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11 Critical Uses of SAR, Part II: From Environmental Science to Market Analysis

Under the Radar: A World of Complexity

Humanity’s impact on the environment is intensifying, but so too is our capacity to innovate. While we contribute to runaway processes like global warming and conflict, collective ingenuity and technology provide ample opportunity to improve the quality of life for ourselves and the planet.

As the saying goes: with great power, comes great responsibility.

To evaluate, decide, and enact change, we require information, which begins with data. Much of our data about the planet is derived from satellites — radar, optical, and otherwise. Optical data is plentiful, highly useful, and undoubtedly awe-inspiring, but 70 percent of Earth is occluded by clouds and almost half is in darkness at any given time.

Unlike optical data, SAR isn’t limited by these lighting or atmospheric conditions, making it particularly useful for extracting high-precision information with fewer satellite passes. Standalone or combined with optical data, SAR-based insights support complex global applications with crucial information for detection, prediction, monitoring, and tracking of events.

In our last blog, we looked at some critical applications of SAR technology, like land mine detection and water management. Below we consider applications like environmental science and infrastructure management.

5. Environmental Science

Released in August 2021, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that humans have been responsible for approximately 1.1°C of warming since 1850-1900. Over the next two decades, it’s expected that the global temperature average will rise at least 1.5°C more.

Beyond environmental issues like water pollution, deforestation, and biodiversity loss, greenhouse gas emissions have led to issues like deep-ocean warming and rising sea levels — all to the detriment of global populations. From infrastructure collapse to increasing droughts and famine, it’s clear that human quality of life and environmental health are anything but mutually exclusive.

Without committed environmental policies and responses like emissions reductions and innovation investment, global warming will continue to have an increasingly disastrous impact. While some environmental improvements to areas like air quality could be rapid, the IPCC reports that certain issues like sea-level rise may not be reversible for hundreds or even thousands of years, and calls for “strong and sustained reductions in emissions of [CO2] and other greenhouse gases,” like methane.

Source: IPCC - Under all scenarios, the surface temperature average will increase until mid-century.

Multiple SAR data types — like X-band and L-band — can be combined with optical imagery to improve tracking, prediction, and overall management of environmental degradation and the strategies to combat it. The results can range from improved agricultural practices to safer communities while tracking everything from glacier melt and ground subsidence to rising sea levels.

How SAR is Used for Environmental Management:

Glacier melt & annual snowpack: SAR measurements are highly accurate and time-series analysis allows for a better understanding of accelerated glacier melt, which impacts water supplies, especially during times of drought.

Sea-level rise: analyze, predict, and measure coastal subsidence and impact on coastal ecology and infrastructure.

Drought & precipitation patterns: improved analysis and prediction of agricultural yields, drought impact, and potential famine.

Irrigation management: precise analysis of water availability and prediction of agricultural yield predictions.

Wildfires: detection and prediction of fires, thanks in part to the ability to collect data through the cloud, smoke, and darkness.

Wetland changes, deforestation, and biomass: land type and use classified and mapped, while identifying vegetation, biomass, and soil moisture

Flooding and landslides: detection, tracking, and prediction based on surrounding vegetation, land feature changes, and land subsidence

Renewable energy site selection: applied data analysis can evaluate uncertainty, winds, tides, and waves while delivering forecasts related to animal habitats, and more.

Natural disaster monitoring: rapid monitoring can be a matter of life and death. Being able to "see-through" buildings, rubble, and land features, SAR is particularly adept at improving the management of post-disaster efforts — further aided by the efficiency of onboard data processing.

6. Civic Infrastructure

Climate change and infrastructure are inextricably linked, with infrastructure already experiencing the impact of increasing natural disasters like storms, floods, landslides, sea-level rise, etc. The cost of implementing efficient infrastructure management is incredibly high, but the cost of inefficient management — to people and economies —is far higher.

Beyond civic infrastructure like roads and train rails, oil and gas management, and insurance investigation, SAR allows organizations to improve monitoring and management of vast infrastructure networks and make predictions about where costly problems might occur next.

“The infrastructure investment gap, left unaddressed, could cost the U.S. $10 trillion of lost GDP by 2039.” — Council on Foreign Relations

Aging infrastructure is a critical global problem in developed and developing regions alike. Budget cuts, on-site inspection costs, and ballooning urban populations also mean that the cost of poor management is ominously high. From bridge maintenance and insurance estimates to disaster response, the cost of efficient infrastructure management can be extreme across sectors, with mismanagement leading to potential human casualties and losses in billions of dollars.

To improve these ongoing efforts, spaceborne SAR can detect damaged civic infrastructure like bridges and train tracks, port facilities and dams, while predicting disasters and accidents by monitoring ground subsidence.

Data-driven decision making — inspection, evaluation, and action — can make a large and sometimes immediate impact:

Bridge engineering: inspections prioritized, costs reduced, and safety improves

3D modelling: data footprint of <400km, largest of all NewSpace SAR providers

Land subsidence: millimetric data predicts stability issues and determines risks

Road pre-evaluations: Reduced cost, with fewer physical inspections required

Safety & Security: Improved monitoring and accuracy

Inspection & Repair: Improved efficiency and management

Time series collection: data utility and analysis improve over time

For a more detailed look at infrastructure management and how it can be aided by SAR data, please download our latest free white paper.

7. Market Prediction & Analysis

Nearly 1.9 billion metric tons of crude oil were shipped in 2020 across the globe, and about 11 billion tons of goods are shipped every year, at an average of 1.5 tons per person. With so much of the global economy riding on the back of international shipping routes, tracking those shipments can be lucrative for industry analysts, groups, and competitors.

Of course, tracking anything in a maritime environment can prove extremely difficult, depending upon the trade route. With the ability to image at night and below clouds, SAR’s 24/7 capture capabilities allow for tracking of oil containers continually across the globe. With a wide swath, a sensor’s ability to efficiently cover maritime areas increases, as narrower swaths make maritime coverage more difficult.

Tracking vessels involves monitoring current trajectories and anticipated movement:

  • Vessel movement and destination prediction

  • Estimated time of arrivals

  • Vessel types classified with onboard satellite processing

  • Qualifiers: dimension, capacity, ownership

Beyond ocean trade routes, activity near land-based businesses is also monitored more accurately from SAR satellites. Increased factory activity from road and rail shipments can indicate market progress while counting cars in retailer parking lots can allow data analysts to predict industry and competitor momentum.

8. Solar System Exploration

Moon surface captured from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO). Image Credit: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University

Since Galileo first spotted it in 1610, humans have had their sights set on Mars. Recently, the Red Planet has inspired high-profile exploratory missions like those led by NASA and SpaceX. In Canada, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) has recently renewed its commitment to advancing exploration of the moon, Mars, and other interplanetary missions.

Working with the CSA, NASA, and Italian Space Agency (ASI), the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) announced in early 2021 that it would launch the Mars Ice Mapper (MIM), a SAR-equipped satellite that could capture data for two broad scientific aims:

  • Analyze water and ice distribution below Mars’s surface

  • Determine the changes that Mars has experienced over time

Studies into SAR analysis of subsurface geomorphology (inaccessible to most sensors) show that SAR should be able to detect ice 1-10 meters below the surface with L-band radar. This can reveal water, ice, and volcanic features, while creating highly accurate digital elevation models, regardless of atmospheric and light conditions.

As the scientific study of Mars progresses, processing technologies like highspeed onboard SAR data processing can allow for swifter analysis and delivery of that data. The data is processed on the satellite itself and in near-real-time, which increases the utility of SAR data derived from below the planet’s crust.

Traditionally, enormous amounts of raw SAR data must be downlinked to ground stations and processed by software on Earth-bound servers. It's a time-consuming and relatively inefficient process that can slow the delivery of information and, in some cases, limits its utility.

The Evolution of EO Continues

From sub-metric imagery and video to Earth-penetrating radar, Earth Observation technology has become a crucial tool to monitor our impact, understand global issues, and raise our collective quality of life — an impressive trajectory since the first image of Earth from space was captured in 1945.

Stay tuned for our upcoming applications blog, where we’ll take a closer look at earthquake detection and space archaeology.

To learn more about infrastructure management and how SAR plays a role, remember to download our white paper.


SpaceAlpha Insights ("Alpha") is a Vancouver-based space company that's developing next-gen Earth Observation satellites for heightened geospatial intelligence. Alpha's SAR-XL satellites will deliver unprecedented global insights for missions related to environmental monitoring, security, logistics, and more.



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