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Eyes in the sky to save lives during disasters

Copernicus satellites will be able to observe weather systems from above. © Shutterstock/Mechanik
Copernicus satellites will be able to observe weather systems from above. © Shutterstock/Mechanik

A network of European satellites could save lives during floods and landslides as researchers work out how to help people use data from the world’s biggest earth monitoring system.

A dozen new satellites are being launched into low earth orbit as part of the EU's Copernicus programme with the support of the European Space Agency (ESA) to give the clearest pictures yet of the land, seas and atmosphere.

Earth observation satellites have many uses. They can monitor deforestation, track the retreat of sea ice, help to manage agriculture and city planning, forecast the weather, and map the progress of climate change. However, one of the most innovative applications of Copernicus is mitigating the effects of natural disasters.

The Copernicus Emergency Mapping Service (EMS) started in April 2012 on the basis of pre-operational precursor projects is already providing some maps of natural and man-made disasters in Europe and in the rest of the world such as floods, earthquakes, forest fires and explosions.

Dr Hannes Taubenböck, a geographer at the German Aerospace Center, said everyone from town planners to the general public is reliant on observations of the environment to prepare and respond to natural disasters. ‘Such information is often missing or not readily accessible,’ Dr Taubenböck said.

Dr Taubenböck is working within the EU-funded SENSUM project to solve that problem with the development of software tools. These tools will continuously translate data from Copernicus into something that is easy to interpret – so even untrained people can view relevant observations when a natural disaster occurs.

As an example, Dr Taubenböck gives extreme rainfall: in such a situation the software would accurately identify which sets of observations from Copernicus show the pattern of flooding and the infrastructure at risk. Then, authorities could quickly direct their emergency resources.

As Copernicus’s observational capacity improves, it is hoped that projects such as SENSUM will grow from being experiments to fully fledged services.

The first Sentinel satellite, which will host radar instruments, was launched by the ESA on 3 April 2014 from Kourou in French Guiana. A dozen more Sentinels will follow in the coming months and years, with the last foreseen Sentinel going into orbit around 2030. The satellites are grouped into six ‘Sentinel’ groups, and comprise two satellites each.

The Copernicus satellites will be complemented by an array of earth-based sensors, managed by the European Environment Agency.

‘I believe it is important for geohazard information to be easily accessible, understood and available to any user.’

Claire Roberts, coordinator, PanGeo

Mapping danger

Other European projects are trying to mitigate the effects of natural disasters in different ways. IncREO, for example, plans to overlay Copernicus’s data on existing maps so that it is possible to see where the disasters are most likely to occur.

For instance, an IncREO map of Buzău County in Romania overlaid with radar data could be used by a local authority to draft evacuation plans and prevent construction in ‘hotspots’ which are prone to landslides.

A similar project called PanGeo seeks to make information gathered by the Copernicus system on geological hazards – including landslides and ground collapse – more accessible to planning authorities and the public by presenting it on the web. By logging onto a web portal, anyone from 52 of the biggest European towns and cities can learn how susceptible their region is to geological damage or risk, known as geohazards.

‘I believe it is important for geohazard information to be easily accessible, understood and available to any user,’ said Claire Roberts, coordinator of PanGeo.

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