Tag Archives: satellite technology

Answer Everything: satellites

Built by the Indian Space Research Organisation, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle threw itself into the sky at 3.58am GMT on February 15th, 2017 It took with it a record-breaking 104 satellites—88 of which belonged to a single company, Planet, a remote sensing business based in San Francisco. Planet now has 149 satellites in orbit—enough for it to provide its customers with new moderately detailed images of all the Earth’s land surface every single day.  The satellites Planet makes—it calls them “doves”—measure 10cm by 10cm by 30cm.

Providing daily updated images of the earth is not enough… Processing the images to answer pressing questions: what has changed since yesterday? Is that illegal logging? What does the number of containers in these ports suggest about trade balances? Planet will be providing more such analysis itself, but there are also third parties eager to play. SpaceKnow, a startup which focuses on turning satellite data into analysis the financial community will pay for, has just raised $4m….

Planet is not the only company using small satellites to produce big data; the launch on February 15th also carried up eight ship-tracking satellites owned by Spire, just a couple of streets away from Planet. The companies hope that, as more and more customers come to see the value of an endlessly updated, easily searchable view of the world, insights from satellites will become ever more vital to the data-analysis market. The more normal their wares start to seem, the more spectacular their future may be

Excerpts from  Space Firms: Eyes on Earth ,Economist, Feb. 18, 2017

Children Slavery Markets

ferry lake Volta Ghana, image from wikipedia

Crowdsourcing project Tomnod (part of the DigitalGlobe company) is working with the public-private partnership The Global Fund to End Slavery to produce accurate and public data on slavery.More than 20,000 children are forced into slavery on Lake Volta, Ghana, the International Labour Organization estimates.They work 19-hour days and carry out dangerous tasks which leave many disabled, disfigured or even dead, campaigners say. Yet the size of the lake, 8,500  square kilometres (3,280 sq miles), makes it difficult to map from the ground and provide an exact figure of the number of child slaves, said Caitlyn Milton at Tomnod, part of the satellite company DigitalGlobe..  More than 10,000 volunteers have contributed to the campaign since it launched in mid-October 2015.

Although child labour is illegal in Ghana, thousands of children are sent away by parents who believe traffickers’ promises of an education and a better life.  In reality, children as young as four years old risk their lives diving into the lake’s murky waters to untangle nets, and end up working in such horrendous conditions that many die.  For other parents, selling some of their children into slavery is the only way to feed the rest of their family.  The average couple in the Lake Volta region earns little over $2,000 a year, meaning that a family with eight children will have only $2 a week – the price of a loaf of bread – to feed each child, according to The Global Fund to End Slavery….

“Unfortunately you don’t have to look hard to find children working on the lake, but it takes a lot to mount rescue operations that are backed up by the long-term support necessary to ensure children are not retrafficked,” Kofi Annan said.  Yet hard data could increase the government’s efforts to end slavery, by prosecuting traffickers and providing social support so that there is somewhere for children to escape to, he added.

Tomnod has run other projects including monitoring illegal fishing in Costa Rica and locating elephant poachers in the Democratic Republic of Congo…

Excerpts from Eyes in the sky: online “mappers” track child slavery in Ghana, Reuters, Oct. 28, 2015

Catching Illegal Fishers: Yongding, Kunlun and Songhua

Yongding illegal fishing vessel.  image interpol

 

 

From INTERPOL: Between 6 and 13 January, 2005 a Royal New Zealand Naval Patrol spotted the vessels – the Yongding, the Kunlun and the Songhua – hauling gill nets laden with toothfish in an area regulated by the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) where such fishing methods are prohibited.

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The Pew Charitable Trusts, an American research group… reckons that around one fish in five sold in restaurants or shops has been caught outside the law. That may amount to 26m tonnes of them every year, worth more than $23 billion. This illegal trade, though not the only cause of overfishing, is an important one…

The new monitoring system has been developed by the Satellite Applications Catapult, a British government-backed innovation centre based at Harwell, near Oxford, in collaboration with Pew. In essence, it is a big-data project, pulling together and cross-checking information on tens of thousands of fishing boats operating around the world. At its heart is what its developers call a virtual watch room, which resembles the control centre for a space mission. A giant video wall displays a map of the world, showing clusters of lighted dots, each representing a fishing boat.

The data used to draw this map come from various sources, the most important of which are ships’ automatic identification systems (AIS). These are like the transponders carried by aircraft. They broadcast a vessel’s identity, position and other information to nearby ships and coastal stations, and also to satellites. An AIS is mandatory for all commercial vessels, fishing boats included, with a gross tonnage of more than 300. Such boats are also required, in many cases, to carry a second device, known as a VMS (vessel monitoring system). This transmits similar data directly to the authorities who control the waters in which the vessel is fishing, and carrying it is a condition of a boat’s licence to fish there. Enforcement of the AIS regime is patchy, and captains do sometimes have what they feel is a legitimate reason for turning it off, in order not to alert other boats in the area to profitable shoals. But the VMS transmits only to officialdom, so there can be no excuse for disabling it. Switching off either system will alert the watch room to potential shenanigans.

The watch room first filters vessels it believes are fishing from others that are not. It does this by looking at, for example, which boats are in areas where fish congregate. It then tracks these boats using a series of algorithms that trigger an alert if, say, a vessel enters a marine conservation area and slows to fishing speed, or goes “dark” by turning off its identification systems. Operators can then zoom in on the vessel and request further information to find out what is going on. Satellites armed with synthetic-aperture radar can detect a vessel’s position regardless of weather conditions. This means that even if a ship has gone dark, its fishing pattern can be logged. Zigzagging, for example, suggests it is long-lining for tuna. When the weather is set fair, this radar information can be supplemented by high-resolution satellite photographs. Such images mean, for instance, that what purports to be a merchant ship can be fingered as a transshipment vessel by watching fishing boats transfer their illicit catch to it.

As powerful as the watch room is, though, its success will depend on governments, fishing authorities and industry adopting the technology and working together, says Commander Tony Long, a 27-year veteran of the Royal Navy who is the director of Pew’s illegal-fishing project. Those authorities need to make sure AIS and VMS systems are not just fitted, but are used correctly and not tampered with. This should get easier as the cost of the technology falls.

Enforcing the use of an identification number that stays with a ship throughout its life, even if it changes hands or country of registration, is also necessary. An exemption for fishing boats ended in 2013, but the numbering is still not universally applied. Signatories to a treaty agreed in 2009, to make ports exert stricter controls on foreign-flagged fishing vessels, also need to act. Fishermen seek out ports with lax regulations to land illegal catches….

The watch room will also allow the effective monitoring of marine reserves around small island states that do not have the resources to do it for themselves. The first test of this approach could be to regulate a reserve of 836,000 square kilometres around the Pitcairn Islands group, a British territory in the middle of the South Pacific with only a few dozen inhabitants.

The watch-room system is, moreover, capable of enlargement as new information sources are developed. One such may be nanosats. These are satellites, a few centimetres across, that can be launched in swarms to increase the number of electronic eyes in the sky while simultaneously reducing costs. Closer to the surface, unmanned drones can do the same.

Combating illegal fishing: Dragnet, Economist, Jan 24, 2015, at 70

China Anti-Satellite Weapons

USA-193, also known as NRO launch 21 (NROL-21 or simply L-21), was an U.S. military spy satellite launched on December 14, 2006.   The satellite was intentionally destroyed 14 months later on February 21, 2008, by a modified, SM-3 missile

China had conducted two anti-satellite tests recently with its new laser technology, Konstantin Sivkov, the first deputy head of the Moscow-based Academy of Geopolitical Problems, told the Voice of Russia on Nov. 6, 2014….. The China Academy of Engineering Physics’ low-altitude air defense system designed to intercept aircraft below 500 meters was used in several drills against drones.

The PLA carried out two anti-satellite exercises with its laser weapon system as well, Sivkov also said, adding that it is crucial for China to destroy US satellites at the beginning of a conflict, should one arise. By shooting down US satellites, the PLA will be capable of blinding American air, ground and naval forces on the battlefield. After China tested its anti-satellite weapon for the first time in 2007, US satellites have been periodically disturbed by the Chinese laser weapon several times in orbit, the Defense News reported… Realizing that lasers are capable of destroying every advanced weapon systems, including aircraft carriers, China has invested huge sums in the development of such weaponry since the 1960s.

During an exercise held in 2009, the PLA successfully destroyed incoming rockets with a laser cannon. After the Shenguang 1 and Shenguang 2, the China Academy of Engineering Physics put the Shenguang 3 high-energy research center in service at Sichuan province located in southwestern China…

Excerpt, China conducted two anti-satellite tests: Voice of Russia, Nov. 6, 2014

The Isolated Villages of the Amazon

image from wikipedia

The vast jungles of the Amazon rainforest harbor tribes mostly isolated from the outside world, whose way of life, largely unchanged for millennia, is now increasingly threatened by intrusions from modern civilization.  Now, scientists reveal they can monitor these “uncontacted tribes” using satellites, which would allow safe, inexpensive and noninvasive tracking of these tribes in order to protect them from outside threats.

The investigators focused on indigenous groups concentrated near the headwaters of the Envira River, located at the border of Brazil and Peru. These include the Mashco-Piro, nomadic hunter-gatherers who live in Peru’s densely forested Madre de Dios region, and a number of Pano-speaking farming societies.

The researchers combed through satellite images to look at five isolated villages previously identified via overflights by Brazilian officials. They confirmed these locations and measured the sizes of their villages, houses and gardens. The villages ranged from a small one of about 50 people to a large and growing village of about 300 people. “We can find isolated villages with remote sensing and study them over time,” Walker told Live Science. “We can ask: Are they growing? Do they move?”

Surprisingly, based on the sizes of the houses and villages, the scientists find the population densities of these isolated villages is about 10 times greater, on average, than other villages of indigenous Brazilian peoples….. The researchers now plan to focus on 29 more isolated villages….

Excepts, Charles Q. Choi ,Isolated Amazon Tribes Monitored with Space-Age Technology,LiveScience.com, Nov. 5, 2014

Technology Firms Invade Defense Industry

Satellite Collision

[N]imbler Silicon Valley outfits are beginning to invade the defence industry’s territory. “Warfare is going digital,” observes Tom Captain of Deloitte, a consulting firm. Tech firms have shown that they can supply robots, drones and intelligence software. SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk, a tech entrepreneur, is taking America’s air force to court to reopen bidding for a satellite-launch contract awarded to Boeing and Lockheed.

Excerpt, Weapons-makers: The case for defence, Economist, July 19, 2014, at 55

Regulating Satellite Technology Exports; the military and the industry

Satellite export controls should be relaxed by Congress so that U.S. companies can better compete globally for sales of communications and remote-sensing equipment, a report by the Pentagon and State Department found (pdf).  “Limited national security benefits” are provided by a 1998 law (Section 1248 of the National Defense Authorization Act of Fiscal Year 2010 (Public Law 111-84)that applies more stringent controls on satellites than on other equipment that may have both civilian and military uses, the departments said in the report requested by Congress and released today to lawmakers.

The report is “a key step toward relieving U.S. commercial satellite system, component, and part manufacturers of unnecessary controls,” said John Ordway, an export-licensing attorney with Berliner, Corcoran & Rowe LLP in Washington.  Among companies that may benefit are Northrop Grumman Corp. (NOC), Boeing Co. (BA), Loral Space & Communications Inc. (LORL), Honeywell International Inc. (HON), L-3 Communications Holdings Inc. (LLL), Alliant Techsystems Inc. (ATK), Orbital Sciences Corp. (ORB), Moog Inc. (MOG/A) and America Pacific Corp.,….

The report specifies items that should remain on the State Department’s more restrictive munitions licensing lists and those than can be moved to the less restrictive oversight of the Commerce Department’s “Commerce Control List.”The equipment that can be shifted encompasses “hundreds of thousands of items we think U.S. industry should be able to compete” on, Gregory Schulte, deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy, told reporters on a conference call.

The 1998 law “places the U.S. space industrial base at a distinct competitive disadvantage when bidding against companies from other advanced satellite-exporting countries that have less stringent export control practices and policies,” the report found….

The 1998 law was passed after a congressionally mandated commission headed by Representative Christopher Cox, a California Republican, concluded some U.S. companies gave China access to U.S. technology that may have aided the communist nation’s military missile programs….Industry groups such as the Aerospace Industries Association say the law has stifled U.S. exports. The report today backs that assertion, concluding, ‘‘Over the last 15 years, a substantial number of commercial satellite systems, subsystems and related technologies have become less critical to national security.’’  ‘‘At a time when the budget request for national security space is already slated for a 22 percent reduction, Congress needs to act to ensure the U.S. space industrial base remains viable,’’ AIA President and Chief Executive Officer Marion C. Blakey said.  ‘‘These companies can only sustain our technological edge if they aren’t regulated out of legitimate commercial markets,’’ she said in an e-mailed statement. U.S. manufacturers lost $21 billion in satellite revenue from 1999 to 2009, costing about 9,000 jobs because of the controls, according to her group.

The report emphasizes that the State and Defense departments aren’t advocating a wholesale abandonment of the 1998 law, saying the U.S. ‘‘should maintain strict controls on transfers of ‘‘non-critical’’ items ‘‘that are likely to be used against the U.S. national interest.’’  China’s continuing efforts to acquire U.S. military and dual-use technologies require vigilance, according to the report. That nation’s civilian and military space industry ‘‘are fused together such that reasonable regulators must consider the high likelihood that space-related items and technology will be diverted from a civil use and applied to military programs.”  China recently attempted to acquire a “fully functional, European imaging satellite constellation” that was blocked because it contained U.S. technology, the report found.

Excerpts, Tony Capaccio, Satellite Export Controls Should Be Eased, U.S Says, Bloomberg, Apr 18, 2012