5 Fascinating Uses of Satellite Data


The first satellite in space was Sputnik 1 which the Soviet Union launched on 4 October 1957. According to a 2018 estimate, some 4,900 (of 8,100 launched) are currently in orbit, of those about 1,900 are operational. This has led to a number of fascinating uses of satellite imagery being identified. In this blog, we’ll be highlighting a couple that we feel are making a great impact on our planet, of which we are using a couple to assist us with our technology. Who could have imagined this was all possible?

1 - Vessel Tracking

The oceans may be vast, yet they still can grow crowded. As of January 2018, there were 53,045 ships in the world's merchant fleet. Satellites can monitor ships to ensure that they are following the rules, and the images also can reveal where changes may be needed in traffic patterns.

Satellites in a low earth orbit can now detect Automatic Identification System (AIS) signals and provide a global capability for monitoring all AIS-equipped vessels using a satellite constellation and an extensive network of ground stations.


AIS is a mandatory international navigation safety communications system which requires certain sizes of ships (large fishing trawlers and upwards) and all passenger ships irrespective of size to be fitted with AIS transponders.

Companies such as MariTrace are tracking vessels all over the world, whether at sea or in port. Providing additional real time services of telling you exactly where a ship is, and what is going on around it. Weather changing? Piracy risk ahead?

2 - Predict Food Supplies

Roughly one in eight people do not have enough to eat. Technology is now having to play its part in assisting with the food crisis caused by our ever-expanding global population.


Descartes Labs, a New Mexico-based start-up is using machine learning to analyze satellite imagery to predict food supplies months in advance of current methods employed by the US government, a technique that could help predict food crises long before they happen.

Using decades of multiple public and private satellite images, they provide a ‘living atlas of the planet’. Cross-referencing the satellite information with other relevant data sources such as weather forecasts and prices of agricultural products enables Descartes Labs to predict  future food supplies.

3 - Monitoring Forest Change

Do you know how your supply chain impacts forest resources? Almost every business depends on forests in some way.  

Global Forest Watch Commodities have created an online platform that enables  companies to analyze the impact of key commodities on forests, with a specific focus on companies who buy and sell major commodities such as palm oil, beef, soy and wood pulp.

Check out the image below, the purple identifies areas of gross tree cover loss since 2001. This can be due to a variety of factors, including mechanical harvesting, fire, disease, or storm damage. (As such, “loss” does not equate to deforestation.)

GFW screenshot (Forests).PNG

This dynamic online forest monitoring and alert system unites satellite technology and open data to guarantee access to timely and reliable information about forests. The forest change analysis tool evaluates the total tree cover loss and number of active fires.

4. Forecast Dangerous Infectious Diseases

Each year, an estimated 390 million dengue infections occur around the world. Of these, 500,000 cases develop into dengue haemorrhagic fever, a more severe form of the disease, which results in up to 25,000 deaths annually worldwide.

New Mexico’s Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) have been looking into ways to forecast disease and realised that they needed more data to be able to do this.Their best bet was through remote sensing technology and using satellite imagery.

For LANL folks like Del Valle and Ziemann, satellites are ideal for determining, at scale and in close-to-real-time, things like vegetation health, climate-based changes in temperature and precipitation, and urbanization. Those are all keys for helping to spot potential hot zones for mosquito-borne diseases like dengue. “I learned that standing water is the biggest indicator” for mosquitos, and thus dengue, Ziemann says. “If you want to measure standing water in Brazil, it’s hard, but you have a proxy measure - healthy vegetation, that’s much easier to see in satellite imagery.”

Ultimately, LANL doesn’t imagine it’s anywhere close to coming up with a global disease forecasting system, but the Brazil project will ideally lead to increased funding that it can use to analyze additional regions of the world, and to forecast different diseases across the globe.

5. Predict regions prone to conflict

Using satellite imagery across oil fields, borders and natural resources Spaceknow were able to detect and predict areas of conflict and migration.  

They do this by measuring changes on the ground or specifically counting and measuring objects of interest.


War zones or other areas of conflict are often difficult to access at base level, whereas satellite-based imaging and data offer unfettered access to regions of interest. In near real-time, data from flyovers of satellites can count up or identify troop movements, refugee migration, or destruction on the ground. Pointing the satellite cameras at borders can offer material insights about military buildups or naval movements.


As you can see, satellites are used for many purposes. In this blog, we’ve merely provided a snapshot of the benefits we are seeing from these additional data sources.

ChAI are using satellite data to identify change and activity at a number of sites including mines, smelters and warehouses in addition to collating freight movement in and out of particular ports. We augment this alternative data with economic data to predict the price of commodities thus enabling manufacturers to mitigate their commodity price risk and better manage their material costs.

Also available on Medium