Earth Imaging Journal: Remote Sensing, Satellite Images, Satellite Imagery
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June 24, 2016
Earth Observation for Humanitarian Aid

Earth observation satellites fly at distances of up to several hundred kilometres from Earth and can provide detailed information that assists relief workers on the ground. Now, this technology will be usable for humanitarian aid organisations such as Medécins Sans Frontières and the Red Cross in the next two years under the EO4HumEn+ (Extended EO-based services for dynamic information needs in humanitarian action) Project. “The view from space is what enables the essential correlations to be identified,” says Pascale Ehrenfreund, Chair of the Executive Board of the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR). “The need for information in humanitarian crises is increasing and the evaluation of the causes of and potential change in crisis situations is becoming ever more important. This is why DLR is involved in looking for answers to these societal challenges and is using its technologies for humanitarian aid where possible.”  DLR scientists can use the satellite images to estimate the number of people in a refugee camp, for example – a task that would be painstaking and time-consuming for relief workers on the ground to undertake.

Basis for effective planning

“Many refugee camps are set up very quickly and sometimes quickly grow to be the size of towns,” explains Elisabeth Schöpfer from the German Remote Sensing Data Center (Deutschen Fernerkundungsdatenzentrum; DFD) at DLR. The information acquired from assessing the satellite images is acquired according to the needs of the relief workers on the ground. How many people have settled in a camp in total and need food, water and medical assistance? Where and in what quantity does it make sense to dig wells? What effects is the refugee camp having on the environment and resources in the immediate vicinity? Could it even be the case that conflicts with the native population are arising as a result? This information can be updated with each pass of a satellite. “Our maps and analyses can therefore be a planning basis for the purposes of aid organisations,” concludes Schöpfer.

The task for DLR scientists is to make the information contained in the satellite images accessible, for example in a map. “Not everyone can interpret a satellite image – the relevant information must first be extracted,” explains Schöpfer. A broad spectrum of commercial and civil satellites is used to combine the advantages of the different satellite technologies. Images in the visible and infrared range of the spectrum are enhanced with radar images that can be taken even in the absence of daylight and in cloudy weather. “The overall image then is the result of a combination of images with large spatial coverage and images with very high resolution,” says Schöpfer.

Neutral, timely information from space

The Austrian Red Cross is a partner in the project. “Often, we do not know where and in what numbers people are living in a geographical area, because the distances are great and access to areas of conflict is very difficult,” explains Elmar Göbl from the Austrian Red Cross. “To be specific, the settlements are often widely spread out, so for example it is important to determine the most beneficial place to locate a well in terms of the distribution of the population.” For this, the aid organisation is generally reliant upon varying and not always reliable information from the local population and governmental agencies. Neutral, timely information from space is helpful in this regard. The ability to also observe regions over an extended period of time can help with adapting and optimising the aid organisation’s activities. For example, they can check from space whether a reforestation programme being run by the Red Cross is successful. “Much of this information could be garnered on the ground, but it would be very laborious and is much quicker and more effective when captured using satellites,” says Göbl.

Helping relief workers make decisions

Users such as the Austrian office of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) are also benefiting from space technology. “Accurate, timely information is enormously important for providing people on site with support,” stresses Edith Rogenhofer from Médecins Sans Frontières. In vaccination campaigns, for example, aid organisation teams need to be able to plan as precisely as possible and know exactly how many people live in the area of deployment. “However, not only do we have to calculate the right number of vaccine doses correctly, we also need to know the number of sanitation facilities and clinics required and even the amount of water needed. Refugee camps are not static entities; they grow, shrink and move,” explains Edith Rogenhofer, who has experience with on-site situations. “We have to react to that and agree with and coordinate our aid projects properly.”

Project EO4HumEn+  will run for two years. The first step is to accurately determine which region should be the first to be set up for satellite evaluation for humanitarian purposes. “One important region might be, for example, East Africa,” says Schöpfer from DLR. “Changes in this region have been very dynamic in recent years because of crises, conflicts and drought.” The work of the University of Salzburg and DLR in the project is complementary. “For aid organisations, the project is a practical form of support for their work; for the scientists, it is an opportunity to drive forward the research, to exchange information, and to learn from one another.”

Project EO4HumEn+

Project partners – DLR, the Austrian Red Cross, and Spatial Services GmbH – are collaborating under the leadership of Stefan Lang from the University of Salzburg (Interdisciplinary Department of Geoinformatics – Z_GIS). Users include the International Red Cross Committee, Médecins Sans Frontières, and SOS Children’s Villages International. The sponsors are the Austrian Research Promotion Agency (FFG), via the Austrian Space Applications Programme (ASAP), and DLR.

A strategic partnership has existed between the FFG and DLR for a number of years. On the basis of the joint framework agreement, the FFG has in the past year put cooperation with DLR as a focal point in the Austrian Space Applications Programme’s tendering. Project EO4 HumEn+ arose from this tendering process as one of a number of bilateral projects involving cooperation with the DLR.

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