Demystifying Earth observation with Dan Wicks


From everyday, mundane choices by individuals to worldwide biodiversity concerns, satellites are influencing and advancing life on Earth more than many people recognize.

A recent Satellite Superheroes podcast featured geographer Dan Wicks, who put a label on that concept: Earth observation. He explained that Earth observation is applying the data collected by remote sensing satellites to make decisions and do something useful, such as protecting biodiversity and addressing climate change.

It’s all about using this technology and innovation to drive progress.

Read on for the top three takeaways from the podcast hosted by Scott MacKenzie. Or catch the full episode.

Watch the full episode

At the Satellite Applications Catapult, one of nine groups or “catapults” established to transform the U.K.’s capability for innovation, Dan Wicks is head of geospatial intelligence and innovation. His focus is on helping the U.K.’s economy grow through the benefit of space technology.

Whether looking at forest restoration or something like weather, satellites gather information geospatially, through a single point in geography, to bring an enhanced understanding of that location.

And that information can propel decision-making in environmental protection.

Takeaway 1: Today’s satellites are easy to use and ready for research

Wicks explained that Earth observation satellites provide the capability for monitoring “at a global scale, in a way no other technology can.”

While previously the domain of government and big scientific institutions, these satellites are increasingly accessible, affordable, and essential.

For example, microsatellites, economical cubes measuring 10-by-10 centimeters (or a little less than 4 inches on each side), now can be assembled in groups and, as Wicks explains, “Like a giant Lego set, you can put as many of them together as you need to sort of house whatever instrumentation or equipment you want to put up into space.”

Takeaway 2: Earth observation helps define the “big picture”

With Earth observation technology in place and gathering data at a global scale, the next challenge is putting that big picture information to work.

Recording and analyzing the effects of certain human actions on the planet can fuel the creation of positive sustainability outcomes.

Deforestation, for example, diminishes the Earth’s carbon sink and has a detrimental influence on our ability to absorb various greenhouse gas emissions. Protecting and restoring forests can help with carbon sequestration while also providing other environmental advantages.

Safeguarding and controlling water sources and protecting against soil erosion and landslides are just two other use cases.

Wicks explains that Earth observation delivers comprehensive data to determine the optimal way to install solutions to these and other use cases and monitor them over time to understand their impact.

Takeaway 3: The answers are in collaboration — and the details

But these are the challenges and solutions in broad strokes. Let’s not forget that the data is massive and complicated.

The goal and challenge for Satellite Applications Catapult and core industries is to unlock the value of this technology so that data from satellites can be used to tackle significant problems on the ground in meaningful ways.

For example, consider estimates of plant photosynthetic activity. This complex information can be derived from satellite imagery. Current and historical data can be compiled.

However, simply possessing the data is insufficient. Expertise in interacting with the data is required.

In the podcast, Wicks covers the range and diversity of the essential tools and technology, as well as the difficulty of navigating them to produce conservation-oriented solutions.

“As a space industry, we can’t work alone,” says Wicks. “We need a collaborative mindset and a global strategy.”

The great news is that considerable progress has been made: It is now possible to tie technologies, such as cloud and AI, together to achieve incredible results.

To learn more about how innovators are powering operations, maintenance, and sustainability from space subscribe to the Satellite Superheroes podcast:

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