Using satellite data to monitor air pollution

Aditya Kondalamahanty
Saheel Ahmed
May 5, 2020

With millennials preferring environmentally-conscious corporations and governments, assessing carbon emissions and pollution is becoming top priority for businesses and city administrators

Picture the standard clothing label attached to the back of your favorite t-shirt. A compact affair with some care instructions and the country it was made in. Not too many details are given about the supply chain or environmental impact of making the t-shirt.

In the past this was understandable. Keeping supply chains and manufacturers secret, gave businesses their competitive advantage. The present however is very different. As a whole generation of millennials vote with their money for brands which are environment-friendly and fair-trade, apparel companies like H&M, Everlane, Nike and many more have started being more transparent about their sourcing and carbon footprint. And in the Age of Information, a simple tag proclaiming one’s sustainability does not cut it anymore. Millenials are increasingly fact checking their favorite brands and local governments on their claims of sustainability and carbon footprints. They want to know exactly how it was made, how many litres of water it took to make it, and whether the person who stitched the seams got fairly compensated for it.

First and foremost among the concerns of city dwellers has been the worsening air quality of their cities. Poor air quality has been linked to a negative impact on job performance, blamed for employees taking more sick days and cities that have severe air pollution problems are being seen as less desirable places to work and live thereby negatively impacting talent recruitment.

This means businesses and cities which better understand their air pollution footprint, stand a better chance of attracting people in the future (we must measure before we can manage). These days, technology for sensing air pollution is more available to citizens, cities, and companies and micro-mapping air quality block-by-block is possible.

But here lies the catch! Air quality sensors are expensive to make and maintain. The data is rarely real-time. And of the 250 odd government-run monitors in India, about a half are located in either Delhi or Mumbai. This means that most Tier-2 towns either have a single air quality sensor or none, and most industrial areas will be largely self regulated. On-ground monitors will, by nature, be limited to their immediate surroundings.

Eyes in the skies are better than boots on the ground!

This is where using satellite data to measure air pollution will come in handy. For the cost of installing a low-cost monitor network in say Kanpur (an Indian city with an area of 403.7 square kilometres) aided by one regulatory standard air quality monitor, Blue Sky Analytics can deliver air quality for the entire state of Uttar Pradesh (an Indian state with an area of 243, 286 square kilometres), thus reducing the cost by approximately 99%.

A satellite image processed by Blue Sky showing concentrations of industrial pollutants over India in the 1st few days of the Covid-19 lockdown.

This is done through using imagery sent by satellites like the Sentinel 5P and processing it through our award-winning technology. We have built an end-to-end Data Refinery that can process crude satellite data into insightful information in real-time, providing data with almost 1000x higher resolution than current solutions at 1/100th costs.

(Here’s our analysis of how air pollution levels fell in India during the Covid-19 lock down)

The Blue Sky Analytics data refinery doesn’t stop there! We are building a system for analyzing crop fires in the state of Punjab. This model can be extended to monitor and analyse Uttarakhand Forest Fires or the Indonesian Palm Fires, and their emissions.

Simply put, eyes in the skies are better than boots on the ground.

A common problem that businesses and administrators face is that while setting climate-friendly targets is easy, showing impact is harder, especially after the low hanging fruit such as energy efficiency in company-owned facilities is picked.

Seeing how health and climate-related concerns of the populace are ever-increasing and the growing willingness of the current generation to choose what’s better for the planet over narrow personal interests, investing in air quality monitoring has two-pronged benefits for corporations.

After all, do you want to be the business or administrator who targets air pollution, builds support around the cause of clean air and demonstrates impact? Or do you want to be seen demanding your pound of flesh, ignorant of the plight of the people?