Price of satellite image, aerial image, GIS software

Top 10 Myths About Satellite Images and Analytics for Asset Monitoring. Part 1

Today, we’re going to address common myths and misconceptions surrounding satellite data and analytics. These are questions that have frequently come up from both our clients and prospects. Our aim is to provide clarity and assist you in understanding whether satellite-based asset monitoring is something you should consider for your organization.

#1: Satellite Images Are Free or Expensive

People usually assume it’s going to be extremely expensive. Additionally, people are well aware that some satellite imagery is available for free. So what is the truth?

The truth is that you can purchase submeter resolution imagery ranging from about 6 pounds to 25 pounds per square kilometer, based on the resolution and provider. However, there’s also a substantial amount of free and open-source satellite imagery and data.

A vast amount of data related to climate conditions from the past 15 to 20 years is available. In Europe, we have the Copernicus program, specifically the Sentinel constellation of satellites, which captures optical and SAR imagery every 5 to 12 days worldwide.

The bottom line is that both types of imagery, free and paid, exist, but the cost is not as sky-high as people often imagine. Some analytics providers concentrate solely on free data, while others like Spottitt utilize both free and open-source options.

The key distinction between free and commercial imagery is that, generally, free imagery and data come at a lower resolution. The free satellite imagery from Sentinel has a resolution of 10 meters, while commercial imagery offers sub-meter resolutions, even as fine as 30 centimeters.

Another significant difference between open source and commercial options is that with commercial imagery, you can determine when and what you want to capture. On the other hand, with open source, imagery and data are captured on a fixed cycle, every week or every 12 days.

Another valuable concept to grasp pertains to industry terminology.

Archive commercial imagery or data is the type of imagery or data that has been captured for others and archived after a certain period. 

High-resolution constellations have been operational for up to 12 years now, resulting in an extensive archive of historical imagery. For certain applications, you may prefer to explore the existing archive of images taken in the past. There’s no need to request or capture new data or imagery when existing resources can meet your requirements.

Archive commercial imagery is more cost-effective than new or tasked (another industry term) imagery. Depending on the provider, archive imagery and data generally cost around half as much as tasked imagery.

Depending on the provider or constellation, an image can transition to an archived state and consequently become cheaper anywhere from 3 days after its capture to 3 months later.

It’s also important to understand that you don’t actually own the satellite image or data. What you’re actually paying for is the license to use it. This concept can be intricate for people.

When you engage with various satellite analytics providers or service providers who derive analyses and insights from satellite imagery, inquire whether they are authorized resellers of the data and whether they can transfer the license for the original image and output analytics to you as an end-user. This enables you to retain the imagery and data in your databases, empowering you to utilize it for both existing and new projects. 

Spottitt is an authorised satellite image reseller and analytics provider.

#2: Can Satellites See Through Clouds, at Night, and What's the Impact of Seasonality and Weather?

Optical satellite imagery (color images) cannot be captured at night or when clouds obstruct the view. This is comparable to taking a photograph from an airplane with a cloud blocking the scene. In such cases, you would observe a large, white, puffy mass along with the shadow cast by the cloud. Analyzing such an image would be impossible.

However, an image obtained through a SAR sensor (black and white images) can be taken both at night and through cloud cover. This feature proves highly valuable for applications like near real-time flood monitoring and post-disaster change detection.

So, each sensor possesses unique characteristics and is suited for specific use cases. End-users don’t need to be concerned about this aspect. Your data and analytics supplier should provide a reliable estimate of capacity in space, depending on your monitoring requirements.

It’s also important to note that you aren’t required to pay for images with significant cloud coverage. Managing such situations lies within the responsibility of the data and service provider.

Sensor capabilities also shed light on how seasonality and weather conditions impact image capture capacity.

For tasks like near real-time flood monitoring, soil-based change detection, or land motion tracking, the weather doesn’t pose a constraint. Such tasks can be carried out regardless of whether it’s night, rainy season, or sunny season. The reason for this flexibility lies in the use of SAR imagery for these use cases.

In scenarios involving vegetation management, where optical imagery is employed, we typically offer less stringent commitments regarding the frequency of new image capture. For instance, as the geographical location of the assets goes further north, there are natural challenges of image capture due to shorter days.

But generally, weather and seasonality aren’t significant constraints, and sensor capacity is on the rise. Even under unfavorable circumstances, there are often clear days or patches of cloud-free areas.

Plus, we can offer an integrated approach. If optical data cannot be captured in time, SAR imagery can step in to identify risks and changes in and around the network, independent of cloud cover.

#3: Is High-Resolution Optical Satellite Imagery a Substitute for Aerial Imagery?

The answer depends on the resolution of the aerial imagery you are employing.

Currently, aerial imagery is typically 6 to 12 centimeters resolutions. If to look back 5 to 12 years, people used resolutions of 24cm, 50cm, or even one meter for aerial imagery. The highest resolution commercial optical satellite imagery available today ranges from 25 to 30 centimeters.

Consequently, if you are accustomed to working with resolutions of 24cm, 50cm, or one meter, satellite imagery indeed serves as a like-for-like replacement for aerial imagery. But if you employ the latest practices that achieve resolutions as fine as six centimeters, or involve drones with sensors of one or two centimeters, then optical satellite imagery isn’t an equivalent substitute.

The bottom line is, aerial imagery can attain resolutions in the range of centimeters, whereas satellites can reach resolutions of tens of centimeters. However, in terms of scale and data acquisition capability, satellites beat aerial methods, enabling the monitoring of vast areas and numerous assets within a short timeframe.

#4: Is GIS Software and Remote Sensing Expertise Necessary to Derive Value from Satellite Imagery and Analytics?

No, they are not strictly required. However, it’s important to verify the data and analytics provider delivering you.

If you’re directly accessing satellite data, possessing in-house GIS and remote sensing expertise becomes necessary to effectively visualize, manipulate, and extract insights from the source data. 

Conversely, by opting for an analytics or service provider like Spottitt, you will typically gain access to web-based platforms that facilitate sharing of satellite data along with the output analytics and services. This means that possessing GIS-specific skills in-house isn’t a prerequisite for this asset monitoring method.

Hence, the decision should be made based on your specific needs. Engage in discussions with your chosen data analysis provider to ensure a strong alignment between their capabilities, the expertise they bring, and your in-house requirements and capacities.

#5: Does Using Sub-Meter Resolution Commercial Satellite Imagery Raise any GDPR Concerns?

Currently, it does not.

As satellites operate at resolutions of tens of centimeters, recognition of individuals’ faces, reading house numbers, or identifying car license plates remains beyond their capacity. Consequently, no GDPR issues arise at present.

However, this doesn’t discount the possibility of privacy sensitivities for infrastructure owners monitoring assets spanning private properties. Nonetheless, historically, this hasn’t posed significant challenges. 

Looking ahead, the development of satellite constellations with potential resolutions of 10 to 12 centimeters could necessitate industry-wide guidelines and protocols concerning GDPR. 

Another benefit of satellite technology comes to the stage when clients possess assets of a sensitive nature or are in proximity to critical sites such as airports, nuclear installations, and military bases, where drone or aircraft flights are prohibited. Unlike aircraft or drone limitations, satellites possess the capability to capture images globally, free of legal or regulatory restrictions. 

Interestingly, subtleties emerge in relation to client origin and embargoed nations.

For instance, if a company from North Korea seeks imagery of the Harwell space campus (UK), where Spottitt is located, we, as authorized resellers of satellite data and analytics, are prohibited from providing such imagery or analytics due to the country’s embargoed status. Conversely, if our UK-based client requests us to capture any images of North Korea, we have no problem with doing that.

The work done is part of the project co-financed by NCBR.

Lucy Kennedy
Lucy Kennedy

Spottitt CEO and FIRE EO Evangelist for Infrastructure

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