A New Generation of Satellites and Balloons to Monitor the Environment

Satellites such as Sentinel, which photograph large land and marine areas with great regularity, have been changing the way in which crops, and forests are managed for years. However, new equipment and techniques are also revolutionizing our understanding of wildlife and the oceans. From balloons to satellite tagging and information transmission technologies, they are all making life easier for biologists and scientists. This is especially valuable in a time of great change within global warming.  

Rising sea levels

One of the most tangible impacts of climate change is the rise in ocean levels. That is why the launch of the Sentinel-6 satellite is excellent news for researchers. With a peculiar “doghouse” shape, the new satellite is already providing information about these variations on a planetary scale. The previous generation of satellites had already recorded an annual increase of three millimeters over the past thirty years, but Sentinel-6 will allow for much more detailed monitoring. The key is a high-precision altimeter that sends electromagnetic pulses to water surfaces, monitoring both sea level and waves. The data is then processed to obtain easily interpretable images. This technology project, promoted jointly by the USA and Europe, will allow to predict with greater precision the fate of coastal populations in the next decades. In fact, fifteen of the twenty-three largest cities in the world are currently located by the sea.  

Monitoring of marine species

In addition to monitoring the sea, satellite technology is being used to track its creatures. The results of a new project in this line have just been published in the scientific journal Animal Biotelemetry. The monitoring of underwater animals presents several challenges. Mainly, many of these species move at great depths in the open sea, areas that are not particularly characterized by 5G coverage. To solve the problem, a company has developed a pop-up tagging device that has accelerometers and thermometers. Thus, the depth and speed of swimming can be checked, as well as the water temperature for a period of up to three months. Once the device has completed its task, it is detached from the animal and rises to the surface, where it transmits all the information via satellite. As a starting point, it has been installed on cobia specimens in a laboratory tank equipped with cameras. This has made it possible to contrast the information from the sensors with the data obtained through the cameras. Once its reliability was proven, it was tested on sandbar shark specimens in the open sea for a period of one month. The researchers point out that this data will be fundamental to analyze the changes in the behavior of the species due to global warming.

And of land animals thanks to AI  

However, the seas are not the only area of work for these remote sensing technologies, which do not necessarily have to occupy a space orbit. One of the most promising projects is the use of balloons. Their use is common in weather forecasting, but they present the problem that they are at the expense of wind direction. This hinders their use in the study of specific areas, where it is necessary to maintain a geostationary position.

Fortunately, artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies are helping to solve the problem. In this way, the Loon project, focused on providing Internet to areas without coverage thanks to a network of super pressure balloons, is integrating AI into its devices. Thanks to it, the balloons ascend or descend autonomously by computing the wind speed at different heights, which allows them to return to their initial position. The device, powered by solar energy, uses historical data of wind direction and strength, and gradually learns to find its optimal height.

The promoters of the project, which has already carried out its first successful tests, point to the numerous applications. In addition to its use for telecommunications, it will be able to monitor the melting of permafrost, air quality in cities, the condition of woodlands, and animal migrations among other things.

Source: BBC, Nature, Science Daily

Imagen: Loon

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