How Space Can Change the Future of P3s

Remote imaging can provide a whole new perspective on infrastructure projects by providing new insights from space. Gordon Feller reports

Space-based remote sensing is becoming increasingly important to infrastructure owners and operators who build and manage P3s.

As the effects of climate change have become more visible, the players in the infrastructure business - whether they are in the private sector or in public agencies - are being asked by investors and lenders: how will your asset be impacted by changes?

Valuable insights are being extracted from all of this data, and that in turn is shaping how infrastructure projects are designed, engineered, constructed and managed for success. Thus, data captured from space about what’s happening on Earth is becoming a critical element of the concerns which P3 investors bring to the projects.

Imagery from space has become a valuable part of the whole effort to monitor infrastructure. “Owners of infrastructure can use satellite-based imagery sources to monitor the location and condition of their assets reliably,” explains Beau Legeer, director of imagery & remote sensing at geographic information system (GIS) specialists, Esri. “This can be done by using high-resolution imagery with identification methods to identify and catalog assets and then repeat these processes to check on changes.”

Infrastructure investors can utilize satellite-based imagery sources to verify and validate the existence and condition of assets of interest. Legeer thinks that “very high-resolution data from aerial platforms and sources can inspect and monitor the condition of critical parts of infrastructure to assist owners and parties of interest and further validate asset condition and function”. Esri’s imagery tools are used by infrastructure organizations to extract insights, identify changes, and add features into their systems of record. Satellite and other overhead sources provide the raw materials that power these workflows - and Legeer argues that they “add value to infrastructure owners and investors”.

Commercial space-based radio frequency (RF) data is a new source of global knowledge. Some companies are harnessing this data as they seek out breakthrough insights about environmental changes, shifts in global security, and humanitarian challenges around the world. RF data is now being fused with other forms of intelligence, such as satellite imagery or Synthetic-Aperture Radar (SAR) data. SAR is an important form of information which is widely used to create two-dimensional images or three-dimensional reconstructions of objects. When working together, these different forms of information can further contextualize any given situation on the ground. 

HawkEye 360 is an RF data analytics company. According to Adam Bennett, senior director of product marketing, the company “currently has 12 satellites orbiting in clusters of three, with multiple additional launches scheduled for 2022. These satellite clusters detect, characterize, and geolocate a variety of RF emissions from many kinds of equipment.” 

He provides a list that includes such items as automatic identification systems; marine radio systems; navigation radar systems; satellite phones; and emergency radio beacons. Once signals of interest are identified, the HawkEye 360 satellites can track changes in activity on their subsequent revisits over that particular piece of the Earth’s surface.

With their satellites now fully operating in Earth orbit, HawkEye 360 has become the undisputed trailblazer in the collection of space-based RF data. Its aim is to equip customers - from any point on Earth - with actionable insights needed to run businesses, manage governments, or track changes in the natural environment, the business ecosystem, and/or the larger global community.

HawkEye 360's satellites are also capable of detecting sources of GPS interference and jamming, which are used as an electronic countermeasure to block or inundate signals with false information. 

Here’s one interesting an example of how insights can help those who are focused on infrastructure in the coldest Northern regions of the world: HawkEye 360’s RF data yielded insights into the year-round surge of activity across the Arctic. This boom in marine activity is one of the consequences of fading sea ice. The company identified vessels traveling through channels that did not previously exist. And they detected varying concentrations of VHF communication in unexpected places - an indication that more organizations will require better ports in order to support all of the new shipping activity. 

According to Bennett: “The insights HawkEye 360 derives from its RF signal collection reveal human activity in response to climate change, not climate change itself. As the Arctic melts, aggressive actors and nation states are seizing opportunities to stake their claims in the region.”

RF data is now being used to illuminate major shifts in economic activity, such as the global impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Bennett offers one helpful example: Italy contains some of the biggest shipping ports in Europe, transporting 13.9% of the EU’s freight volume. When the northern provinces emerged as an early Covid-19 hotspot for Europe, the country implemented strong control measures in an attempt to stem the tide of the pandemic. 

HawkEye 360 identified radar data points for vessels traveling within 50km of the Italian coastline. The company compared the X-band navigation radar data for 11 days in early March 2020, before the country-wide lockdown, against 11 days in the middle of March in 2020, when the lockdown was in full force.

The difference was stark: a 51% drop in maritime activity between the periods of comparison. Interestingly, vessel traffic spiked around the start of the lockdown, potentially indicating a surge of people leaving the country for safer tourism opportunities. By examining changes in vessel patterns, HawkEye 360 data revealed how significantly the lockdown impacted Italy and harmed the national economy by cutting off tourism and reducing trade. RF data collection and analysis shines a bright light on different patterns of human activity to make better decisions for a safer and more sustainable world.  

The providers of space-based remote sensing are the companies which own what space experts call the “orbiting platforms”. In 2022 these commercial satellite companies are experiencing unprecedented growth, thanks to recent leaps in technological innovation. According to Tom Stroup, president of the Satellite Industry Association (SIA), “commercial remote sensing satellites are being designed and deployed faster and more economically than ever before”. 

Among those companies are names which many will know:  Lockheed, Boeing, Airbus, Thales, Northrup Grumman. But there are many other well-financed and profitable firms with names that few will recognize, such as PlanetLabs, SkyWatch, cloudeo, Satellite Imaging Corp, BlackSky Technology, Orbital Insight, Space Dynamics Laboratory, Millennium Engineering and Integration, Maxar Intelligence, Astro Digital and EarthDaily Analytics.

SIA has been reminding government and corporate leaders that these space-based assets provide ever increasing amounts of critical data that businesses and government need access to, on a real-time basis. The data streams include weather and storm imaging, wildfire events, crop and forest conditions. It also includes defense and homeland security imaging including troop movements, plus a host of other earth observation datasets that support enterprise and government customers to make decisions once they possess accurate information. 

Stroup says that “because of the industry’s recent growth, satellite start-up firms including remote sensing companies, are capturing the attention of the investment community. The number of venture capital firms investing in start-up space increased to 410 in 2021 from just 223 firms in 2020, while a record number of satellite M&A deals were closed in 2021 and several space start-ups went public, including two satellite remote sensing companies.”

Gordon Feller is Global Fellow at the Smithsonian Institution. He served for years as Director of Urban Innovations at Cisco’s global HQ