Satellite and Earth

+ Low-cost, high-resolution and up-to-date images can help answer very specific questions about cities.

I think that current advances in satellite imaging technology will revolutionise the way we design and manage the built environment. Access to cheap real-time satellite images will open up new possibilities for a granular understanding of anything from urban traffic to land-use patterns.

These cheap and fast images will be made possible by the new lower-cost satellite and drone technology being developed now. PayPal and Tesla co-founder Elon Musk is working on a plan to use 700 small satellites to bring internet access to remote areas. And the PocketQube Shop even makes it possible to build and launch tiny satellites yourself.

Two companies – Skybox and Planet Labs – are using new tiny satellite technology to supply detailed images of the Earth in close to real-time. Meanwhile the US military is developing the ARGUS-IS array, which can be mounted on unmanned drones and gives it the ability to monitor all movements in an entire city in real time.

Planet Labs’ satellites, which it calls doves, make a complete orbit of the Earth in about 90 minutes, capturing images at 3-5m resolution as they go. This compares with the images currently available on Google Earth, which can be up to three years old. So what does all this mean for those of us working in the built environment?

Transport planners and urban planners will have much more granular data to work with. This could radically change the way they approach problems such as improving traffic in a specific part of a city.

With access to real-time images at this granularity you could ask very specific questions about cities. How many cars are parked in a particular neighbourhood on a Friday afternoon? Which parts of a city’s parks do people spend the most time in during the week, or at the weekend? How are taxis distributed across a city? How are public spaces used for social activities?

For firms like Arup, the availability of detailed real-time images could lead to new services such as land-use change analysis, traffic pattern analysis or people flow analysis.

As cities worldwide continue to grow, I expect real-time satellite images to be a vital tool in the efforts to make them more resilient and liveable.