Space Detectives – The Future of Satellite Imaging



One of the leading technological feats which humans have achieved is in the field of satellite imagery. With a vast array of uses in the fields of meteorology, oceanography, fishing, agriculture, geology and many more fields, satellite imagery has now penetrated in day to day life as well with the help of Google’s satellite imaging. A wonderful piece of satellite image software like Google Earth has given a whole new perspective when it comes to navigation.

In the middle of a boundary squabble with your neighbour? Want to find out who is dumping waste near your house? You need to call the space detectives.

Satellite imaging specialist Raymond Harris and space lawyer Raymond Purdy – both at University College London – have just launched Air & Space Evidence Ltd of London, the world’s first space detective agency.

The pair intends to use their combined experience of space-based photographic databases and Earth observation privacy law to ensure that people can wield authentic imagery that stands up in court. They want everyone to have the chance to use space imagery to settle legal disputes, from homeowners disputing garden boundaries to businesses fighting vehicle theft. Insurers might find it useful in investigating fraud and councils in tackling environmental assaults such as waste incineration or illegal logging and quarrying. And it won’t cost much more than having your house surveyed, Harris says. won’t cost much more than having your house surveyed.

It might seem a simple matter for someone to use Google Earth, say, or Microsoft’s Bing images to obtain evidence to support their case. Why would they need space detectives? But it is not so simple. Finding the right pictures means trawling through huge databases of historical satellite data, and lawsuits involving such approaches frequently fail. “Trials have been collapsing because courts cannot be convinced of the authenticity of image data,” says Purdy. For instance, people cannot be sure a given satellite was working on the day in question, or that the area of land imaged is actually the land at issue.

We can make a difference by ensuring space images have audit trails that stand up

The space detectives will use their expertise in commissioning space images to order, and their familiarity with the databases of space image suppliers like Digital Globe of Longmont, Colorado. “We can make a difference by ensuring space images have audit trails that stand up,” says Purdy. “Because it is always possible to modify a digital image, you need strong archiving procedures plus information on when it was captured and what happened to it subsequently,” says Harris.  “We know how to do that.” The pair have a track record as expert witnesses in satellite imaging cases.

Purdy, for instance, advised on a case in which illegal waste incineration had ruined a large chunk of pristine land. “When I showed space imagery to the judge and they saw the extent of the damage it gave them a new perspective. That led to a harsher sentence,” he says.

In cases where images with greater resolution are needed, the pair plan to use aerial imagery from drones, provided local aviation and privacy laws permit.

Such cases might include a suspicious spouse checking licence plates to see if a car belongs to their partner, or an insurer checking a car is parked off-road as claimed. But most of the work will involve images taken by orbiting satellites, especially as recent earth observation start-ups like Planet Labs and Skybox Imaging make inexpensive space imagery more widely available.

There is a need for space detectives… because finding the right pictures takes a lot of work.

Paul Champion, a private investigator based in Cardiff, UK, and a governor of the Association of British Investigators, says the notion of space-based detection is fascinating. “It’s an innovative idea. Investigators will really welcome the ability to identify when an incident occurred using before and after satellite or aerial images.” “There is a need for space detectives,” says Joanne Wheeler, a space lawyer at Bird & Bird in London, because finding the right pictures takes a lot of work. “If you are looking for imagery in the past it is difficult to find exactly what you are looking for,” she says.

Wheeler has sought satellite imagery as evidence in three cases – a murder, assessing the progress of a bridge and checking on the completion of a mine. For the murder case, it was impossible to find images that covered the few hours she needed. Her team had similar problems on the bridge case, but Wheeler says someone with more specialised knowledge might have done better. “If you know what you might want, a space detective agency would be a great service.”

This particular satellite imaging service is first of its kind and more are bound to come in the future. It may also invade privacy but there is surely a silver lining to this.


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Sources & References:

  • New Scientist (October 2014)
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