Space applications for disaster management

(To Alexander Virgili)

The presence of satellite and space technologies in general is constantly increasing in everyday life in a more or less evident way. Also the mechanism of the disaster management and emergency response it is not exempt from the increasing use of satellite technologies for forecasting and early warning, risk prevention and mitigation, relief and recovery.

In the last decade, numerous studies have attempted to take stock of the potentials, capabilities and limitations of the various technologies applied to disaster management.1. Over the years, the complexity and the amount of integrated data used for monitoring, prevention and management of disasters, has made the use of space applications indispensable, making space technologies the privileged ones for a professional risk management and crisis situations. The need to integrate the disaster management with the long-term sustainable development is increasingly pressing, given the increased public attention to climate change and to the new types of emerging risks, exacerbated by the fallout of the potential crisis on the economic sector, this is strengthening the commitment of collaboration between the public and private sectors.

Operationally, the trend has shifted from the need to extend rapid alert systems, indispensable in fragile areas such as Asia-Pacific, to multi-risks, identifying national sensitive points and establishing institutional links to promote wider cooperation both within and across the border regions, countries and provinces. All this leads to modern integrated climate and socio-economic data systems and to information sharing networks for broader and more uniform knowledge.

The use of space applications for humanitarian response is already well established, integrating space applications in a broader disaster management context. Space applications, from the point of view of information management, have significantly changed in recent years, particularly in the field of prevention and monitoring. Management systems are now developed to ultimately serve the process of decision-making, providing an instant framework for decision makers at different levels within an organizational hierarchy. An example of an organization that uses this type of integrated information derived from space technology is the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), although in this case they are used as an evaluation and coordination tool in which the information they are still collected and filled in manually. However, OCHA provides an appropriate example of potential information management and decision support2.

The use of space applications in the management of disasters is becoming more frequent and it is possible to subdivide their use in direct and indirect ways. Direct use is found in areas where the use of space applications is immediately necessary, such as in monitoring and early warning, in disaster mitigation and preparation, in emergency response and response to natural disasters. Indirect use occurs in the case of crises or complex emergencies, such as international conflicts, political-religious clashes and other forms of internal instability. In this case the restoration to a normal situation requires a broader and more strategic vision, a long-term approach and therefore lasting commitments over time. In the case of indirect use, therefore, the usefulness of space applications lies in crisis management as an essential tool for the restoration of a peaceful situation, within a context - even geographical - of security in order to achieve sustainable development of the territory. In practice it is therefore a matter of monitoring migratory flows, border control, geospatial and intelligence analysis.

Space applications for disaster management thus provide an essential entry point to improve and implement disaster risk reduction activities in the context of sustainable resilient development and the need for adaptation to climate change. There are additional factors, which are not immediately apparent through the analysis of current literature and the context of spatial applications and disaster management, but which have been highlighted in important regional meetings, such as the meeting ESCAP High Level Decision Makers Meeting in 20133. These include the enhancement and dissemination of the positive results achieved, in particular joint initiatives that include more agencies and cooperation mechanisms in complex contexts. Furthermore, the extension of the user base, or client, for space applications, it does not include only relapse functions (downstream) within the space community, but also makes applications extremely easy to use to an unskilled user.

It is important to note that the use of space applications, in particular images and satellite data, has some legal implications and requires consideration of several technical factors that may affect their use. One of the factors to consider is first and foremost the availability of satellite images, so the images may not be available due to the satellite's orbit, not present on the affected area, therefore having to wait often between two to eight days to reposition the satellite . Furthermore, the selection and acquisition of usable satellite data can also take a couple of days to be obtained or purchased. Weather conditions on an area affected by a disaster can also play a decisive role. For example, excessive cloud cover can obscure the view, leading to delays in acquiring satellite images. The use of radar data (used for the assessment of flood damage) can certainly overcome the interference of adverse weather conditions. Vertical display of aerial data and satellite imagery can present challenges in remote sensing and image analysis. In the case of oblique images, which are taken at an angle, it may be difficult to accurately locate the positions if the device of imaging it is not directly above an area that is being photographed, or the geographical position is not exactly triangulated. The margin of error related to the quantitative estimate must be taken into account, this may also occur due to the lack of high resolution images. This eventuality could potentially partially hide some peripheral and internal damage to the structures, especially in cases where the roof or the upper side of a structure have remained intact. Last but not least the Laws on the copyright must be strictly adhered to, raw data are often subject to restrictions while derived mapping products, such as additional levels and analyzes, are often made freely accessible for the disaster management community. Finally, the cost of obtaining satellite images should be taken into consideration and, where possible, protocols should be set up to ensure agreement for the free use of satellite images during times of disaster and emergency.

An example of an international partnership on the topic of space technologies for disaster management that simplifies access to satellite data is the International Charter on Space and the Great Disasters (International Charter on Space and Major Disasters). This is an international agreement between space agencies around the world. Its purpose is to provide a unified system of access and reception of satellite images and immediate and free spatial data to those affected by natural or man-made disasters. Use of this data may be authorized by the Member States of the Charter. However, the Charter activation request can be received from any State in the world for the acquisition and use of spatial data to be shared with national authorities responsible for the field of emergencies.

In Italy, civil protection activities are delegated to the Civil Protection Department, which is headed by the Presidency of the Council of Ministers. The DPC also often uses satellite data for prevention and monitoring activities through collaboration with various bodies, including the Air Force. A very special episode also underlined the importance of space applications for civil protection activities. The 2 April 2018 the Chinese space station Tiangong 1 (in the radar image) has fallen into the Pacific Ocean, causing no damage whatsoever4. However, in the hours and days before the fall, the national authorities took into consideration the hypothesis of the fall of some pieces of the station on the Italian territory, being for a period under the orbit of the Tiangong 1. In this circumstance the Department has availed itself of the collaboration of the Italian Space Agency for the monitoring of the descent. In this specific case, the fruitful collaboration between the two bodies, besides demonstrating once again the good functioning of the Italian national civil protection system, has been fundamental on two specific aspects. The first was that of the actual monitoring of the fall. The Department, without the aid of the ASI, would not have had the skills and the means to carry out a constant analysis of the situation in real time. The ASI on the other hand does not have the possibility to alert structures in the territory in case of emergency and, more importantly, does not have the same communication capacity as the DPC. In the event of disasters or alarm situations, civil protection needs to communicate in a very short time with the citizens, trying to reassure and disseminate real and useful information, not creating unnecessary alarmism.

In conclusion it is evident that for natural disasters, anthropic emergencies and risks deriving from space, the use of space applications is becoming essential and necessary. The forecasting and prevention activities require up-to-date satellite data, the rescue, a professionally managed coordination and the restoration of a careful study of the territory and of the integrated data for long-term sustainable development.

1 Dr. Eng. M. Rukieh & Geol.Marwan Koudmani "Use of Space Technology for Natural Disaster Detection and Prevention",

2 Suha Ulgen and Craig Williams "Standardization of Geographic Names in Humanitarian Information Management (Towards a Humanitarian Spatial Data Infrastructure)", UNstats,

3 ESCAP Technical Paper "Sound practices in space technology applications for disaster risk reduction and inclusive and sustainable development", December 2013

4 Marta Russo "The warnings of the Civil Protection on the fall of Tiangong-1 in Italy", Wired, March 2018

(photo: ESA / Fraunhofer FHR)