Until recently, space technology engineer James Slifierz processed by hand images of the surface of the Earth, taken from satellites 400 kilometres away.
It was a painstaking process, involving a lot of manual adjustments – matching images with maps exactingly down to the pixel – and he admits it took him five years just to become a novice at it.
However, technology is finally catching up.
New machine learning software can quickly and precisely identify cloudless images and map them to the surface of the Earth, which speeds up access to satellite images and decreases costs. Further software can interpret the data, finding patterns and changes immeasurable to the human eye.
The sophistication of artificial intelligence image processing is just one of the many factors that has, in recent years, made it possible for a surge of companies such as SkyWatch – of which Mr. Slifierz is chief executive officer – to mine Earth-observation data for commercially-valuable insights.
Thanks in part to its own proprietary algorithms, SkyWatch, based in Waterloo, Ont., now offers a centralized archive of satellite images from numerous sources, preprocessed and available with a few clicks. Other Canadian companies are currently developing software that will detect minerals such as lithium on the Earth’s surface, monitor agricultural performance, measure ground level changes around mines and pipelines and help insurance companies measure risk.
Earth observation is the process of gathering data about the Earth’s physical, chemical and biological systems using satellites, as well as detecting radiation across wavelengths not visible to the human eye. First used by governments and a handful of corporate giants in the 1960s, provided by companies such as MDA Ltd., satellite technology is now ubiquitous through apps such as Google Maps.
In recent years, developments in technology have lowered the bar of entry for companies hoping to collect or interpret satellite data. Space equipment is smaller, rocket launches are cheaper and the software programs used to process the data are stronger and faster. With growing support from Ottawa and private investors, Canadian startups are claiming part of the market.
“It keeps getting cheaper and cheaper for businesses to access space and have a viable business activity, which is allowing all these space startup activities to occur,” said Mike Greenley, MDA’s chief executive officer. Of all the areas of space technology development, he says it’s the area he is watching most keenly.
So, too, is the government. Last year, Ottawa released its strategy for Earth observation, which estimated that the global Earth-observation market is expected to double to around $10-billion in a decade. It also estimated the data could save the economy $20.7-billion annually by making business processes more efficient.
Yet experts say there are risks with this level of observation. They raise concerns about surveillance, disinformation and unethical business practices that could stem from near-unfettered access to knowledge of the Earth on an inch-by-inch basis.
Guennadi Kroupnik, director-general, space utilization at the Canadian Space Agency, said the department is trying to find a sweet spot between the constraints of national security and the economic benefits of open data. Over the last two years, the CSA has administered nearly $150-million to help Canadian companies develop their Earth-observation products. This includes $8-million to help 21 small companies fund research and bring products to market, and $5.3-million to monitor North Atlantic right whales in Canadian waters.
Currently, it is working on opening 17 years’ worth of satellite imagery data for public use. “More and more, we see business-to-business-oriented Earth-observation companies in all segments of the value chain,” Mr. Kroupnik said.
The applications for space-observation data are broad.
3v Geomatics Inc., headquartered in Vancouver, uses radar spectrum imaging to track the displacement of soil for applications in mining, its largest client industry, as well as oil and gas and urban infrastructure development. The company’s technology can measure ground displacement down to a few millimetres of precision, and helps companies protect themselves from risks of cave-ins or other disasters, said 3v Geomatics business development manager Murray Down.
Chamirai Nyabeze, a vice-president at industry non-profit Centre for Excellence in Mining Innovation, said he is now seeing rapid uptake among smaller mining companies, who use the information to inform prospecting, mine design and construction and rehabilitation. “Satellite data has application across the whole mining value chain,” Mr. Nyabeze said. “These companies have no choice but to adopt this technology.”
GeoSapiens Inc., based in Quebec City, creates predictive flood maps and models to assess risk and damage, taking into consideration buildings and infrastructure and the road network. The company’s main customers are insurance companies and municipalities, but it is also used by real estate companies, land surveyors and disaster specialists, said Hachem Agili CEO, the company’s co-founder.
Several Canadian companies are working to capture images using a far broader range of light than the human eye can see, using hyperspectral imaging, which measures the Earth at the scale of nanometres and identifies particular biomarkers, such as fungus, or particular minerals, such as lithium. This could have broad applications, from agriculture and mining to energy and defence. Vancouver-based Metaspectral, whose technology is expected to be on board the International Space Station next year, is one company looking to put this imaging to use.
The Arctic Eider Society, a charity based in Sanikiluaq, Nunavut, is developing a mobile phone app to identify hazards and document wildlife harvesting by combining satellite imagery of ice-cover with documentation by community members. Joel Heath, executive director of the Arctic Eider Society, said the platform helps communities develop economies around subsistence and the environment.
Meanwhile, EarthDaily Analytics, headquartered in Vancouver, is focused on using data to help manufacturers such as fertilizer, seed or insecticide companies project future inventory needs. The software will also predict droughts and famines, says chief executive Don Osborne. The company is currently building its satellites and plans to launch them next year.
Already, the Canadian farming industry is starting to take notice, said Keith Currie, president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture. Specialized satellite photography could help farmers locate fungus within a field or select the best-fitting varieties of seeds or crops, he said. According to the federal government, space data could save farmers $1.3-billion over the next decade.
Among EarthDaily Analytics’s key potential customers are commodity brokers, who can use the information to model the volume and future price of agricultural products such as wheat.
Whatever the application, space research and development is capital-hungry and requires constant progression to attract investors. While many startups benefitted from the free-flowing cash available from the pandemic, those funds have become scarcer and more expensive to borrow.
EarthDaily Analytics itself was spun out of another Earth-observation company called Urthecast, which filed for creditor protection in 2020 and went insolvent in 2021 after two of its projects failed to get off the ground. That was despite receiving a $17.6-million investment by the Government of Canada in 2017.
And despite the promising opportunities, the commercial use of Earth-observation data makes some experts uneasy.
While space data can be used to track illegal business such as fishing, logging or mining, it could also make it easier for bad actors to find resources to extract, according to a 2018 report from the Group on Earth Observations (GEO) in 2018. Greater access to Earth-observation data could also make it easier to engage in “economic espionage” or corporate spying by foreign entities.
And as data become more available, so, too does the risk of foreign surveillance of individuals and military actions. Some of the earliest Earth-observation satellites were put into Earth’s orbit by the CIA as part of project CORONA, a reconnaissance mission to spy on the Soviet Union. Today, Canadian company MDA has received permission from Ottawa to sell data to Ukraine for military purposes, and U.S. company Maxar Technologies has publicly shared its images of restricted battle zones, depicting extensive damage to Mariupol and areas outside Kyiv.
As outer-space research lead at Project Ploughshares, a Canadian research institute studying disarmament efforts and international security, Jessica West has deep concerns about the implications of Canadian businesses providing space data to militaries.
“We know that operators are a target of conflict, certainly through digital and cyber attacks. Russia could see these companies as legitimate targets. Is the government responsible for protecting these commercial satellites? We’re just starting to have these conversations,” Ms. West said.
There is also a growing risk of faked or altered Earth-observation images, which could be used to hide things such as conflict, humanitarian crises or unethical business practices that hurt the environment or workers.
“We have the ability to watch every country to an unprecedented level,” Ms. West said. “Space data is not inherently good or bad. It’s about how we use it.”