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AI for Good

ESA: Using space tech and AI to fight environmental crime

by AI Business
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Artificial intelligence models can make better use of satellite data, helping solve global issues like climate change, poverty and hunger

by Charles Morley, European Space Agency: Space Solutions

17 February 2020

Environmental crime is an illegal act which directly harms the environment, and for the first time in history, humans have become the key drivers of change on a planetary scale. It is believed that environmental crime increases the fragility of an already embattled planet. With humans vastly altering Earth’s systems, experts suggest we’re in the midst of the Anthropocene Epoch. Human activity is becoming the dominant influence on climate and the environment and it’s feared that these inflicted changes may persist for millennia.

Space tech and artificial intelligence (AI) are being used for the highest level of insight, helping develop emergency measures to reduce and hopefully counteract the extensive damage which has already been caused – and new AI solutions are likely to have a big impact on sustainability goals.

Satellites and United Nations sustainability goals

The UN has drawn up 17 global goals of sustainability, and satellites play a large part in making them a reality. Extreme weather conditions and droughts in impoverished areas can be predicted by satellites which observe the Earth. This helps to achieve the second goal of ‘no hunger’, by improving farming and preventing famine.

The three primary
sustainability goals are listed below:

  • No poverty
  • Zero hunger
  • Good health and well-being

Satellites produce such a vast amount of data, it would take 30 million people looking 24 hours a day to watch and analyze all of it. However, by using computer vision algorithms it is possible to turn that stream of data into easily accessible information which can significantly help 14 of the 17 United Nations sustainability goals.

Key findings:

  1. Using AI for environmental applications could reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by up to 4% by 2030 relative to business as usual;
  2. AI’s impact on productivity would accelerate the move to a low-carbon world;
  3. At the same time, these applications would create more than 18 million jobs worldwide.
  4. Europe, East Asia and North America would gain the most.

Many satellites also
measure key variables on Earth, in the atmosphere, on land and in the oceans.
The combination of mathematical models, science and images help to see climate
change by assessing temperature and currents. This helps to achieve goal 13,
climate action.

False-colour image from the Spot-5 satellite flying over Belgium (ESA)

AI and ecosystems

Ecosystems and wildlife can be monitored efficiently by AI systems, and we can use almost real-time satellite data to track illegal logging in forests. Drinking water supply systems can be monitored with AI, helping detect underground leaks, manage residential water use and predict when water plants need maintenance.

AI systems' abilities to simulate weather events and natural disasters help to determine which disaster responses are most effective and provide real-time disaster response coordination.

How ESA will further
our understanding of Earth sciences

Learn
more about the dedicated space missions:

  • ESA’s Earth Explorer mission: FORUM (The Far-infrared Outgoing Radiation Understanding and Monitoring), will provide new insight into the planet's radiation budget. It will measure radiation emitted by Earth, aiming to improve climate models and subsequently, climate prediction.
  • The TRUTHS mission (Traceable Radiometry Underpinning Terrestrial- and Helio- Studies), will be able to measure the incoming radiation from the Sun and the reflected radiation from the Earth and Moon. It will help to improve the ability to estimate the radiation disparities which are behind climate change. 
  • The proposed Arctic Weather Satellite (AWS) is a prototype of a polar satellite which boots coverage of the Arctic. It carries a lot of potential for improving weather forecasts and subsequently improving the quality of global forecasts. Its advanced sensors give further intel onhumidity, precipitation and ice clouds in the atmosphere. 
  • ALTIUS (The Atmospheric Limb Tracker for Investigation of the Upcoming Stratosphere), will provide important data for the atmospheric modelling community and will further the understanding of atmospheric species, with a detailed high-resolution profile of stratospheric ozone. 

Stopping crimes against the environment

ESA is taking measures and owning initiatives to reduce crimes against the environment, using AI and space tech to give us the best chances to stabilize the planet's climate, in keeping with the UN’s sustainability goals.


The European Space Agency (ESA) is an international organization which arranges European space programs to find out more about the Earth, our solar system and the universe, providing further information on space-exploration.

ESA Space Solutions encourages investment in space research and satellite-based technologies for worldwide benefit. Fundraising opportunities and guidance tips are available to commercialize your space-connected business ideas with a two-year incubation program. For more information on how to apply, head over to the application page.

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