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Inside The Satellite Detective Agencies That Catch The Companies Destroying The Planet—From Space

Now that everyone has access to pictures from space, it's time to use them to stop the hidden actions of nefarious corporations.

Inside The Satellite Detective Agencies That Catch The Companies Destroying The Planet--From Space

[Illustration: Richard Borge for Fast Company]

For decades, lawyer Ray Purdy worked in academia, examining the ways that satellite data could be used as legal evidence and as a law enforcement tool, with a special focus on environmental law. But his work never stayed in the academic world for long: just about every month, he would get a call from the police, an environmental agency, or a health and safety executive complaining that they wanted to get a hold of satellite imagery but found it hard to find and even harder to interpret. Purdy sensed an opportunity.

In one case investigated by Purdy, a defendant was found guilty by the Environmental Protection Agency of keeping 50 scrap vehicles in a scrap yard without the correct license. The offense, found by the EPA during a ground inspection, occurred between June 2004 and September 2005, a fact confirmed in court by Purdy's satellite data.

A court order was issued against the defendant, who was supposed to remove the vehicles. According to satellite data obtained by Purdy, the vehicles were still sitting there in February 2006—after they'd been ordered to move them. In fact, there appeared to be more cars than before. The EPA didn't use satellite data to check up on compliance, but it probably should have.

Satellites are getting smaller, cheaper, easier to launch. A growing number of startups, including Planet Labs and Skybox (purchased by Google in 2014) are operating fleets that send back imagery from all corners of the planet, taking pictures sharp enough that you can see a manhole cover, though not a face or a license plate. To capitalize on this new glut of images, Purdy and Ray Harris, a geography professor at University College of London who has dedicated his career to Earth observation, teamed up in 2014 to launch Air and Space Evidence, a consultancy that specializes in using satellite and drone imagery as evidence in insurance and legal cases. The two Rays, who act as middlemen between satellite companies and people who want to use satellite data, call their business the world's first "space detective agency."

Inside A Space Detective Agency

So far, Air and Space Evidence has had more media attention than actual clients—but there have been some cases involving companies that engage in illegal activity. In one recent case in Ireland, a protected wetland was illegally destroyed, infilled, and covered in grass.

"There’s a period of time where you can’t bring prosecution after they do that, and we were worried they might claim it was done many years before it was," says Purdy.

Air and Space Evidence wasn't able to get a hold of an image of the wetland being destroyed, but it did find images taken right before and right after the destruction, so it could prove in court when the wetland was and wasn't in existence. That lack of access to high-resolution imagery from specific points in the past does, however, limit the space detective agency's ability to deal with certain crimes, like murders, burglaries, and hit-and-runs. But major environmental crimes are the agencies bread and butter:

Here's one example, showing illegal vegetation clearing in Australia. The "before" image:

And the "after" image:

Here's one involving an illegal landfill in the U.K. The circled images at the top showing burning waste at the site during the time that the country's Environment Agency knew the violation was occurring. The images circled at the bottom were taken a year before the agency knew the burning was going on—indicating that the illegal activity was occurring for much longer than the agency thought.

"If they had access to the imagery, then they might have used this in court to press for a harsher sentence," the website notes.

An average case costs clients about $1,500 dollars—not cheap, but reasonable enough for anyone with a major case. "This will drive some illegal activity inside," says Purdy. "If you’re growing cannabis, I'd recommend growing in a very woody area." Police departments are already using satellite imagery; Air and Space Evidence, in its short life, has worked with departments in both the U.S. and the U.K on various cases. In fact, police have used satellite imagery to find marijuana grow operations for years. Better, higher-resolutions satellites and services like Air and Space Evidence just make it easier.

"It's a way to get people to start asking questions"

Hiring a space detective agency isn't always necessary to find serious environmental crimes. Global Fishing Watch, a partnership between Google, Oceana, and SkyTruth—a nonprofit that uses mapping and remote sensing to track environmental destruction— that was launched in the fall of 2014, is an interactive online tool that lets anyone watch potentially illicit commercial fishing activity in the ocean, via a feed of fishing vessels that are tracked by satellite and identified by their onboard systems.

"Everybody’s jaws kind of drop when they see what kind of commercial fishing activity happens in the ocean. Patterns emerge where you see fishing efforts up along the border of marine protected areas," says John Amos, the head of SkyTruth. "It's a way to get people to start asking questions. In many cases, fishing is a large corporate activity. You could find a chronically bad actor."

SkyTruth has a record of finding those bad actors. Amos, a geologist by training, says the small nonprofit's "biggest episode" was the BP oil spill, when it used satellite data, aerial images, and remote sensing to prove that the spill was much worse than BP was acknowledging. SkyTruth's report on the spill's size went viral, ultimately leading to a situation where the federal government had to up its own estimates.

In addition to Global Fishing Watch, SkyTruth is also working on a tool called FrackFinder, which is crowdsourcing data about fracking infrastructure as the industry booms so that researchers can examine the health and environmental implications.

Amos has been working in the satellite space for decades, first as an exploration geologist, using satellite data as a tool for geologic mapping. The nonprofit boss worked for consulting firms that specialize in exploration services for oil and gas companies before noticing the environmental destruction in his midst and launching SkyTruth in 2002. When Amos was working as a consultant, the options for satellite data were limited for a small, grassroots nonprofit; a single image from Landsat (a series of USGS and NASA satellites that have been operating since the 1970s) cost up to $4,400. Now, the entire archive of 4 million images is available for free.

SkyTruth isn't the only group using satellite imagery to monitor corporate environmental violations. Global Forest Watch, an initiative from the World Resources Institute, uses satellites to monitor forests (and forest destruction) in real time. An interactive map is available here. "Unilever says it's only using 100% sustainable and traceable palm oil. They make that statement, and Global Forest Watch can monitor, identify, and detect when illegal clearing of forests is happening. We can break down the forest into a grid, and using other geospatial information, see which operations are legitimate or not legitimate," says Kevin Bullock, Product Specialist at DigitalGlobe (Global Forest Watch uses imagery from DigitalGlobe.)

Amos stresses that SkyTruth isn't setting out to target corporations. "We're just observing and reporting. It’s up to other people to decide how to use that," he says. "I think we’re entering an era where corporations should understand there should no longer be an expectation that their activities that are altering or affecting the environment can go unnoticed or uncommented on. It would serve them well to adopt a mindset that all is observable and they should have the justifications for why they’re doing what they do in the way they do it, because somebody is going to see it. Not eventually, but soon, and they’re going to share it with the rest of the world."

Drones Vs. Farms

Many of the advances playing out in the satellite space are mirrored in the drone industry, in which unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are getting increasingly small and cheap—so cheap that anyone can shell out $100 or so and have their own camera-equipped drone.

In the summer of 2014, investigative journalist Will Potter raised $48,000 on Kickstarter for a project that will fly drones over factory farms suspected of environmental abuses, like large waste lagoons. Some states have strict laws on drone photography, but Potter is hopeful that in places with less black-and-white drone rules, his aerial documentation of farms will get around so-called "ag gag" laws that make it illegal to film or take photos of animal cruelty in livestock facilities.

British artist Mishka Henner’s aerial photographs of large feedlots show what seeing big agriculture from above can reveal.

Over at online map platform Mapbox, CEO Eric Gundersen and his team are allowing developers to build apps on top of drone imagery. As of January, users can drag and drop drone images onto the Mapbox platform and get a map back in minutes. A sample app, posted on the company blog, shows drone elevation data on a map. "You can fly over a quarry and know how much gravel has been extracted. You can literally be running calculations about the value being extracted, and know whether a company is cheating on their taxes," he speculates.

The privacy issues surrounding the industry are considerable, especially as technology becomes more accessible and high-resolution. It's not hard to start imaging scenarios where law enforcement agencies in the future use satellites and drones to implement large-scale tracking of people or organizations that they suspect will commit crimes. It's a trade-off—one that we may not fully understand for years to come.

"Once you let the genie out of the bottle, there’s no going back," says Purdy.