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Satellites, Drones Catching Companies Destroying the Planet

Global Fishing Watch's software allows commercial fishing activity to be tracked in real-time using a combination of data from satellites and ships' on-board systems. | Image Credit: Global Fishing Watch

Aerial imaging is emerging as an invaluable resource for collecting information and enforcing the law, especially when it comes to environmental protection. Satellite and drone technologies are getting increasingly smaller, cheaper, and easier to use, and are producing higher-resolution images. Among other opportunities, the tech has enabled organizations and startups to more accurately monitor environmental destruction and provide data as legal evidence.

Wetland destruction, overfishing, oil spills, fracking, and deforestation are just some of the illegal activities that are being tracked and documented using aerial tech and software tools. A single image from Landsat (a series of U.S. Geological Survey and NASA satellites that have been operating since the 1970s) used to cost up to $4,400. Now, not only is the archive of 4 million images available for free, but launching satellites has become so affordable that a growing number of startups “are operating fleets that send back imagery from all corners of the planet, taking pictures sharp enough that you can see a manhole cover, though not a face or a license plate,” according to Fast Company.

SkyTruth is a non-profit that uses mapping and remote sensing to track environmental destruction; the organization famously used satellite data, aerial images, and remote sensing to prove that the BP oil spill was much worse than acknowledged by BP. SkyTruth is currently working on an online tool called FrackFinder, which is crowdsourcing data to help researchers examine the health and environmental implications of fracking infrastructure as the industry booms.

The organization is also working with Google and ocean protection group Oceana on Global Fishing Watch, an interactive online tool that lets anyone watch commercial fishing activity in the ocean using a feed of fishing vessels as tracked by satellite and identified by their on-board systems. While the organization exists simply to observe and report, it allows anyone to catch potentially illicit fishing activity.

“Everybody’s jaws kind of drop when they see what kind of commercial fishing activity happens in the ocean. Patterns emerge where you see fishing efforts up along the border of marine protected areas,” John Amos, the head of SkyTruth, told Fast Company. “It's a way to get people to start asking questions. In many cases, fishing is a large corporate activity. You could find a chronically bad actor.”

Similarly, Global Forest Watch is an initiative of the World Resources Institute that uses satellites to monitor forests and forest destruction in real time, on an interactive map.

Unilever says it's only using 100% sustainable and traceable palm oil. They make that statement, and Global Forest Watch can monitor, identify, and detect when illegal clearing of forests is happening,” explains Kevin Bullock, Product Specialist at DigitalGlobe, the company that provides the imagery for the tool. “We can break down the forest into a grid, and using other geospatial information, see which operations are legitimate or not legitimate.”

Drones are being used to document the environmental destruction of factory farms and get around so-called “ag gag” laws that prohibit the filming and photography of animal cruelty in livestock facilities, and are becoming more and more accessible for other detective work. Companies such as online map platform Mapbox allow the creation of apps that use images from drones to deliver information such as elevation data.

Eric Gendersen, CEO of Mapbox, speculated that with such technology, “You can fly over a quarry and know how much gravel has been extracted. You can literally be running calculations about the value being extracted, and know whether a company is cheating on their taxes.”

It is expected that satellite and drone imagery will be used more and more to hold corporations accountable. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could use the information to reinforce or even replace ground inspections. Lawyer Ray Purdy and geography professor Ray Harris are banking on it – they built a consultancy specialized in the use and interpretation of satellite and drone imagery, called Air and Space Evidence. The technology admittedly raises privacy concerns, but for now, it is probably good news for the planet – it could make the enforcement of environmental laws and protections more affordable for resource-constrained agencies.


Hannah Furlong is one of Sustainable Brands's Contributing Writers, based in Canada. She is researching the circular economy as a Master's student in Sustainability Management at the University of Waterloo and holds a Bachelor's in Environment and Business Co-op. Hannah… [Read more about Hannah Furlong]