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Satellite’s role in monitoring critical infrastructure

Updated: Nov 10, 2021

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Critical infrastructure such as railways, pipelines and electrical grids is susceptible to manmade threats. These unfortunate incidents are time-consuming and expensive to remedy. Satellite technology improves communication and helps diagnose potential problems in vital infrastructure quickly and accurately. This means less downtime and fewer catastrophic system failures, allowing companies to save resources and provide better service to their areas.

Manmade threats

  • This is when natural areas surrounding current infrastructure are further developed. Often, it has unforeseen consequences. For example, a floodplain could be displaced and the nearby infrastructure flooded.

  • Construction accidents. New construction near infrastructure could mean more than encroachment. Without meticulous planning and execution, earth movers or other heavy equipment can damage buried power lines or pipelines.

  • Purposeful damage. This happens when an individual actor or group causes purposeful damage to infrastructure. Examples include domestic or foreign terrorism, arson and other civil disturbances.

Satellite technology

Satellite technology plays an important role in the monitoring of and response to infrastructure problems. The bird’s-eye view allows for any changes in landscape to be seen quickly. Heavy machinery that’s in the wrong place can be identified before major damage is done. Here are a few ways businesses are using satellites to protect their infrastructure.

Communications. Satellite plays an integral part in communications systems throughout the world. If infrastructure is in a remote area or the client needs a redundant communications plan to avoid loss of connection, satellite technology should be implemented. Its wide coverage radius promotes connectivity with otherwise inaccessible locations. Whether there are maintenance teams that need to be in contact or the infrastructure is sending back important IoT data to be analyzed, satellite is a reliable, far-reaching communications solution.

Optical images. Optical sensors on satellites perform in the same way a camera sensor captures images for photography. They receive reflected light from the Earth’s surface to craft an image. Sensitivity is measured by the distance that’s covered between individual pixels of the image. Some sensors have low sensitivity, with the distance between pixels equal to more than 100 feet, while others are much more sensitive.

The highest-resolution sensors capture a distance of less than three feet between pixels. This can provide a lot of visual information and is helpful for seeing visible changes in infrastructure. But there are drawbacks to consider. Optical sensors can’t penetrate cloud cover or capture images in darkness since they rely on reflected light. This makes them unreliable during changing weather conditions and at night.

SAR images. Synthetic aperture radar sensors operate on a higher frequency of light in the electromagnetic spectrum as compared to optical sensors. Instead of gathering visible light, they transmit microwaves to the target and measure the backscattered radiation that is received. The information is then analyzed and presented as a two-dimensional image.

Today, SAR imaging is capable of similar sensitivities to optical imaging. The main advantages are its abilities to see through cloud cover and capture images in the dark. This makes it great for cloudy areas. Although it’s a fantastic option, it’s also more expensive than optical satellite imagery and is prone to noise at higher sensitivities. The noise makes it more difficult to properly analyze the images and special care has to be taken to account for it.

Thermal images. Thermal image sensors capture infrared radiation from the Earth. The spectrum of colors present in a thermal image corresponds to differences in temperature. Theoretically, this technology could be of great use in monitoring crucial infrastructure such as power lines, but in practice, the typical resolutions are too coarse. Even powerful thermal satellite image sensors are limited to about 300 feet in spatial resolution. This means perhaps thermal imaging is more useful when done by small aircraft (plane, helicopter or UAV), which can achieve much higher resolutions across a much smaller range of land.

Satellite thermal imaging has other interesting potential applications, however, such as tracking changes in the composition of the land. Large or sudden changes observed around the infrastructure’s general location could be used to predict issues. Maintenance teams would then be sent out to diagnose problems and prevent significant downtime.

Potential use cases

Satellite technology is useful for monitoring infrastructure in a number of sectors. The following examples show industries where it has been implemented recently.

Pipeline monitoring. Oil and gas pipelines are typically buried a mere 5 feet underground. This means they’re vulnerable to construction accidents. It’s estimated that, in Europe, excavations and other construction incidents lead to nearly half of gas pipeline failures.

With well over 2 million miles of pipeline in the world, monitoring with strictly ground-based solutions or small-craft aerial images is infeasible. Satellites provide wide coverage and high resolutions. Imaging satellites alert companies to macro changes in physical pipelines – i.e., explosions, damaged segments or ground movements – so that field personnel are dispatched promptly.

Power line monitoring. Utility companies have to monitor the health of power lines throughout their service area or risk major downtime. Satellite-based remote sensing solutions have been successful. For example, aerial images used by companies to make decisions regarding when to extract power line conductors have more than 90% accuracy. When this capability is paired with new, powerful AI image analysis software, future decisions could incorporate a high degree of automation, lowering response times.

Railway monitoring. Any significant deformation along the track of a railway has the potential for disastrous consequences. SAR satellites can track extremely precise changes over enormous distances. If a nearby construction accident displaces a section of track or purposeful damage is done, SAR satellites will be able to pick it up quickly. Solutions will soon integrate complex analysis algorithms to identify which deformations are serious and deserve immediate attention.

Businesses and agencies that need to monitor important infrastructure should integrate satellite technology into their strategies. Companies with critical data must find a trusted name in the industry. If you need reliable communications for your business, contact a helpful satellite professional today to discuss your options.

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