Clearings – clues to where illegal logging might be happening – can only be seen from above, but aircraft patrols are expensive.
Satellites are being used as “CCTV in the sky” to protect vulnerable rainforests against illegal logging.
Operators working in mission control – a converted church in Edinburgh – are scanning photos taken by satellites for tree felling in the Guatemalan jungle.
They are able to relay coordinates to police rangers on the ground, who can take action far more quickly than previously possible.
Forests cover a third of Guatemala’s land area, but every year around 1% of the trees are cleared.
Trees are cut by drug gangs to grow crops and make runways, by farmers to expand livestock grazing, and criminals making profit from timber.
The clearings can only be seen from above, but aircraft patrols are expensive and only cover a small area.
Satellites orbiting 500 miles above the planet provide a cheaper and more comprehensive eye in the sky.
Steve Lee, chief executive of Stevenson Astrosat, told Sky News: “All this data we collect could be useful for prosecutions.
“We did fly a plane and it cost a fortune, and took us a whole day just to fly one area.
“The advantage of satellites is they’re always on, and they’re cheap over time – once you get them up there.
“You don’t have to have pilots, you’re not worried about the weather, so that constant access helps.”
The company uses software to overlay satellite photos taken of the Maya Biosphere Reserve over a period of time.
Brown patches appearing where there used to be an unbroken green carpet suggest tree felling and are flagged for further investigation.
“There’s a lot of intelligent science behind this, humans only come in at the last minute,” said Mr Lee.
“This has not been done before – putting the power satellites in the hands of policemen, particularly policemen who spend their days in the jungle.
“Deforestation is taking air out of our lungs.”
The same technology could verify the source of timber used by furniture companies.
The company uses photos taken by the European Sentinel satellites, part of the Copernicus programme.
Around 10 terabytes of data – enough to fill more than 2,000 DVDs – is sent down by the satellites every day, including radar scans, infra-red images and high resolution photos.
The open-access data is used for hundreds of applications, including polar ice monitoring, atmospheric analysis and sea level change.
The UK Space Agency is supporting companies that are developing analytical software to make sense of the data for commercial use.
It has put up £152m over five years for its International Partnership Programme, which focuses on satellite-based solutions for developing countries.
Ray Fielding, head of the programme, said: “It provides monsoon warnings as well as flood predication models, and provides also drought and resilience models, which tell subsistence farmers just when they have to fertilise their crops or water their crops, or even in some cases, when there’s a pest likelihood about to approach.
“It allows them to take active measures to ensure they don’t lose everything and their crops aren’t wiped out.”
The UK Space Agency said the projects should become self-sustaining in time, as companies win Earth-monitoring contracts with more countries.
Source : Sky News