unmanned aircraft systems as the Federal Aviation Administration has granted a large number of exemptions for providers to test their utility and apply these platforms for commercial purposes. The number of drones are proliferating with the surveying companies offering both fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft for a variety of purposes.
The fixed wing aircraft can cover a greater area more efficiently for mapping purposes, while rotary aircraft are well suited for such applications as capturing individual buildings or inspecting infrastructure. The fact that a host of sensors can be mounted interchangeably on many of these airborne platforms — from imagery to multispectral to thermal and even LiDAR — along with their relatively low cost makes them an extremely attractive option for a host of monitoring and measurement applications. What’s perhaps most appealing from this coming ubiquity is the ease of making fresh measurements when the need arises as opposed to having to wait for the budget or the right conditions.
Earth observation is growing exponentially with the many new players in the smallsat market. The many multiple satellite constellations that are in the works will have a profound impact on realizing the promise of the commercial satellite imagery market. Their ubiquity and the lower cost of launch and operation will make this data source more affordable and of interest to players from agriculture and other resource industries to business applications and even urban planning.
Many of these constellations are interested in daily refreshes of the same point on the planet. However, they’re not going about the market with simply an image perspective, instead they’re adding the ability to be alerted to change or the subscription to information services where the satellite data is the source for the insight. In addition to this pinpoint of understanding on areas that we want to monitor, we’ll also get the benefit of a growing archive of imagery that will lend increased insight into global and regional change.
In addition to the flexibility of UAS platforms and the growing ubiquity of satellite sensing, there’s the coming age of atmospheric satellites, which are high-altitude unmanned platforms that can circle an area of interest at 60,000-feet and above for long-term persistent surveillance. These platforms, powered by solar power, are not yet on the market but have been proven in many test runs.
What’s most interesting about these constantly circling high-resolution sensor platforms are the interesting software and analysis capabilities that have come from recent war efforts. If you’ve heard of the video capture capability of Gorgon Stare (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gorgon_Stare), then you’re aware of some of the many applications that might be possible. The entire city scale of these observations, and the basemap understanding of ongoing change against this this city-scale view could certainly alter our understanding of urban and environmental interactions as well as it has provided a fighting edge against insurgents.
We are witnessing an amazing new era of understanding thanks to these sensors and new automated tools that help make sense of all of their constantly flowing data. In order to make the most of this surge of inputs, it’s important to be aware of where this technology could take us. What are the gaps in your understanding and where might you make use of these multiple new capabilities? If you’ve struggled against a data drought throughout your career, what could you make of this torrent of data?