Why the Great Potential of Satellite Imagery and AI is still to be unleashed

It has been almost 70 years since the Soviet Union announced that Sputnik 1, the first man-made satellite, had been launched into space. And though this may seem like a long time for any human being alive today, it is just a glimpse seen through the lens of history. Full of promises and setbacks, amazing achievements, and disappointing failures, the truth is the Space Age has only just begun. Yet, since the launching of the Sputnik, satellite technology has evolved significantly. In the past few years, as satellites, microsatellites, AI, and refined machine learning models were brought together, we are witnessing how real their ability to tackle some of the most crucial and urgent challenges of our civilization is. Unfortunately -and despite huge advances-due to some of the hurdles and obstacles that we will describe below, this potential remains largely unexploited.

New technologies, Old institutions

Reducing poverty, fighting hunger, protecting the environment, supporting carbon-reduction campaigns, improving the quality of soil, and increasing crop yields – are only some of the goals for which satellite technology, AI, and machine learning models are already being leveraged. But despite their widely proven effectiveness, initiatives regarding the expansion of their use still encounter several obstacles

Let’s take a look at some examples:

  • From the early 2000s, geologists and satellite engineers worked side by side with the Brazilian government in an effort to improve the efficiency and accuracy of road expansion tracking in the Amazonia region. From 2004 to 2012, they achieved a remarkable 80 percent reduction in deforestation. Then came the current Brazilian President, and fulfilling some of his campaign promises, reversed these achievements by deliberately weakening enforcement and opening the forest to industry and cattle ranch settlers. The result is that deforestation in the Amazon has spiked, reaching its highest levels in more than a decade.
  • To reduce the impact of illegal fishing on marine fauna, AI-centered conservation groups developed machine learning models prepared to identify ships suspected of unlawful activities. They were able to accurately label the type of ship, the gear they used, and their destinies. The problem is that even though they have worked alongside the governments of countries like South Korea and China, their work rarely has led to prosecutions or other government actions to deter predatory practices.
  • In the Mojave Desert, consulting companies and non-profit environmental groups have come together to track and map trails created by off-road vehicles to protect animal habitats from human activity. Yet again, these efforts encounter limits as the capacity for enforcement of the governmental agencies can’t keep pace with the potential threats to wildlife and biodiversity these systems can detect and inform.
  • In the Arctic Ocean, across the seas that spread from the Scandinavian peninsula to the North Pole, microsatellites and machine learning are being leveraged by the Finnish company Iceye to monitor ice buildup in order to predict and prevent flood damage. But, as Iceye’s CEO warns, there is a deep contrast between technological features such as spacecraft engineering or machine learning models and institutions that have existed for hundreds of years and are still operating under the burden of centuries-old rules and playbooks. 

So these examples show us two types of intertwined difficulties. On the one hand, in times of political unrest, these types of programs are too exposed to changing political tides. But even when they do find consistent political consensus around the importance of supporting and fostering them, they still have to face the enormous challenge of finding effective strategies to work alongside older, highly bureaucratized institutions, such as government agencies or traditional insurance companies. 

The Challenge of Bridging the Gap 

Above and all around us, thousands of satellites and microsatellites are constantly feeding us images of our planet, offering us information that could help us solve some of the most important challenges we have ahead. But just as the once-powerful Soviet Union -capable of causing awe to the world by launching a satellite into space for the first time in history- ended up collapsing under the burden of a crippling bureaucracy, we must make sure today that our global civilization’s technological ability to tackle these serious challenges is not hampered by bureaucratic limitations

Bridging the gap between cutting-edge technologies that can help us protect life on our planet and those traditional, centuries-old institutions that are key to unleashing the full power of these technologies is crucial to ensuring a sustainable future. Humanity as a whole will need to rise to the challenge.

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