It’s raining data in the information desert

Sep 21, 2022 | potash news

When Google Earth was introduced in 2001, it was a blessing and a curse.  Everyone could suddenly zoom to a place they understood and marvel at the lovely pictures produced by satellites.  The curse was that the pictures were so lovely that it was assumed that they were the actual information.

There is a lot of jargon around satellites: active and passive sensors, ground resolution, spatial resolution, and spectral resolution.  Passive sensors rely on reflected energy, i.e. optical sensors, which rely on sunlight reflected from the surface of the earth. Pixel size is not as relevant as you might think (pixels sizes are somewhat arbitrary), and the question is “what is the size of object you need to see?”. Painted lines on the road will be visible in a one-metre pixel image and you will be able to tell if they are broken or solid with 50-centimetre pixels and count the broken segments at a 20-centimetre pixel image. Spectral resolution is how we quantify what part of the light energy spectrum is being sampled and how small each samples are. So for optical satellites, everyone is familiar with visible light and the satellites take that and minimally sample it into red, green, blue, but include near infrared regions just beyond the red.

While we continue to admire Google Earth, satellite companies have expanded and the world is awash in pixels.  On the sub-metre front, Airbus, Planet Labs, and others have one or more submetre satellites.  Maxar is an industry leader both in terms of the number of satellites and ground accuracy. There are satellites that measure greenhouse gasses, X-band, C-band, and L-band radar satellites, and even hyperspectral satellites.  All of them produce pictures, some prettier than others, but that’s not their true value. Satellite data is information dense, but it does take a little ingenuity and technical expertise to extract.

If you are a potash producer, what satellites do you need?  The actual question is what data do you want?  If it is elevation data, 30-centimetre optical satellite data will deliver a quality digital elevation model.  If it is a more subtle elevation change, subsidence, generally SAR (radar) satellites is the best choice.

If you want to look at your assets, including storage at the mine and at the port, sub-metre optical is the best choice. It is important to realize that if competitors anywhere in the world want to know about your production levels, they are already imaging you.

The most significant and overlooked advantage of satellite imagery is that you can derive the same information on a consistent basis over a broad area, even beyond the mine property. Change detection is powerful whether it is related to elevation, infrastructure, land use, or environmental integrity and health.

When you can take consistent measures over time, you can begin to automate this process.  When you take consist measurements over time, you can use those measurements in increasing complex modeling applications. You can start to go beyond what you can see.

Having demonstrated that this is more satellite data than a mine could ever consume, and that this data contains more information than most mines need, the final question is how do you convert this volume of data into insightful and actionable information? The answer is modeling and machine learning. Western Heritage’s EFMP platform has the ability to run complex models in the Cloud (or locally) and it can access and run information on specific models developed by the wider research community. These models can utilize existing data or they can pull and utilize imagery from remote services. Since all forms of imagery data are information dense, complex models can take a while unless you have access to a number of virtual cores: hence the Cloud.

We talked primarily about satellite imagery, but information can be extracted from photos obtained from drones and fixed sensors. The EFMP platform has the ability for extra information from drone imagery, or to incorporate data from ground-based sensors.

The information desert is in full bloom with new data arriving from the sky every day. Western Heritage can help you harvest the information you need.