Satellite Uses for Detecting Animals From Orbit

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Satellite technology has made its way into most spheres of our lives, and this trend will only increase in the next decade. From streaming services to making smartphone payments, satellites are somewhat involved in most routine activities today. Besides, the satellite uses for detecting animal movement become ever more common. 

As governments and private aerospace companies emphasize the importance of sustainability— both in space and on Earth — more satellite monitoring solutions appear to preserve our planet’s resources. This, of course, includes endangered animals and their natural habitats. Sure, monitoring migrating animals and keeping track of land species living in a heterogeneous landscape has its challenges. Still, satellite visualization helps with that. So, what can satellites detect and how do they help preserve wildlife?

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Counting Elephants from Space

Earlier this year, the University of Oxford and the University of Twente in the Netherlands conducted a study that allowed scientists to count the number of African elephants. Worldview 3 satellite detector used high-resolution imagery to provide data on animal numbers and movements — with the same precision as people could achieve. 

This technique offers an alternative to human monitoring, which makes it a far more affordable solution both in terms of human hours and the resources used. Instead of using low-flying aircraft, the researchers can now rely on satellite data. In just a few minutes, satellites collect over 5,000 km² of imagery. Besides, orbiting satellites detect images regardless of state borders, which simplifies a lot of legal issues. 

The research has shown that only 415,000 African elephants are left, so these species are now classified as endangered. 

Tracking Animals in Arctic Areas

Aside from African savanna, scientists monitor animals in the Arctic areas. Since the region is so remote, sending manned aircraft would pose certain challenges. Detection satellite images solve this problem, helping keep track of polar bears. Another advantage of unmanned observation is that the animals are not disturbed, and the people are not hurt in the process — which, in the case of polar bears, is quite important. The same satellites that detect ice cover dwindling provide data on how polar bears survive with their natural habitats diminishing. 

Monitoring Non-Endangered Species to Estimate Deforestation 

Aside from endangered species in land and marine areas, including whales, white sharks, penguins, bald eagles, and vultures, researchers keep track of other species, like bats. While, technically, bats are not endangered animals, they act as indicators of any wildlife changes in forests. Monitoring wildlife is part of the same satellite initiative as keeping track of our planet’s changes. Just like ice dwindling, deforestation is a serious concern that contributes its share to global climate change. 

Satellites can keep track of the dwindling forest levels, but they cannot estimate how deforestation affects wildlife. That is where the bat research comes in because bat population in tropical islands is a critical indicator of the biodiversity levels in monitored areas. Besides, bats are sensitive to human-made changes, such as agriculture intensification. So, keeping track of bat population and movements can also provide valuable insight into urbanization and its impact on our home planet. 

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Technical Aspects & Limitations in Satellite Animal Detection

Now, the important question is — can satellites detect movement? Technically, no, because satellites capture static images and send them back to Earth for analysis. However, it is possible to keep track of moving species with telemetry. The main downside of this approach is that endangered animals will have to be tagged first. Satellites will analyze signals from a transmitter the animal carries and send this data back to the ground station. This solution, of course, is not possible without prior human interference. So, it is not advisable unless absolutely necessary.

Another challenge is that infrared satellite sensors detect radiation coming from objects on our planet’s surface. It can be very useful while monitoring climate and temperature changes because objects with most temperature fluctuations emit most infrared data. However, the approach is not suitable for animals because their thermal infrared fluctuations are too minor for commercial satellites to analyze. As technology advances, however, infrared animal monitoring can provide even more useful data. 

Plus, it is technically possible to see large animals on satellite imagery. But, these animals are hard to identify without proper context. For panchromatic bands, the highest satellite resolution is 31 cm at nadir view (as Worldview 3 used for elephant detection). Colored satellite resolution is also high, but it is still easier to spot high-contrast animals. That is why many satellites still analyze shadows cast by animals.

On the whole, satellites monitoring animal movement and population do us a big favor. This tech allows us to see how industry and urbanization affect our planet. Eventually, data from Earth monitoring satellites could help scientists develop an effective solution to make human activities safer and more sustainable. 

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