Severe flooding following the heavy rainstorms of recent weeks caused devastating damages in central Europe. Situational awareness on the ground is crucial for effective disaster response, and today, satellite imagery is one of the most important sources of this information. Engineers from the University of Luxembourg’s Department of Engineering – Geodesy and Geospatial Engineering together with international partners, are studying spaceborne Earth observation as a key technology for flood response. Their findings have been published in the prestigious journal Scientific Reports.
Spaceborne Earth observation is a key technology for flood response, offering valuable information to decision-makers on the ground. Very large constellations of small, nano satellites “CubeSats” are a promising solution to reduce revisit time in disaster areas from days to hours. However, data transmission to ground receivers is limited by constraints on power and bandwidth of CubeSats. Onboard processing offers a solution to decrease the amount of data to transmit by reducing huge sensor images to small data products. These flood maps can be directly received and used by decision-makers, thus dramatically reducing the time from the data acquisition to data use.
“Our models are trained on WorldFloods, a newly compiled dataset of 119 globally verified flooding events from disaster response organisations, which we make available in a common format. We test the system on independent locations, demonstrating that it produces fast and accurate segmentation masks on the hardware accelerator, acting as a proof of concept for this approach”, explains Dietmar Backes, doctoral researcher within the Department of Engineering at the University of Luxembourg.
“Compared to previous work on detailed urban flooding, this new technology has the potential to provide a global flood monitoring system based on a large Earth observation constellation of CubeSats with optical hyperspectral instruments. The small satellites analyse the captured imagery using autonomous AI processors in orbit and send flood maps/alerts directly to crises centres for decision-makers”, continues Dietmar.
This work is based on the international cooperation conducted by Frontier Development Lab (FDL) between the Universities of Luxembourg, Oxford, Valencia, Liverpool John Moores and Edinburgh, supported by the European Space Agency (ESA), the Luxembourg Space Agency (LSA) and Intel. It gathers young promising as well as top scientists to work on critical humanitarian topics and revolutionary concepts.
At the University of Luxembourg, engineers lead the thematic aspects of the project, namely Earth observation, remote sensing, hydrology, flood management. Dr. Guy Schumann, founder and CEO of Luxembourg-based young R&D company RSS-Hydro which has a collaboration agreement with the Department of Engineering at the University of Luxembourg, is also supporting FDL and its flood-related challenges through mentorship and domain expertise.
Considering a successful continuation of the project, this technology will enable a paradigm shift in earth observation. Large constellations of Earth observation satellites will provide autonomous monitoring capabilities to support a “Digital twin Earth”.
Publication “Towards global flood mapping onboard low-cost satellites with machine learning”, Scientific Report, March 2021