Using Space-Based Sensors to Tackle Real-World Problems on Earth

September 2020
Topics: Satellite Communications, Collaborations, Environment, Systems Engineering, Data Analytics
Data gathered in space can help researchers address problems like pollution, traffic congestion, and power generation. We're working with four Virginia universities with expertise in remote-sensing technology to make use of information from satellites.
Satellite orbiting the earth.

Far above the earth, a remote-sensing platform could dramatically improve monitoring of the Chesapeake Bay coastline—collecting data on water quality, temperature, and bacteria.

It's just one potential application of space-based satellite systems. When networked with airborne, maritime, and ground-based systems, satellites have the potential to help us understand a range of infrastructure and environmental challenges. They could monitor rivers, help prevent wildfires, manage highway traffic. They could even predict how much solar energy can be generated every hour of the day, regardless of the weather.

To harness the power of space-based remote sensing instruments and platforms using existing expertise in the Commonwealth of Virginia, MITRE has joined together with four public universities through the University Innovation Exchange (UIX) Space Initiative. The project is a collaboration with the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, Old Dominion University, and George Mason University. 

The initiative also includes the Virginia Space Grant Consortium (VSGC), a coalition of state universities, NASA, and other institutions that coordinates aerospace-related educational and research efforts throughout the Commonwealth.

"This is not really just about space. This is about information integration," says Scott Kordella, MITRE's director of space systems. "It's the integration of data from space, airborne, maritime, and terrestrial systems to address complex challenges."

Integrating Information Yields a Clearer Picture

For example, Kordella says, a satellite in orbit can see a lake and discern patches of reflectivity or some other characteristic. But it may not have the ability to gather crisp images of something smaller than a little boat.

If you add sensors from other domains—on the ground, in the air, or underwater-- you can merge the data from multiple sources to get a more complete picture.

"Now we have the best of two different extremes," he says. "It's the interplay between space-based systems that see over wide areas with less resolution, working with localized systems that see over a smaller area, but with much better resolution.

"The opportunity lies in the information sharing and how we integrate them."

Partnering with Virginia Comes Naturally

For MITRE, Virginia universities are natural partners for the UIX Space Initiative.

“As an operator of FFRDCs, we have an enterprise-wide reach and broad technical depth," Kordella explains. "Meanwhile, universities have deep knowledge in niche technical areas. Working together, we can address large problems using technically superior approaches. Adding VSGC to our team connects us to an active, well-established organization that integrates into Virginia’s future plans.”

“We also want to be a good neighbor in Virginia. We live here. One of our corporate headquarters is located in McLean, and we have longstanding ties with colleges and universities around the state. So, we're working on topics that are important for Virginia, as well as the nation. We see this program as a testbed for concepts that other states or the federal government may find compelling."

"With the explosion of new and existing data sources from both space and earth-based systems, we need a platform like this for bringing the data together, turning it into useful information, then connecting problem owners and solution providers across the Commonwealth," says Dave Bowles, executive director of the Virginia Institute for Spaceflight and Autonomy at Old Dominion University.

"It’s the perfect marriage of data and talent to improve everyday conditions across the state."

The View from Above: Over Land and on the Water

The Virginia UIX Space Initiative launched this summer with a series of five workshops to help formulate subsequent technical approaches in the following areas:

  • River health monitoring to increase the number of river miles being assessed.
  • Flooding prediction and response for better modeling of weather-related consequences from flooding and erosion.
  • Wildfire prevention and response, using satellite remote sensing data to create a more complete picture of rapidly changing agriculture and forest cover.  
  • Transportation efficiency improvement through merging data from space-based sensing, traffic cameras, drones, and transponders.
  • Power grid efficiency through better, more frequent forecasts of cloud cover at solar power generation sites.

"The age of space engineering allows us to provide improvements to the terrestrial infrastructure by increasing its efficiency, and supporting real-time monitoring and preventive maintenance over a very large area," says Piotr Pachowicz, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at George Mason University. "We're excited to work on solving Virginia’s needs by exploiting space assets in building intelligent state infrastructure."

“The UIX projects have the potential to be incorporated into Virginia’s broader space technology plans," says Mary Sandy, director of the Virginia Space Grant Consortium.  “We are working to connect this activity with key strategic stakeholders, establish pilot projects in the Commonwealth, and help to identify scholarship and educational opportunities for Virginia’s students.”

"It's really about the changing workforce, and preparing for industry needs," says Olivia Blackmon, who oversees strategic academic alliances at MITRE. “We're clearly focused on students and young people in the talent pipeline, and we want to get them involved."

"This is the first step in what I hope will be a long collaboration," says Scott Bailey, professor and director of the Center for Space Science and Engineering at Virginia Tech.  "We have much to offer the state and are stronger together. I look forward to one day seeing satellite missions addressing Virginia's needs, built in large part by students from all over the state."

MITRE + Academia + VSGC = Innovation for the Public Good

The Space Initiative is part of MITRE's larger UIX program, which launched in June 2019. It includes nine Virginia universities, the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, and the Virginia Economic Development Partnership.

Blackmon says the program allows MITRE to collaborate with academia to rapidly deliver innovative solutions to the federal government.

"Our government sponsors came to us asking how they might engage with universities more quickly," she explains. "We wanted to formalize and streamline that process. So now we have a master agreement across all nine universities, and we've been able to accelerate the contracting process for R&D.

"UIX significantly reduces the time it takes to get faculty and students working on a project—from several months to a matter of weeks."

“Leveraging the enthusiasm and talent of students at top universities is a great strategy,” says Christopher P. Goyne, director of the University of Virginia Aerospace Research Laboratory and associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering. "The combined expertise of the team will be a real multiplier in finding solutions to problems that affect our everyday lives."

Kordella says his vision for the space initiative is to bring satellite sensing technology down to earth.

"We shouldn't think of space only in terms of astronauts and rocket launches. We should think of it as another tool to solve real problems in Virginia."

—by Malini Wilkes


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