The Global Sensing Revolution

Will Marshall

The Global Sensing Revolution

We’re in the middle of a global sensing revolution – wherein we are covering the surface of the Earth, and the skies and space above it, with sensors: mobile phones, drones, satellites, the list goes on. The picture of global change that these sensors paint are ushering in a new era of planetary awareness and transparency. They can help us measure things we couldn’t measure before, and measure them in a more cost-effective, reliable and accurate manner. These technologies help us make the invisible visible and fill in critical gaps in our understanding of our changing planet.

It’s this perspective that powers all of us at Planet, a company that operates the largest Earth-imaging constellation of satellites in history. Our goal is to image the entire Earth every day, and make change visible, accessible and actionable.

From accelerated vertebrate species loss [1] to food production concerns [2] relating to increased populations, our data can play a key role in helping us to grasp the effects that humanity has on our planet’s complex environments and ecosystems and take actions toward positive change.

Earth observation (EO) enables us to identify illegal gold mining in the Peruvian Amazon; monitor the development of military installations in the South China Sea; gauge trade levels between China and North Korea; and more. EO is documenting events on land and at sea at an unprecedented scale and speed and this global monitoring capability is being driven by a new crop of aerospace companies that are delivering more high quality data per kilogram than ever before.

Meeting Challenges with Sensors

The growth in sensors and data collection has been discussed at length, and often focuses on personal technology [3] like self-driving cars and smart refrigerators. But these sensors will help humans in other ways too, enabling us to overcome some of our greatest global challenges. A good summary of the world’s challenges are encompassed in the Sustainable Development Goals.[4]

A global sensing revolution can help solve these challenges. In any system, measurement is required on a timescale that is faster than the timescale of the change. Let’s imagine we are on a spaceship, and our ship begins to uncontrollably spin, or the CO2 levels start increasing. As this is happening, we have to measure these events quicker than the timescale of change. We need to know how fast we’re spinning and in what direction, or the rate at which CO2 is rising, to know how to stop them. This paradigm is clearly applicable to humans on Earth: we are all on a spacecraft – and it’s called Spaceship Earth!

Comparably, then, if we are to understand change on Earth, identify its causes and stabilize it by caring for humanity and other life on our planet, then we must collect planetary data faster than the timescale of change. The only way to achieve this is through a global network of sensors.

The ability to drastically increase the rate at which we collect data and measure change on Earth is why small, affordable sensors are powering a global sensing revolution. These new sensors are largely operated by commercial companies and are increasing the role the private sector plays in collecting data for science. The commercial market has stepped forward to help lead the charge of advanced data collection. It will play an important role in helping to deliver detailed, unbiased, data to society, further exposing the powerful impacts of climate change.

Deforestation is a great example. To date, people have used satellites to monitor forests every year by taking images at sufficient resolution to observe Earth’s trees. At this pace, experts have been able to see what has happened, but have been too late to stop the changes from happening. Instead of measuring the forests annually, if experts were to measure or monitor all the trees every day, illegal deforestation could be stopped in the act. Instead of just being aware of the problem, action can be taken to stop it.

A global sensing revolution is underway and it will yield tremendous benefits, helping us address climate change, help humanity and protect living things. It will help all of us astronauts – seven billion of us – to take care of our precious Spaceship Earth.

 

[1] Gerardo Ceballos, Paul R. Ehrlich, Anthony D. Barnosky, Andrés García, Robert M. Pringle, Todd M. Palmer, Accelerated modern human-induced species losses: Entering the sixth mass extinction, Science Advances 19 Jun 2015: Vol. 1, no. 5, e1400253 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1400253, available online at https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/1/5/e1400253

[2] FAO, 2050: Water supplies to dwindle in parts of the world, threatening food security and livelihoods, available online at http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/283255/icode/

[3] Internet-Of-Things Heat Maps For Operational Excellence, 2019,

[4] Sustainable Development Goals https://www.globalgiving.org/sdg/