Case Study: Astro Digital – DropCam for Space

Astro Digital a case study from space

Thanks to Eutelsat_SA for the base image! CC BY 2.0

Space, the final frontier. If only we could take selfies. Wait, what? We can? This is the service Astro Digital provides. A selfie-stick from space is my crude analogy. Turns out, there are better analogues.

I had the pleasure of catching up with Bronwyn Agrios, head of product at Astro Digital, to learn how it works. In Bronwyn’s (much more refined) words, Astro Digital is kind of like DropCam for space. Just pick a spot to monitor. When new images are snapped, Astro Digital runs some fancy image processing algorithms, and boom! You’re notified of new space-selfies.

Click to enlarge the Astro Digital infographic:

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Astro-digital-infographic

How Astro Digital Works

“DropCam is a great metaphor, in that you only receive when alerts there’s something worth looking at,” says Bronwyn. According her, a new space boom is coming soon.
The space age dawned in 1957 with the launch of Sputnik. After it’s launch, the world was eager to follow with even more advanced satellites. These truck-sized, thousand pound behemoths cost hundreds of millions of dollars, a big investment, which meant humanity was only capable of placing a handful in orbit each year.Thanks Flickr user dad1_ for the photo CC BY 2.0 (https://www.flickr.com/photos/peterwright/4428342932/)

All of that’s changing! The new breed of highly sophisticated satellites are about the size of a toaster oven. As a bonus they cost just a sliver of their truck-sized brethren. Part of the cost savings is due to their tinyness. They’re small enough to piggyback on other launches.

The result? What was once a handful of launches per year, is now hundreds. The amount of space data we receive is poised to grow astronomically- a dream for both space nerds and data nerds. Well, it would be if any of that data was usable.

Most space data is next to impossible for the average person to access. Even if you could get your hands on it, you’d need to refine the raw feed into something usable. That refinement calls for a high degree of expertise.

Hence Astro Digital. They take raw feed, and offer a handful of filters that make it useful for scientists and amateurs alike. Their goal is to democratize the space boom. They believe us regular folks back on terra firma ought to benefit, too.

Bronwyn illustrates this beautifully with an example:

The tools that are available today for remote sensing are professional tools. It would be like me saying to you, “Hey Paul, can you go into Adobe Illustrator and design a website for me? Have it ready by 5. That’d be great.”

You’re like “No I can’t! Adobe Illustrator is a professional tool. Let me go do a week of training, and practice it, build a website, and do some real design. By the Spring time next year I’ll be ready to take your request. Or say, In a month I might be able to help you out.”

We have a similar school of thought in GIS (Geographic information systems). Those tools require professional training. Early in my career, I worked on the professional side of it: for the enterprise applications.

What we’re doing is taking those more standardized workflows for professional processing. We’re bundling them up in an automated pipeline. We’re saying, even the operation of going on and finding new data from satellites is really hard. There’s no APIs to do it!

If I want to bring imagery from satellites into my farm management app, and make that available to the 10,000 farmers subscribed to me, so they can see and update their fields every week… There’s not really any way for them to do that!

She follows with a simple creed, “We truly believe that open data isn’t open, unless it’s accessible.”

Who Uses Astro Digital?

Whereas traditional space imagery might serve just a handful of government agencies, Astro Digital is open to anyone and everyone. When they were just getting started Astro Digital open sourced a project, which flooded them with hundreds of requests for new space images.

Since then, their biggest customer is ordinary people like you and me, as well as municipalities and climate-related industries such as agriculture. What’s significant is the same images we receive, are scientifically meaningful. That’s because Astro Digital’s filters are built on industry standard scientific practices.

Bronwyn notes, “It’s important that you empower the professionals as well, because they’re going to be your gateway.”

This means any of the Astro Digital image can be used in an empirically meaningful study. Monitor plant health, check land-water boundaries, and more! Astro Digital reports that amateurs are now leveraging their images for meaningful causes. Such as…

Dam It! Dam the River

InfoAmazonia is an organization dedicated to sharing news about the Amazon Rainforest. Their goal is to protect the ecosystem by helping people learn more about the dangers threatening the Amazon, day to day.

Astro Digital was able to help InfoAmazonia fight the good fight. InfoAmazonia needed a way to monitor the construction of the Belo Monte Dam. The promise of clean, affordable, hydroelectric energy is alluring. It loses some of the charm when contrasted against the unsavory side effects of construction.

The dam (by its nature) is designed to re-route waterways. Some areas dry up, others flood, and understanding the impact on the surrounding region is incredibly challenging. Generating reliable, meaningful data is a daunting task for a small non-profit without a professional background in Geographic Information Systems (GIS).

Using Astro Digital, watching the change in the land-water boundary cost InfoAmazonia just a few mouse clicks. They chose the land-water filter, and leveraged the resulting data about shifting water boundaries to effectively argue against the Dam’s construction.

It’s easy to see how space imagery could be used for a lot more. The data is immensely useful to farmers looking for more data on crop health. It’s equally palatable to track the effect of wildfires.

How Astro Digital Leverages Iron.io

IronWorker as the workhorse for behind Astro Digital’s image processing system. Astro Digital receives images from NASA, the ESA, and will soon include commercial sources. Today that means they can image 145,785,600 km2 per day (with some overlap). For reference, the whole world is just 150,000,000 km2.

That’s a lot of imagery! To keep up, IronWorker provides on demand compute power. It’s a simple and easily scalable way to accommodate both regular and spikey demand. In the event some tasks are extra hungry for CPU or RAM, it’s easy to shape a worker just for those jobs. Resources are reclaimed and added back to other jobs when the worker finishes its task.

IronWorker applies the filters to requested images, and passes them to Astro Digital (and you!) for happy viewing.

Bronwyn describes the Astro Digital’s use case in her own words.

We started working with Iron.io as a way to accelerate our go-to market. We didn’t want to build any of this. We really wanted to focus on “what is the value we can bring as a solid remote sensing team?” It’s not rebuilding web infrastructure. That’s not going to get us to market faster.

In the same way, we wanted to be more agile about how we build software. We work with commercial data sources that aren’t available yet. We didn’t want to wait around for those commercial sources to be ready.

We started working with some of the open data sources that are available, open, tested, amazing and on the market today. We used that to start building our workflows, and establishing what that web infrastructure looks like. Setting it up so that it can scale. Right now we’re getting a fraction of the data that we will get, once we turn on the firehose of commercial data.

But, we’ve designed, through working with Iron.io and others — a [great] infrastructure. It means we won’t have to make any changes to that core framework once we turn the firehose on with commercial data.

[Iron.io] makes it easy for us because we’re definitely going to scale it up. But, that’s easy!

Future Plans

For the true space nerds, Astro Digital allows anyone to play with space imagery, today. Cool! It’s as easy as a few clicks on their site.

In the not so distant future, Astro Digital plans to add more data sources. They’ll be launching their own fleet of satellites, and talking with commercial sources. That means more advanced sensing tools, better pictures, and shorter gaps between photo updates.

The space boom is exciting, and Astro Digital aims to share that excitement to everyone, including you and me.