Using Artificial Intelligence to Save the Planet

A letter from our founder, John Amos

The trends aren’t encouraging:  Industrialization, urban development, deforestation, overfishing, mining and pollution are accelerating the rate of global warming and damaging ecosystems around the world. The pace of environmental destruction has never been as great as it is today. Despite this grim assessment, I believe there’s reason to be hopeful for a brighter future.

I’m optimistic because of a new and powerful conservation opportunity: the explosion of satellite and computing technology that now allows us to see what’s happening on the ground and on the water, everywhere, in near real-time.

Up until now we’ve been inspiring people to take action by using satellites to show them what’s already happened to the environment, typically months or even years ago. But technology has evolved dramatically since I started SkyTruth, and today we can show people what’s happening right now, making it possible to take action that can minimize or even stop environmental damage before it occurs. For example, one company, Planet, now has enough satellites in orbit to collect high-resolution imagery of all of the land area on Earth every day. Other companies and governments are building and launching fleets of satellites that promise to multiply and diversify the stream of daily imagery, including radar satellites that operate night and day and can see through clouds, smoke and haze.

A few of the Earth Observation systems in orbit.
Just a few of the Earth-observation satellites in orbit. Image courtesy NASA.

The environmental monitoring potential of all this new hardware is thrilling to our team here at SkyTruth, but it also presents a major challenge: it simply isn’t practical to hire an army of skilled analysts to look at all of these images, just to identify the manageable few that contain useful information.

Artificial intelligence is the key to unlocking the conservation power of this ever-increasing torrent of imagery.

Taking advantage of the same machine-learning technology Facebook uses to detect and tag your face in a friend’s vacation photo, we are training computers to analyze satellite images and detect features of interest in the environment: a road being built in a protected area, logging encroaching on a popular recreation area, a mining operation growing beyond its permit boundary, and other landscape and habitat alterations that indicate an imminent threat to biodiversity, ecosystem integrity, and human health.  By applying this intelligence to daily satellite imagery, we can make it possible to detect changes happening in the environment in near real-time. Then we can immediately alert anyone who wants to know about it, so they can take action if warranted: to investigate, to document, to intervene.

We call this program Conservation Vision.

And by leveraging our unique ability to connect technology and data providers, world-class researchers and high-impact conservation partners, we’re starting to catalyze action and policy success on the ground.

We’re motivated to build this approach to make environmental information available to people who are ready and able to take action. We’ve demonstrated our ability to do this through our partnership with Google and Oceana with the launch and rapid growth of Global Fishing Watch, and we’re already getting positive results automating the detection of fracking sites around the world. We have the technology. We have the expertise. We have the track record of innovation for conservation. And we’ve already begun the work.

Stay tuned for more updates and insights on how you can be part of this cutting-edge tool for conservation.