These satellites see through the clouds to track the floods

For example, in 2017 intense floods flooded the city of Impfondo in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but its remoteness made it difficult to send aid and identify people’s needs. Working with the Congolese government and humanitarian groups, the Cloud to Street platform has shortened the time to detect floods from weeks to days and provided information on where to safely relocate refugees.

Cloud to Street’s clients were originally governments, their weapons of disaster, and organizations like the World Bank, helping them figure out who needs to be relocated and where, and giving them evidence they could use to lobby for additional aid. . Today, Cloud to Street is also working on more corporate activities, helping insurance companies calculate their risks and payouts. Either way, Schwartz says, they will need SAR. “It’s very clear that radar has a really great advantage that is difficult to overcome, which has always been necessary – and when there is a flood, it is often cloudy and rainy,” she said. “It’s just, very straightforward, the huge advantage of that.”

Develop algorithms that can analyze SAR data, however, it is more difficult than collecting data that can analyze photos.

In part, this is an artifact of the limitations of the human brain. Some styles of data processing algorithms are modeled on the way our brains analyze visual information. But we do not perceive anything as SAR data. “It’s harder than dealing with optical data because we don’t see it on radar,” said Vijayan Asari, director of the Vision Lab at the University of Dayton, which has a hand in SAR analysis. “We don’t see in the microwave.”

(The team, which collaborates with the Air Force Research Laboratory, among other organizations, is working on using SAR to detect and predict glacier activity – another environmental application for this data. Glaciers are usually in dark, cloudy parts of the planet. In addition to seeing through the dark, SAR can also penetrate the top of the ice, revealing the dynamics of glaciers’ flow as they melt and move.As an academic group, the lab will likely need to use data collected from Umbra or a competitor together with information from public satellites such as Sentinel.)

Even Umbra’s chief operating officer found it difficult to get SARs at first. “My first exposure to this was about US secret capabilities,” said the Master, who was previously a program manager at Darpa, a high-risk research agency and possibly a remuneration of the Department of Defense. “I think I came into it with an attitude that is like SAR is weird, it probably won’t tell you anything.” sensors. ” (He means eyeballs.) But, he continues, you can think of SAR as a “flashlight” that illuminates what your eyeballs can’t do on their own.

SAR also has an advantage over high-resolution visual satellites: Radar satellites are cheap and (relatively) easy to build. They do not require a clean room or giant precision mirrors. “The problem with optics is that resolution controls the day,” says Master, which means that the sharper the optical image, the more useful it is. “The resolution is powered by large glass,” he says. “And big glass is expensive.”

Umbra’s business model is similarly streamlined: it simply sells data to groups like Cloud to Street instead of analyzing it. Morrison thinks it’s better to leave it to the experts. Take Schwartz, says Morrison. “She wakes up in the morning and from the moment she wakes up to the moment her head hits the pillow, she thinks about flooding,” he said. Meanwhile, he rarely dreams of rising waters. (“I have a satellite for work,” he says.)

But he hopes that once SAR data is readily available and relatively inexpensive, more people may wonder how they could help their own research or business – whether it includes tracking deforestation, carbon credits, forest fires, supplies oil, military movements, leaking pipes or aging roofs. “There are a million of these little niches,” Morrison said. And some of these niches could prevent both life and livelihood from sinking underwater.

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