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How Humanitarians Use Satellites in Crisis Response Programs

By Guest Writer on March 8, 2023

satellite humanitarian use

Satellite applications developed by an increasingly complex web of supply-side stakeholders can be used across a wide range of use cases throughout the life cycle of an emergency to improve our understanding of hazards, assessment of vulnerabilities, and deployment of capabilities.

The objective of Beyond Borders: Satellite Applications for Humanitarian Emergencies is to provide a consolidated view on the current use of satellite applications in humanitarian settings. Satellite applications are digital services and products that serve several functions for society, the environment, and the economy.

Satellite applications utilise three types of satellite technology:

  • Satellite Earth Observation (EO) is the gathering of information about the physical, chemical, and biological systems of the planet via remote-sensing technologies.
  • Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) are a constellation of satellites providing positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) signals from space. GNSS is used to track people and physical objects at any time, globally. It is also widely used in humanitarian emergencies for geo-tagging of relevant issues in the humanitarian context, e.g., infrastructure, disasters, damages, conflict incidents, response activities, etc.
  • Satellite Communications (SatComms) provide voice and data/internet connectivity in regions that are not covered by terrestrial mobile networks.

Platform and cloud services, together with technologies like machine learning, are simplifying access to and use of satellite applications. In parallel, new entrants and developments in SatComms and Satellite Internet of Things (IoT) have the potential to enable new and more cost-effective connectivity to people and things in the near future.

Satellite Uses in Humanitarian Crisis Response

The most persistent and extensive humanitarian data gaps include a lack of information on affected schools, malnutrition, damaged infrastructure like buildings and roads, and refugees, internally displaced persons, and persons of concern. Satellites are valuable in addressing data gaps across all of these areas for every humanitarian emergency.

Satellite applications support all stages of the event life cycle, from Hazard and Risk Assessment to Recovery. Satellite EO can be particularly powerful in supporting predictive analytics for slow-developing crises, for example, in the context of food insecurity predicting weak crop yields months before the harvest season, or to anticipate violence and understand the drivers of conflict.

The improving awareness and acceptance of satellite applications is leading to broader adoption by humanitarian actors across a wide range of use cases. Such use cases include population and poverty mapping, infrastructure mapping and exposure, crop yield and productivity forecasting, hazardous event detection and severity evaluation, and many other applications across humanitarian domains.

This report includes a landscaping of over 500 humanitarian satellite applications which identified that:

  • 42% of identified humanitarian satellite applications targeted government users.
  • 62% of identified satellite applications are “customised” for a specific user.
  • The highest number (92) of identified applications are for “food, security, nutrition and famine” events in Africa.
  • Many of the data gaps identified by Humanitarian Data Exchange (HDX) in sectors such as health and education could be addressed by satellite applications.

Satellite Use Challenges in Humanitarian Aid

Despite a large number of applications that have been piloted in the humanitarian sector, there is a limited body of evidence to offer humanitarians guidance on where satellite technology can be used most cost-effectively and with the best outcomes for affected populations.

Furthermore, rapid innovation and increasing piloting has led to some duplication of effort on the supply-side, and the user community has not yet fully acquired an understanding of the potential relevance for their work and the capabilities of the technology. Regulatory and legal frameworks have also struggled to keep pace with new developments.

There is now an opportunity for public and private sector stakeholders to reflect on what more could be done to increase the use of, and impact derived from, satellite applications in humanitarian assistance.

A lightly edited synopsis of Beyond Borders: Satellite Applications for Humanitarian Emergencies funded by UK’s Humanitarian Innovation Hub and written by Caribou Space, Satellite Applications Catapult, and the United Nations Institute for Training and Research. 

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