What I know about the science of remote sensing: Charles Elachi

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Charles Elachi can call it a day.

He was previously director of the Nasa Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) during its mission to Mars – when it launched two rovers aptly titled Opportunity and Curiosity.

After his retirement as JPL director in 2015, Elachi remains fascinated by space. Even more modestly, by how far humankind and technology have gone in exploring it. In particular he’s curious when it comes to faultless accuracy, sophisticated self-learning systems, and processes synchronized to a tee  - things that made the rovers operate on and understand Mars for as long as 13 years.

“When we sent Curiosity to Mars, after 225 million kilometers, we had to land within a 2-kilometer circle. Now, let me give you an idea of what that means. That means that if I go outside my office in LA and hit a golf ball in Dubai, the golf ball has to go straight to the cup. And to make it a little more challenging – if you are a golfer – the cup is moving,” said Elachi.

Elachi loves to simplify great leaps in space exploration and technology to their trickle-down effect on individuals.

So, when Wamda asked him about the potential of remote sensing, Elachi’s answers lead to one simple conclusion: it’s about what everyday people and startups, not scientists, can do with it.

“When we say remote sensing, basically what it means in the space area is using satellite cameras, imaging systems, or infrared technology to monitor or take observation of the planet. It could lead to a lot of applications,” big and small.

It is as big as planning cities and people. If you start remote sensing like Landsat, which is basically taking pictures and monitoring changes, you can see from one day, year, month to the next, the changes that are happening. So it can be used by city planners. Many city governments are using [and will be using in the future] satellite data to look at changes in population density and [potential infrastructural layouts], for instance, by looking at the geological properties of the surface to put metros and tunnels.

It is diverse in its uses. It can also be used by geologists to actually map geologic units. So we use satellite cameras, which we call multispectral cameras that operate in different bands – visible, infrared, blue color, red color – and that allow us to characterize different kinds of rocks. We do this very commonly, whereby the geologists can determine different types of rocks and that can lead to mineral exploration. It’s being used by agriculture, so you can look from space and see the growth of different agricultural fields, and particularly, if there are diseases that are growing. We use it for monitoring soil moisture, so we can tell farmers how much moisture there is in the ground and if they need to irrigate certain areas.

It will become much more granular. Where the advances will be happening in the future is to be able to see in a very large number of spectral regions. So we’ll take the light which is being emitted from the surface or reflected from the sun and divide it into increasingly narrow bands.

There are literally tens of thousands of colors that our eye can’t see but technological detectors can see. That whole technology is going to become much more available in the next decade, and who knows what applications people would be able to come up with? We didn’t know before that we could monitor soil moisture. I’m sure there will be a lot of new ideas in the future as we look at these different, what we call wavelengths or spectral regions, to get more information about them.

It will come down to individual creativity and data usage. A perfect example of how it [remote sensing] applies to you as an individual is the data you get on your Google maps. Google takes all data and transmits it to your iPhone. What’s behind it is people who took those images, put them in a map, laid out the streets in Dubai or anywhere else, and on GPS puts in where you or your car is standing.

It is a wide spectrum of activities and, where it creates opportunities is for people to come up with ways of how to process the data to make it useful for the average person who is not familiar with the technology. That’s where a lot of companies have thrived in the US.

The next big step will be for individuals to get, on their mobile phone, the data coming straight from the satellite. Today, it doesn’t work that way. It goes to a station and the data gets distributed through different companies, but it is possible in the future that you can get on your iPhone, the data coming in real time. And you can decide how to use it.

Feature image, Charles Elachi speaking at Step 2017 in Dubai, via Vanessa Khalil.

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