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When Yogi Berra said, “You can observe a lot just by watching,” he was on to something. It’s certainly the case when it comes to satellite images – where lots of information can be gleaned through observation from above – although that was probably the furthest thing from Yogi’s mind when he made that statement many years ago.

Through hundreds of eyes in the sky over the Earth, we are capturing and analyzing images that can be used to provide insights to industries as diverse as farming, oil & gas, urban planning and more. Early adopters in industries such as financial services are starting to reap the benefits, but the advantages are there for the taking for all types of businesses and organizations.

While satellites have been around since the Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957, for the last twenty or so years they have been used primarily by government and communications companies. In addition to military uses, the government has relied on satellites for scientific endeavors – from measuring radiation in the Earth’s magnetic field and observing weather patterns to exploring planets. Communications companies started using satellites for television broadcasting following the first satellite broadcast of the Tokyo Olympics in 1964.

If Satellite Imagery is the Eyes, then AI is the Brains

But what’s bringing about a new burst of interest in satellite imagery is its pairing with Artificial Intelligence (AI). The massive number of images that come from satellites aren’t worth anything if you can’t make sense of them. While satellite imagery gives us an elevated look at massive amounts of images, new AI-based algorithms are giving us the means to comprehend them — to mine, process and find patterns in the images.

Bringing Insight to the Images

But, there’s a lot that goes into turning images into insights and it requires an army of people to do it. You need to have data engineers to gather, store and put the data in a format that is useable for analysis, as well as make it accessible to data scientists, who in turn build algorithms to analyze and make sense of it. But before the data scientists can do that, they need to teach the intelligent application to recognize objects in the images, and distinguish for example, a car from a bus. That requires a great deal of time and effort, with data specialists, or private crowds, annotating and labeling huge volumes of images in order for data scientist to be able to use them.

The other consideration when it comes to using AI to detect images is that it’s never “one and done.” AI applications need to be continuously improved, or “taught” to be able to deliver the insights that companies are looking for.

The information you gain from these images can be used to quickly and accurately derive insight that would be nearly impossible to detect and analyze with the human eye and brain. It’s becoming a new way for companies to predict future outcomes and read between the lines. For example, it provides new sources of intel that could help hedge fund managers predict where markets are going and inform investment decisions. Satellite imagery can help them assess, for example, the health of the oil & gas industry by seeing how many cargo ships may be in a given port; or the shadow of oil tank lids, indicating the volume of oil that they contain. It could also be used to predict retail revenue by counting how many cars are in mall parking lots, among many other projections.

Benefiting from the technology today

Here are some other examples of how satellite imagery and AI are providing critical insights today:

  • Increasing crop yields – Microsoft is working with the International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) to help farmers in India achieve better crop yields. Using a satellite that provides images on the stages of crop growth, along with weather information and AI technology, they created an AI-Sowing app to predict the best day to sow the crops to get a better outcome.
  • Protecting human rights – In addition to commercial uses, it is being used by nonprofits, such as human rights organizations, to expose abuses and conflicts, like detecting prison camps, mass graves and villages that have been burned.
  • Tracking economic growth – By monitoring the numbers of cars, electric lights in the night sky and construction, we can track the development and economic growth of countries around the world.
  • Locating solar panels – The solar industry is using satellite imaging to see where solar panels are located and based on that, along with weather data, they can determine which homes would be well suited for them. The city of San Jose, California is using this technique on a larger scale to locate where they could generate additional energy from new panels.

These major applications are currently underway, and many more innovative opportunities are on the horizon. When combined with AI, satellite imagery sheds light on key, previously hidden information that can lead to greater clarity and business growth. By leveraging such out-of-this-world insight, companies can bring their business planning and execution to a whole new level.

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