Doves Flock-1: Daily high-resolution global imagery… for free?

I am truly impressed. I just saw a TED-talk presented by Will Marshall at Planet Labs. They have produced a flock of 28 mini-satellites, called Doves (for peace), that will eventually form a larger flock (of ~100) that will provide daily high-resolution (3-5 m) global imagery. Incredibly, they hope to do this for free!

This product would be revolutionary for a number of reasons. First of all, I think the ability for anyone with computer access to see how any place on earth changes day-by-day would be worldview-changing. Second, high-resolution imagery is very expensive and I think most organizations would be lucky to have high-resolution data collected once every 10 years. For example, it would cost thousands of dollars to cover a large municipality, so getting equivalent daily imagery for free is mind-blowing from an economic perspective. Third, the ability to monitor changes to the earths surface on a daily rather than by decades at best, will allow for better environmental management (see below for some applications). Forth, Planet Labs have also provided a way to produce small (less than 6x3x3 foot) satellites that are a fraction of the price and size of the average satellite. One limitation of the data might be that it isn’t multi-spectral, meaning that it has limited use for automatically classifying objects such as buildings and trees, but this shouldn’t detract from the other benefits of this product.

There are so many applications of this data that I can think of. This has the possibility to be one of the most valuable tools to better manage human impacts on the environment. Here are some of the many applications I can think of:

  1. Flood mapping – Currently, to accurately map flood prone areas require a lot of expensive data and software, human expertise and time. With this product, flooding could be mapped as it happens by tracing the flood extent on a map. Mapping the flood extents under different conditions (rainfall, tidal levels, storm intensities, time of year) would provide a simple, but accurate way to understand under which conditions communities are vulnerable. Communities, scientists, governments and other organizations can then learn from that information to better plan for future floods.
  2. Resource extraction monitoring – The ability to readily see the speed and extent at which resources are extracted would be in itself worldview-changing. Tracking resource extraction, managers could better visualize exploited areas and plan to restore exploited areas. The public pressure of the thousands of people who could also track resource extraction could provide an impetus for restoration.
  3. Environmental protection – Knowing where human settlements are expanding and what type of environments/habitat they are replacing is a very difficult task, and rarely is this known across large areas. Use of this imagery can change that. Not only can natural capital (trees, wetlands, etc) and their ecosystem services (water quality improvement, flood reduction, access to nature and recreation etc) be mapped, but their value can also be quantified using tools such as InVEST. The areas with highest ecosystem services can be identified and aimed to be protected. As areas are developed, the loss of ecosystem services can be estimated, and this information can be used to know what kind of changes to the development can be done to offset the losses.
  4. Recycling and waste collection – If the spatial-resolution supports it, it would be possible to tell which neighbourhoods participate in recycling programs by the number of recycling bags/boxes outside of houses. This would then enable recycling organizations to identify and work with those neighbourhoods with low participation to come up with ways to improve their participation. Also, by mapping traffic patterns at different times of day, and days of the week, waste collection routes could be planned to be more efficient, providing both economic and environmental benefits.

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