Roof Types Detection
Satellite imagery can be used for roof type detection. Image credit: DigitalGlobe

How satellite imagery can be used in property

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Corentin Guillo

With an ever-growing number of satellites being sent into space, new applications are enabled which offer fresh perspectives on how we move, communicate and observe our planet. It is predicted that more than 600 new imaging satellites will be launched over the next five years, offering an unprecedented amount of satellite imagery to be exploited.

So how do we access satellite imagery?

Accessing satellite imagery has never been an easy task, often requiring technical expertise and a deep understanding of the sector. However, during the last decade new types of free satellite imagery have been made available, raising expectations and creating opportunity:

  • Online Mapping Applications like Google Maps have offered for the first time a mass-market solution with an interactive satellite basemap. Although the applications are easy to use and free, the imagery is often out of date and poor quality in many places
  • Free Satellite Imagery has been made available from institutions such as the European Space Agency, but they require strong technical knowledge and expensive software to be fully exploited. In addition, their resolution (i.e. the level of detail you can see in an image) remains too poor for viewing and monitoring for most business use cases

The other option is to turn your interest to commercial satellite operators who offer sub-one metre resolution imagery, sometimes refreshed on a weekly basis, but this comes at a high cost. In addition, their network of resellers is fragmented and remains difficult to navigate.

Startups have begun to shift the current business model of those satellite operators by aggregating their imagery into a single solution for businesses. For instance, at Bird.i we have consolidated the best of the world’s commercial satellite imagery into a user-friendly, affordable subscription service; lowering all the commercial, contractual, and technical barriers and allowing businesses to benefit from its value.

Property Classification Examples

A satellite image of property classification. Image credit: DigitalGlobe and PSMA Australia

Artificial Intelligence applied to satellite imagery

Artificial Intelligence, in a simple form, is a smart process which is capable of learning and making predictions from data. Applied to satellite imagery, it is primarily used to analyse how locations change over time. AI can also be used to identify small objects and features in large strips of imagery. More importantly, it does this at scale, more precisely, and more quickly than with trained human eyes.

When applied to the property sector, regular accurate satellite imagery with artificial intelligence techniques can:

  • Automatically identify existing sites on a global basis
  • Detect in changes to a property or its amenities
  • Detect characteristics of a property by identifying relevant assets such as trees, swimming pools, fences, sheds, roof size
  • Detect damage following man-made or natural disasters

Although there are plenty of other applications, the two main factors driving insight from satellite imagery are the resolution and the frequency of the images acquired. With the number of imaging satellites increasing month on month, these two metrics are constantly improving and opening up opportunities for businesses across the globe.

Building Footprint Detection

AI can assist with satellite building footprint detection. Image: DigitalGlobe

What are key benefits for property sector?

Although the number of imaging satellites in operation will increase dramatically in the next few years, their current capabilities limit the image resolution and the revisit rate (how often they can take an image over the same location), but we can still easily monitor objects which are only a few metres wide and changing over a period of months; hence the applicability for property, construction, and infrastructures projects.

In addition to offering an irrefutable source of information (because a satellite image shows you exactly how a property looks at a specific date) the primary benefits for the property sector are:

  • Travel cost reduction: Having access to satellite imagery helps businesses to remotely monitor disparate, large property portfolios, saving time and money on monitoring
  • Operational cost reduction: When using the insight satellite images provide, such as automatic tracking of changes over a portfolio, property developers can receive alerts when their attention is required, saving invaluable time by not investigating projects which are on track
  • Macro and Micro Intelligence: Having access to satellite imagery on a global basis can help to monitor urban development at the scale of a city, region, even an entire country, allowing for a better understanding of how the market is changing. It also offers the opportunity to examine at a micro level and gain competitive intelligence over third party property portfolios
  • Planning: When scouting locations for potential projects, time can be wasted identifying sites as well as in physically visiting those which turn out not to meet the criteria. By adding satellite imagery into the decision-making process, you can get a true, up-to-date view of locations, saving time and helping inform important decisions
  • Valuation: Financial service companies within the property sector – such as insurance or banking – benefit from having access to satellite imagery by getting an accurate view of the property and its amenities. Being able to view historical satellite imagery also helps estimate its past, current, and future value

Corentin Guillo is the founder of Bird.i, an industry-leading satellite imagery service for the property sector.

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