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Incorporating nanosatellites into a new version of The International Charter for Space and Major Disasters

Millennium People in Space: An international right to images from space from Nesta UK on Vimeo.

The UN was an early adopter of space innovations, using satellites for mapping. The International Charter for Space and Major Disasters is a cooperative of the world’s major space agencies and established as a way to access satellite information and images. The Charter receives over 250 requests for support per year and acts on around 20% of these. The Charter includes a wide definition of disaster relief. For example, the Charter can be used for slow onset disasters, such as floods, droughts and deforestation. The only time the Charter was activated in the UK was during the 2014 flooding.

There are gaps in the existing Charter. While a structure exists governing how government, business and NGOs engage with space, the charter fails to outline progressive regulation and policies designed to be followed by individuals or private companies.

For the last decade, 80% of the Charter’s images have come from the French Government’s medium-resolution Spot 5 spacecraft. Spot 5 will soon be succeeded by two satellites owned by the private company Astrium. Private satellite operators, regularly make images available free of charge to respond to a major natural disaster. But the images are not necessarily delivered in the quantity or speed needed for disaster response.

An increasing number of the satellites in the Charter’s virtual constellation are high-resolution spacecraft. Higher-resolution satellites cover smaller widths of the earth’s surface, which could mean less frequent coverage of disaster areas.

The UK manufacturer, Surrey Satellite Technology, created the Disaster Monitoring Constellation (DMC), the first Earth observation constellation of low cost small satellites providing daily images for applications including global disaster monitoring. DMC provides commercial imaging and free satellite imagery for humanitarian use in the event of major international disasters within the International Charter. The DMC has included satellites from the UK, Algeria, China, Nigeria, and Turkey. These satellites provide regular, wide-area low resolutions images, which can be combined with high resolution images when they are available.

One team at a Nesta workshop were tasked with creating a new version of the Charter for Space and Major Disaster that would incorporate nanosatellites, as part of a general move towards private and personalised satellites. The team focused on evolutionary rather than revolutionary improvements, developing incremental and plausible recommendation for the existing charter. Their recommendations included:

  • Incentives for companies, especially small companies, to join new constellations of satellites that are represented on the Charter’s council

  • Regulation of satellite safety and build to remain at a national level, with the Charter to act as a coordinating body

  • The requirement of regional centres to help understand different demands for data and potential suppliers. These centres should each have an investment fund attached, making the most of new satellite companies for humanitarian use.

Question for future policy research: How should initiatives like DMC be continued and expanded as more satellites are owned by private companies and by more countries? Should the conventions membership move beyond national agencies, and could it directly invest in satellites for humanitarian benefit?