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God’s eye view: unpacking satellite data’s potential for water

Satellite data is being used to better measure water resources of earth, but one leading digital expert says there’s huge potential for much deeper and broader applications, particularly when it comes to meeting water challenges.

GHD Digital’s Market Leader (NSW) and Chartered Hydrogeologist Jason Carr, who is also a Director of the National Space Society, said data produced from space satellites and sensors has the potential to help address some of our biggest sustainability issues.

“The ability to monitor changes on the planet is really important in tracking and meeting our goals around sustainability and ensuring we don’t overstep planetary boundaries,” he said.

“Satellite data is important when we work with companies operating in the built environment, too. We want to make sure the developments we're working on are sustainable. And the conversation around sustainability and how space tech can help is increasing.”

Carr said that while satellite data can help monitor the effects of how our sustainability initiatives are — or are not — playing out, there’s also a lot of potential for this information to inform new services and products that can be applied.

“No matter what we do, we impact the earth, and we can very accurately measure the positives and the negatives of those actions from space. But all sorts of industries are now starting to think about how else we can use satellite data, even in smaller ways for individual companies,” he said. 

“We’re seeing a lot more interest in how to integrate this data into business practices. Plenty of people are starting to think about how this data can be used to create new solutions for big problems.”

Space data boom

Carr said there was significant transformation occurring within the space technology sector due to the sheer number of satellites, sensors and low-earth equipment available for data collection.

“Along with this comes a whole range of new telecommunication applications. For example, Elon Musk’s Starlink system is making remote access more available, and this will help connectivity with more stations on the ground,” he said.

“But in parallel, the digital transformation in company culture has come a very long way in the past five years.”

Carr said that the space-tech boom is great news for the water sector. It is bolstering deep and complex application of data for developing water management pathways, with recent studies into suitable pumped hydro locations offering a noteworthy example.

Led by Professor Andrew Blakers, in 2017 the ANU completed an audit of 22,000 potential sites across Australia for pumped hydro energy storage, a study that was informed by satellite data.

“In this case, the data from satellites was extremely useful for the water-energy nexus community. Since the initial study was published, the amount of potential sites for pumped hydro has been expanded to 616,000 sites globally,” Carr said.

“The data was based on SRTM, or ‘shuttle radar topography mission’ data, which covers 1 arc-second digital elevation models. The findings show that there is a global storage potential of 23 million gigawatt hours, which is 100 times greater than what's required to support 100% renewable electricity globally.”

Carr said with pumped hydro now recognised as a crucial part of the transition to renewable energy, the use of satellite data has helped push this area of work into the next phase of iteration.

But there are plenty of other ways satellite data can be applied – such as helping to model climate scenarios, including predicting the severity of future floods and droughts, but also real-time development of extreme weather events.

“As a hydrological practitioner, being able to produce real-time floodplain modeling has been on the agenda for about a decade now, and to achieve this we need a continuous stream of detailed data, but also the processing power and skills sets to create new platforms,” he said.

“There's huge potential for helping emergency response teams and service providers, and satellite data is crucial in creating the models we need for this.

“There's a lot of room to take advantage of this data, not only for universities, agencies and organisations, but also entrepreneurs, as well, to produce new services and products.”

More to see, more to do

Carr said the options for applying space-derived data are almost endless, particularly when it comes to how we can better manage water resources.

“Once you realise how detailed and accurate this data is, it’s almost impossible not to start dreaming up potential ways to use it,” he said.

“It can be incredibly useful in so many different water contexts. There's river management, there's agricultural applications, of course, but there are opportunities for storm water, sewer and even urban heat management.

“We can get unbelievably detailed information about our catchments. And we can use it to help us plan for how our new cities will be managed and run, and how we can make them more livable and resilient.”

Aside from the potential to dream up and create next-generation applications, Carr said the transparency offered by this growing data set is already helping to drive conversations around water management issues.

“In many ways, we can't hide from what's happening in some of our basins because we have this data available now. When it comes to water management, satellites like the Grace Mission have enabled us to see what’s happening with water underneath our feet,” he said.

“Using gravity data, the Grace Mission looked at the changes in the relative mass of the earth over time, which allows us to broadly track the settlement and depletion of large aquifers and underground reservoirs. 

“It allowed us to measure massive declines in groundwater associated with agriculture in California, for instance, as well as the reality that the Indonesian city Jakarta is sinking due to the over extraction of groundwater.”

Carr said one of the important applications of satellite data in pursuit of better water management in Australia has been seen in the regulation of water licenses in the Murray-Darling Basin.

“Authorities such as the Natural Resource Access Regulator (NRAR) are using satellite data to help track and regulate water users by using data from satellites. In 2020, the NRAR worked with the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) and Geoscience Australia to conduct the largest, most systematic monitoring effort in its history,” he said.

“But also, when this information becomes public, it places more pressure on our authorities to get things right, in terms of managing surface and groundwater sources.”

What lies ahead

Carr said that, despite the growing momentum behind the transition to digital, one of the major barriers to further developing the implementation of satellite data is developing the right organisational culture.

“Digital, as a field, is fairly agnostic. One of the consistent barriers I see to digital transformation is building the right culture around innovation. We can have access to all the data imaginable, but giving practitioners the space to experiment and applying it effectively is still a major challenge,” he said.

“Having access to quality data is just one element; it is just as important for companies and organisations to become culturally familiar with building and leveraging new data skill sets.”

Companies often struggle with upskilling staff to the level required to understand how to move forward with opportunities. Just because a team has the technical skill to create an interesting bespoke analysis, doesn’t mean they have the skill to scale and productise the solution, Carr said.

“When it comes to creating a new data product for a regulator, the government, for a specific user or for agriculture, you need to have teams that understand the problem, the industry, and have the entrepreneurial skill set to get a scalable product off the ground using industry language customers and clients understand,” he said.

“The data's always been relatively available. Often, it's the transition to figuring out how to apply it in the most meaningful and effective way that’s really challenging.”

But, Carr said, the cost of entry is getting lower and lower, and as the price of satellites, sensors and even space travel missions continues to decline, there will be more and more opportunities for further experimentation and collaboration.

“Since the Australian Space Agency formed, there has been a lot more interest in innovation and potential projects and applications. And for our water sector, it’s a good idea for us to consider what types of measurements we really need, as more opportunities are opening up for further research and testing, and even to consider developing and launching our own satellites,” he said.

“To take advantage of this, we need to see digital experts collaborating more with our water practitioners to make meaningful products. We need to have more interdisciplinary conversations occurring between government, industry and academia.

“What are our business needs? What are the needs of our community? We already know we need to become more customer-centric and more resilient, but satellite data needs to be a key part of these conversations to identify effective solutions.”