The role of satellites in both connectivity and development is again in the news, thanks to initiatives planned or under way from two internet giants: Amazon and Facebook.
Amazon’s Project Kuiper is a new LEO satellite constellation that could provide low-latency, high-speed broadband connectivity to unserved and underserved communities around the world.
That, at least, is the aim of the US web and retail giant, which hopes to launch over 3,000 satellites into orbit less than 400 miles above the earth’s surface.
Satellite broadband is seen as a useful way to provide broadband access to isolated areas and the estimated four billion people with limited or no broadband – especially where fibre is uneconomic or difficult to supply. Amazon is not alone in its efforts, albeit this is one of the most ambitious satellite constellation launches for underserved communities mooted so far.
Satellites also play a role in plans from another web giant. This time Facebook – alongside partners like Columbia University’s Centre for International Earth Science Information Network and Digital Globe – will use artificial intelligence (AI) and big data to address large-scale social, health and infrastructure challenges in sub-Saharan Africa.
Satellite imagery from Digital Globe (which owns and operates a constellation of high-resolution commercial Earth imaging satellites), along with public census data and other sources will be used in the creation of detailed population density maps of Africa with help from advanced computer capabilities and machine learning. The role of AI is important because, while high-resolution satellite imagery already exists for much of the world, without the speed of data crunching AI allows it would take a very long time to go through such imagery and identify the locations of towns and villages, some of them very small.
The result? Better, more accurately focused, humanitarian efforts, vaccination programmes and rural power supplies to name only three – and, alongside the Amazon project, further evidence of the potentially game-changing effect of satellite communications on development.