Satellites and drones reveal the world in images

Analysing raw images

Each day, satellites, drones and cameras on aircraft, cars and boats present an accurate image of the world. VITO processes and analyses these images to determine how our environment is evolving and changing. VITO performs these analyses for various customers. One of which is Information Flanders (formerly the Agency for Geographic Information Flanders, AGIV), which was commissioned by the Flemish government to maintain the Large-scale Reference Database (LRD). This database contains geographic information on buildings, lots, roads, waterways and railways. VITO analyses the raw images for Information Flanders. Jan Biesemans: “Detecting changes in civil infrastructure is an important task. But the incoming images also provide information on the entire ecosystem over time. So based on images, pronouncements can be made on global and regional trends in vegetation, water quality and forest development. You can also visualise the exact condition of agricultural land and predict possible famine in specific areas. And closer to home, drones are now also being used to detect damage to all types of infrastructure: windmills, facades, bridges …”

Accurate up to 1 centimetre

Detecting all of these changes requires various types of images. Jan Biesemans: “Some analyses require more precise data than others. Which is why we are increasingly combining images from different campaigns. Satellites such as SPOT-Vegetation and the Belgian mission PROBA-V chart the world daily. These images have at best a resolution of 100 metres. The images of the European Copernicus programme with the Sentinel satellites not only can view the Earth, they can also zoom in on regions with a resolution of 10 metres. In addition to satellite programmes, many countries and regions are conducting aerial image campaigns. This already allows the creation of images with an accuracy down to 5 centimetres. These can be combined with images made from drones, cars or boats that have an even higher resolution, enabling a much more precise visualisation of the terrain.”

Open data

The influx of images is huge thanks to the many satellites and aerial image campaigns. Processing these is a major technological challenge. For this reason, VITO Remote Sensing developed the Mission Exploitation Platform (MEP). Jan Biesemans: “MEP is actually a dynamically scalable cluster of computers that can simultaneously perform multiple analyses and that can be deployed locally (at VITO) or in the public cloud. Each researcher can make use of the computing power of MEP. Thus you no longer need to download the data locally, but can work on a cloud platform where the images are already archived.” “Open data is the future. The trend of making data and images freely available is becoming ever more apparent. This is a big advantage, since this also gives us easier access to images. This development is also accelerating research. And the use of the images continues to grow.”

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