A machine learning breakthrough uses satellite images to improve lives (2022)

Deep streams of data from Earth-imaging satellites arrive in databases every day, but advanced technology and expertise are required to access and analyze the data. Now a new system, developed in research based at the University of California, Berkeley, uses machine learning to drive low-cost, easy-to-use technology that one person could run on a laptop, without advanced training, to address their local problems. (Photo by NASA via Pxfuel)

More than 700 imaging satellites are orbiting the earth, and every day they beam vast oceans of information — including data that reflects climate change, health and poverty — to databases on the ground. There’s just one problem: While the geospatial data could help researchers and policymakers address critical challenges, only those with considerable wealth and expertise can access it.

Now, a team based at UC Berkeley has devised a machine learning system to tap the problem-solving potential of satellite imaging, using low-cost, easy-to-use technology that could bring access and analytical power to researchers and governments worldwide. The study, “A generalizable and accessible approach to machine learning with global satellite imagery,” was published today (Tuesday, July 20) in the journal Nature Communications.

Esther Rolf (Photo by Andrea Bajcsy)

“Satellite images contain an incredible amount of data about the world, but the trick is how to translate the data into usable insights without having a human comb through every single image,” said co-authorEsther Rolf, a final-year Ph.D. student in computer science.“We designed our system for accessibility, so that one person should be able to run it on a laptop, without specialized training, to address their local problems.”

“We’re entering a regime in which our actions are having truly global impact,” said co-author Solomon Hsiang, director of the Global Policy Lab at the Goldman School of Public Policy. “Things are moving faster than they’ve ever moved in the past. We’re changing resource allocations faster than ever. We’re transforming the planet. That requires a more responsive management system that is able to see these things happen, so that we can respond in a timely, effective way.”

(Video) A machine learning breakthrough uses satellite images to improve lives | MOSAIKS

Solomon Hsiang (UC Berkeley photo)

The project was a collaboration between theGlobal Policy Lab, which Hsiang directs, andBenjamin Recht’sresearch team in the department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences.Other co-authors areBerkeley Ph.D. graduates Tamma Carleton, now at University of California, Santa Barbara;Jonathan Proctor,now at Harvard’sCenter for the Environment and Data Science Initiative;Ian Bolliger,now at the Rhodium Group;and Vaishaal Shankar,now at Amazon; and Berkeley Ph.D. student Miyabi Ishihara.

All of them were at Berkeley when the project began. Their collaboration has been remarkable for bringing together disciplines that often look at the world in different ways and speak different languages: computer science, environmental and climate science, statistics, economics and public policy.

But they have been guided by a common interest in creating an open access tool that democratizes the power of technology, making it usable even by communities and countries that lack resources and advanced technical skill. “It’s like Ford’s Model T, but with machine learning and satellites,” Hsiang said. “It’s cheap enough that everyone can now access this new technology.”

MOSAIKS: Improving lives, protecting the planet

The system that emerged from the Berkeley-based research is called MOSAIKS, short for Multi-Task Observation using Satellite Imagery & Kitchen Sinks. It ultimately could have the power to analyze hundreds of variables drawn from satellite data — from soil and water conditions to housing, health and poverty — at a global scale.

In the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, a satellite image shows hundreds of green aquaculture ponds where local farmers grow fish and shrimp. Geospatial imaging holds enormous potential for developing nations to address challenges related to agriculture, poverty, health and human migration, scholars at UC Berkeley say. But until now, the technology and expertise needed to efficiently access and analyze satellite data usually has been limited to developed countries. (NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey.)

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The research paper details how MOSAIKS was able to replicate with reasonable accuracy reports prepared at great cost by the U.S. Census Bureau. It also has enormous potential in addressing development challenges in low-income countries and to help scientists and policymakers understand big-picture environmental change.

“Climate change is diffuse and difficult to see at any one location, but when you step back and look at the broad scale, you really see what is going on around the planet,” said Hsiang, who also serves as co-director of the multi-institution Climate Impact Lab.

For example, he said, the satellite data could give researchers deep new insights into expansive rangeland areas such as the Great Plains in the U.S. and the Sahel in Africa, or into areas such as Greenland or Antarctica that may be shedding icebergs as temperatures rise.

“These areas are so large, and to have people sitting there and looking at pictures and counting icebergs is really inefficient,” Hsiang explained. But with MOSAIKS, he said, “you could automate that and track whether these glaciers are actually disintegrating faster, or whether this has been happening all along.”

For a government in the developing world, the technology could help guide even routine decisions, such as where to build roads.

“A government wants to build roads where the most people are and the most economic activity is,” Hsiang said. “You might want to know which community is underserved, or the condition of existing infrastructure in a community. But often it’s very difficult to get that information.”

The challenge: Organizing trillions of bytes of raw satellite data

The growing fleet of imaging satellites beam data back to Earth 24/7 — some 80 terabytes every day, according to the research, a number certain to grow in coming years.

But often, imaging satellites are built to capture information on narrow topics — supplies of fresh water, for example, or the condition of agricultural soils. And the data doesn’t arrive as neat, orderly images, like snapshots from a photo shop. It’s raw data, a mass of binary information. Researchers who access the data have to know what they’re looking for.

Merely storing so many terabytes of data requires a huge investment. Distilling the layers of data embedded in the images requires additional computing power and advanced human expertise to tease out strands of information that are coherent and useful to other researchers, policymakers or funding agencies.

Inevitably, exploiting satellite images is largely limited to scholars or agencies in wealthy nations, Rolf and Hsiang said.

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“If you’re an elite professor, you can get someone to build your satellite for you,” said Hsiang. “But there’s no way that a conservation agency in Kenya is going to be able to access the technology and the experts to do this work.

“We wanted to find a way to empower them. We decided to come up with a Swiss Army Knife — a practical tool that everyone can access.”

Like Google for satellite imagery, sort of

Especially in low-income countries, one dimension of poverty is a poverty of data. But even communities in the U.S. and other developed countries usually don’t have ready access to geospatial data in a convenient, usable format for addressing local challenges.

Machine learning opens the door to solutions.

The illustrations show how the MOSAIKS machine learning system developed at UC Berkeley predicts, in fine detail, forest cover (above, in green) and population (below). (Image courtesy of Esther Rolf, Jonathan Proctor, Tamma Carleton, Ian Bolliger, Miyabi Ishihara, Vaishaal Shankar, Benjamin Recht and Solomon Hsiang)

In a general sense, machine learning refers to computer systems that use algorithms and statistical modeling to learn on their own, without step-by-step human intervention. What the new research describes is a system that can assemble data delivered by many satellites and organize it in ways that are accessible and useful.

There are precedents for such systems: Google Earth Engine and Microsoft’s Planetary Computer are both platforms for accessing and analyzing global geospatial data, with a focus on conservation. But, Rolf said, even with these technologies, considerable expertise is often required to convert the data into new insights.

The goal of MOSAIKS is not to develop more complex machine learning systems, Rolf said. Rather, its innovation is in making satellite data widely useable for addressing global challenges. The team did this by making the algorithms radically simpler and more efficient.

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MOSAIKS starts with learning to recognize minuscule patterns in the images — Hsiang compares it to a game of Scrabble, in which the algorithm learns to recognize each letter. In this case, however, the tiles are minuscule pieces of satellite image, 3 pixels by 3 pixels.

But MOSAIKS doesn’t conclude “this is a tree” or “this is pavement.” Instead, it recognizes patterns and groups them together, said Proctor. It learns to recognize similar patterns in different parts of the world.

When thousands of terabytes from hundreds of sources are analyzed and organized, researchers can choose a village or a country or a region and draw out organized data that can touch on themes as varied as soil moisture, health conditions, human migration and home values.

In a sense, Hsiang said, MOSAIKS could do for satellite databases what Google in the early days did for the Internet: map the data, make it accessible and user-friendly at low cost, and perhaps make it searchable. But Rolf, a machine learning scholar based in the Berkeley Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences department, said the Google comparison goes only so far.

MOSAIKS “is about translating an unwieldy amount of data into usable information,” she explained. “Maybe a better analogy would be that the system takes very dense information — say, a very large article — and produces a summary.”

Creating a living atlas of global data

Both Hsiang and Rolf see the potential for MOSAIKS to evolve in powerful and elegant directions.

Hsiang imagines the data being collected into computer-based, continually evolving atlases. Turn to any given “page,” and a user could access broad, deep data about conditions in a country or a region.

Rolf envisions a system that can take the stream of data from humanity’s fleet of imaging satellites and remote sensors and transform it into a flowing, real-time portrait of Earth and its inhabitants, continually in a state of change. We could see the past and the present, and so discern emerging challenges and address them.

“We’ve sent so much stuff to space,” Hsiang says. “It’s an amazing achievement. But we can get a lot more bang for our buck for all of this data that we’re already pulling down. Let’s let the world use it in a useful way. Let’s use it for good.”

FAQs

How can satellite images be improved? ›

Smoothing of images is done in low space filling. Another popular technique of contrast enhancement is the linear contrast stretch. Histogram Equalization is used to increase brightness of the color zone and make it more interpretable. Gaussian stretch is also used as contrast enhancement technique.

What is satellite imagery used for? ›

Satellite images track the changing human footprint across the globe, including rapidly growing cities, urban sprawl and informal settlements. Increasingly, satellite imagery is used to measure, identify and track human activity.

What can we learn from the satellite photos? ›

Satellite images are like maps: they are full of useful and interesting information, provided you have a key. They can show us how much a city has changed, how well our crops are growing, where a fire is burning, or when a storm is coming.

How do we get satellite images? ›

Satellites use different kinds of sensors to collect electromagnetic radiation reflected from the Earth. Passive sensors collect radiation which the Sun emits and the Earth reflects, and don't require energy. Active sensors emit radiation themselves and analyze it after it is reflected back from the Earth.

How good is satellite imagery? ›

Satellite photos are less accurate than you think

In fact, photos today aren't accurate in the way your phone's camera is. For example, each pixel you see -- in a satellite image with one-meter resolution -- covers one square meter of ground.

Which satellite imagery is the best? ›

1. Google Earth - Free access to high resolution imagery (satellite and aerial) Google Earth offers free access to some of the highest resolution satellite imagery, although the highest resolution images are actually taken from airplanes. Most of the data on Google Earth was taken in the last 3-4 years.

What is visual interpretation of satellite image? ›

The interpretation of satellite imagery and aerial photographs involves the study of various basic characters of an object with reference to spectral bands which is useful in visual analysis. The basic elements are shape, size, pattern, tone, texture, shadows, location, association and resolution.

What are the types of satellite images? ›

TYPES OF SATELLITE IMAGERY
  • VISIBLE IMAGERY: Visible satellite pictures can only be viewed during the day, since clouds reflect the light from the sun. ...
  • INFRARED IMAGERY: Infrared satellite pictures show clouds in both day and night.

Can you view live satellite images? ›

If you're looking for a live feed, the ISS feed is the perfect option. But if you want the latest georeferenced imagery, then NASA's Worldview and USGS EarthNow are perfect for you. Otherwise, the sharpest and near real-time satellite view would be Planetscope at 3 meters per pixel and a new image of Earth every day.

What is satellite data in algorithm? ›

Satellite data refers to any "payload" data which you want to store in your data structure and which is not part of the structure of the data structure. It can be anything you want. It can be a single value, a large collection of values, or a pointer to some other location that holds the value.

Can Google Earth see live? ›

You can use Google Earth, the platform that enables you to view any place on Earth -- including terrain and buildings, galaxies in outer space and canyons of the ocean -- to view live images. To be able to view Google Earth live you need to install their client software.

Why is it important to know the interpretations of visual images? ›

It is important to analyze and evaluate images you use for research, study, and presentations. Images should be analyzed and evaluated like any other source, such as journal articles or books, to determine their quality, reliability, and appropriateness. Images should be analyzed evaluated on several levels.

What is the basic element of a satellite image? ›

The most basic are the elements of image interpretation: location, size, shape, shadow, tone/color, texture, pattern, height/depth and site/situation/association. They are routinely used when interpreting aerial photos and analyzing photo-like images.

What is the main advantage of satellite based observation? ›

Satellite Earth observations can benefit many areas of society, including environment and resources management, agriculture and food security, transport, air quality and health, risk management, and security.

Can you see someone's house in real time? ›

When someone shares their location with you, you can use Live View to visualize their location in the real world. Location sharing. In the list of people who have shared their location with you, tap the person whose location you'd like to find. Follow the on-screen instructions to help Maps find your location.

Is there a live satellite app? ›

SpyMeSat provides real-time imaging satellite awareness, on-demand access to satellite imagery archives, and the ability to request new tasking directly from a mobile device.

How often are satellite images updated? ›

Imagery is updated approximately every 15 minutes in real time. Water vapor imagery, which is useful for determining locations of moisture and atmospheric circulations, is created using a wavelength of energy sensitive to the content of water vapor in the atmosphere.

How can I see a real time view of my house? ›

Google Earth (and Google Maps) is the easiest way to get a satellite view of your house and neighborhood. This enables anyone to view nearly any part of the world, get instant geographic information for that area, and even see your house with an aerial view.

How much does it cost for Google Earth live? ›

Today Google has announced that Google Earth Pro is now available for free. Google Earth Pro used to cost $399 per year. Google Earth is a geospatial software application that displays a virtual globe, which offers the ability to analyze and capture geographical data.

How can I see the inside of my house online? ›

See inside buildings with indoor maps
  1. On your computer, open Google Maps.
  2. Type an address or name of a place.
  3. Press Enter or click Search . ...
  4. On the left, scroll down to the photos section and click on a 360 photo. ...
  5. To see more photos of this location, choose Photos.

What are the disadvantages of satellite imagery? ›

The disadvantages of satellite images are—1. Data collection becomes difficult if the sky is cloudy. 2. Exact height of any region or object cannot be calculated.

How good is satellite imagery? ›

Satellite photos are less accurate than you think

In fact, photos today aren't accurate in the way your phone's camera is. For example, each pixel you see -- in a satellite image with one-meter resolution -- covers one square meter of ground.

How satellite images are used in agriculture? ›

Satellite data collects detailed information to predict crop yields, including NDVI. Earth observation (EO) data can measure details, such as soil moisture, to help farmers support crop health. Forget expensive ground sensors; invest in satellite imagery for fast and affordable resources.

What are the three benefits of satellites? ›

Satellites can detect underground water and mineral sources; monitor the transfer of nutrients and contaminants from land into waterways; and measure land and water temperatures, the growth of algae in seas, and the erosion of topsoil from land.

What are three advantages of satellite communications? ›

Satellite Communication – Advantages
  • Flexibility.
  • Ease in putting in new circuits.
  • Distances are effortlessly taken care of and expense doesn't make a difference.
  • Broadcasting conceivable outcomes.
  • Each and every side of the earth is secured.
  • Users can control the system.
  • Energy is conserved since satellites use solar power.

How does space technology improve life on Earth? ›

Here are five ways space tech can help improve life on Earth.
  1. Frontier technologies to tackle climate change. ...
  2. Satellites to track weather patterns. ...
  3. AI cameras to monitor wildlife crime. ...
  4. Sensors to track animals. ...
  5. Satellite images transformed into data for farmers.
Apr 12, 2021

Which satellite imagery is the best? ›

1. Google Earth - Free access to high resolution imagery (satellite and aerial) Google Earth offers free access to some of the highest resolution satellite imagery, although the highest resolution images are actually taken from airplanes. Most of the data on Google Earth was taken in the last 3-4 years.

Can you get live satellite images? ›

You can now get new satellite images of your area every day.

Spectator uses awesome satellite programs such as Copernicus Sentinels and USGS/NASA Landsat to access fresh satellite images daily. We also provide the easiest way to order very high resolution commercial imagery when needed.

Can a satellite see a person? ›

With some US government restrictions relaxed, commercial imaging satellites like the ones Google uses will now be able to show images at 25 centimeters of resolution. That's the ability to see your face—from space. The latest spy satellites are even more powerful.

How satellite imagery is helping precision agriculture grow to new heights? ›

Accessing their high resolution satellite imagery and feeding that data into a machine learning system alongside farmers records and atmospheric information, they are now able to automatically measure pasture growth and to predict potential pasture yields, not just for each paddock but also at the intra-paddock level.

How remote sensing is used in agriculture? ›

Information from remote sensing can be used as base maps in variable rate applications of fertilizers and pesticides. Information from remotely sensed images allows farmers to treat only affected areas of a field. Problems within a field may be identified remotely before they can be visually identified.

How can GIS help in precision agriculture? ›

GIS is an integral part of automated field operations, also referred to as precision agriculture or satellite farming. Using data collected from remote sensors, and also from sensors mounted directly on farm machinery, farmers have improved decision-making capabilities for planning their cultivation to maximize yields.

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