29 July 2021
Forests are among the planet’s most complex and threatened biomes. Often human behaviour leads to savage deforestation, which risks irreparable damage to a priceless resource. Our journey around the world through the calendar’s images continues this month, and we explore a theme associated with the UN Sustainable Development Goal 15: Life on Land.
Gaofen-2 Image © China Siwei Surveying and Mapping Technology (2020). Distributed by SpaceWill
The image from the Gaofen-2 satellite captures the effects of deforestation in the Khumbu region of Nepal, while the National Geographic image shows Sherpas planting trees in the region. The economic development generated by tourism has come at the expense of deforestation in some parts of the region. This has been relatively under control, when compared with other parts of the Himalaya, thanks to the management and involvement of the local population.
The main ally in monitoring deforestation is satellite observation through international programmes. Leonardo plays a leading role in these through the manufacturing of satellites, with Thales Alenia Space, in data acquisition, services, and applications, with Telespazio and e-GEOS, and through the development of sensors, the "eyes" of the satellites, many of which are created in Leonardo's laboratories.
These skills contribute to the achievement of the SDGs of the UN 2030 Agenda. Developing space technologies to support sustainable growth down on Earth is, in fact, one of the pillars of Leonardo 2030 Be Tomorrow Plan and the Leonardo Sustainability Plan.
We spoke with Lucio Cesarano, brAInt Product Manager and SAR Application Expert at e-GEOS.
How can satellites be used to keep deforestation under control?
Forest biomes cover 30% of the Earth’s surface with heterogeneous climates and topography: there are flat areas and other areas characterised by hills or steep slopes, and a variety in vegetation in terms of density, height and characteristics of the different layers. All of these variations makes satellite data key to protecting these types of ecosystems. For effective coverage, we need an instrument that can monitor large areas in relatively short amounts of time. This is made possible by satellites. Today, there are satellites in orbit to monitor Earth equipped with a variety of sensors that provide vastly different types of information, making it essential that they work in coordination. This is an important benefit, if we consider that forests are often located in climates with notable cloud coverage, which can limit the use of optical sensors. Radar, on the other hand, is not affected by weather conditions (or at least not as much) or by the light available when the image is captured. This makes satellites fundamental in monitoring forests. Being able to rely on satellite constellations like COSMO-SkyMed and automated processing chains means also we can come back to the same area quite frequently (e.g. less than a day) to detect activity and receive notifications.
What makes e-GEOS services stand out and what advantages does it offer?
Our strength lies in our multi-resolution and multi-source approach, which primarily relies on the first-generation COSMO-SkyMed constellation, currently with four satellites in orbit, and the second-generation with one satellite in orbit, the second launching at the end of 2021 with two more to be determined. The array of satellites in this constellation offers wide-scale coverage in a short period with very high resolution, allowing us to receive large amounts of information with a high level of detail simultaneously. One fundamental aspect of satellites with x-band SAR (Synthetic Aperture Radar) technology is the high sensitivity to surface variations. This makes it possible to automatically detect any cuts or variations in forest coverage, even those less than a hectare. Having the use hundreds of images covering a single area and being able to rely on automatic or semi-automatic techniques facilitates and reduces the workload for humans. While monitoring forest cover for both safety and protection, the e-GEOs brAInt platform allows us to plan, prepare and analyse satellite data using automated tools that aid us in information extraction, which provide end customers with a solution that meets their needs thanks to its flexibility.
Can the service be used in other ways?
Depending on the context, deforestation, selective logging, and land preparation, can be linked to illegal activities, if, for example, detected near border areas. Deforestation monitoring is one of the security and intelligence services we can offer with brAInt. The platform’s objective is to make it easier to extract information from satellite imagery for IMagery INTelligence (IMINT) and to support analysts in any operational centre throughout all the phases of the information generation cycle, from the first request to the final report. The platform also offers the advantage of working offline and allows us to perform activities that fall into the main macro-families of IMINT workflows, such as target analysis, target monitoring, discovery, mapping e damage assessment. brAInt has a modular structure with a central ‘brain’ that automatically manages various phases of its activity, automating them when possible. Finally, as the platform performs the entire cycle of satellite information use, there are several different applications thanks to the main feature of the platform itself’s flexibility. This makes it possible to tailor workflows to meet specific needs of various users.
For more information on Earth observation technologies and solutions, you can also read other interviews.