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What if Latin America Built a Shared Satellite Data Center?


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Thoughts on What’s Ahead for Earth Observation in Latin America

A conversation with Ricardo Guerra 

Sit down with Ricardo Guerra, Planet’s Regional Sales Director for Latin America, for five minutes and the concept of “collaboration” is bound to come up. Some days, it may look like integrating the nearly 20-person team across the 51 countries the company serves in the region. Others, it’s reaching across government agencies to find connection points so they can pool resources and jointly invest in a satellite data center for their mapping and monitoring projects. 

It’s appropriate, then, that we met up with Ricardo in Brasilia at the first-ever RedeMAIS National Users’ Meeting in June of this year. Part of the country’s largest operational remote sensing project, Brasil MAIS, is a program of more than 45,000 users spanning 300 institutions across the federal, state, and municipal levels of Brazil who came together to share not only how they’re using satellite maps of the entire Brazilian territory to find innovative ways of tackling some of the country’s most pressing challenges – but chiefly, to find connection points among their respective organizations so that they can use satellite data, more efficiently, together. 

With that as our backdrop, we chatted with Ricardo to get his take on the regional market dynamics and his perspective on where the Earth Observation (EO) industry is – and where it’s headed – in Latin America. 

Ricardo, we spent two days hearing from satellite data users from the Ministry of Justice and Public Security’s Brasil MAIS Program, which is the largest operational remote sensing project in the country. With that many geospatial experts in the room, there was surely an innovative or collaborative idea or two that came up. What’s a project or collaboration you would be excited to see come to fruition? 

  • I would like to highlight the remarkable achievements of the Ministry of Justice and Public Security’s via Federal Police and the Brasil MAIS/Rede Mais Program. This program has been an absolute success, and its impact cannot be overstated. The commitment and efforts of the Federal Police have been instrumental in driving positive change.

The Brasil MAIS Program has set a remarkable example for effective collaboration and coordination between different stakeholders. It has demonstrated how joint operations and partnerships can lead to significant advancements in various fields, including the monitoring of deforestation, illegal mining, and other illicit activities. The program’s approach serves as a testament to the power of cooperation and the importance of leveraging shared resources and knowledge.

As I reflect on the achievements of the Brasil MAIS Program, I can’t help but envision a future where this exemplary initiative extends its influence beyond our borders. I firmly believe that the benefits of joint operations, as showcased by Brazil and the Ministry of Justice and Public Security, can serve as a model for our South American neighbors. By expanding the Brasil MAIS Program, we can foster a regional movement towards enhancing monitoring efforts and combating environmental and criminal challenges.

The potential impact of such an expansion is immense. By working collaboratively with neighboring countries, we can address deforestation, illegal mining, and other illicit activities on a broader scale. This endeavor would not only benefit Brazil but also contribute to the advancement and well-being of our entire region.

Why would that project be novel or welcome in Brazil – and what example could it set for other countries in Latin America? 

  • One of the most significant indicators of the program’s impact is the overwhelming response from the professionals. With more than 45,000 users and over 300 participating institutions, it is clear that the program has struck a chord with individuals and organizations alike. This enthusiastic reception demonstrates the value that collaborative and financially conscious projects hold in the eyes of the public.

The essence of collaboration, which lies at the core of the Brasil MAIS/Rede Mais Program, should serve as an inspiring example for our neighboring countries. Initially, it is crucial for institutions within each country to embrace collaboration, sharing data and knowledge among themselves. By breaking down silos and fostering a culture of collaboration at the national level, we can enhance our collective capabilities and tackle the challenges we face more effectively.

However, it is equally important to recognize the need for cross-border information sharing. Many of the problems we encounter in Brazil originate abroad, and vice versa. Therefore, joint operations and collaboration across borders should be a fundamental aspect of our near future. This is especially relevant for local governments, who can learn from the example set by the Brasil MAIS/Rede Mais Program and leverage it as a motivation to enhance collaboration efforts at an international level.

Let’s back up and do a bit of context-setting. What is the earth observation industry currently like in Latin America? What are some of the unique elements about LatAm that we may not see as frequently in other geographies? What are some of the common challenges prospects and customers come to you with? 

There is a lot we can talk about here! I’ll focus on three – environmental management & cultural preservation, agriculture, and government initiatives. 

Latin America is home to some of the world’s most biodiverse regions, like the Amazon rainforest and the Galapagos Islands. This remarkable diversity gives rise to a wide array of ecosystems and natural resources that present unique challenges and opportunities for earth observation applications. Earth observation plays a crucial role in monitoring and conserving these invaluable ecosystems, supporting initiatives related to biodiversity conservation, forest management, and wildlife preservation.

Agriculture is a significant economic sector in Latin America, with large-scale production of crops like corn, soybeans, coffee, and sugarcane. Earth observation technology provides vital  support for crop monitoring, yield estimation, and precision agriculture techniques, helping farmers and agricultural experts to enhance food security, optimize resource management, and mitigate risks associated with climate change. 

Lastly, Latin America is also a home to diverse indigenous communities and rich cultural heritage sites. Satellite imagery can support mapping and monitoring of culturally-significant areas, preserving cultural heritage, and addressing challenges related to land tenure, resource management, and sustainable development in indigenous territories. 

What are the new and rising demands for geospatial data and its applications? Are there any trends unique or specific to the Latin America region you see driving these applications?

We are seeing more and more demand for  geospatial data in managing natural resources sustainably. It aids in monitoring and managing forests, water resources, mineral deposits, and wildlife habitats. It supports conservation efforts, biodiversity monitoring, sustainable land use planning, and responsible resource extraction. 

An example of what’s driving this demand is El Niño – the impact can extend over several months, and El Niño’s effects aren’t limited to a single year. El Niño’s arrival can have significant impacts on the region. El Niño is a climate pattern characterized by the warming of the Pacific Ocean near the equator, which can disrupt weather patterns and cause extreme weather events. El Niño is associated with an increased risk of natural disasters in Latin America. Heavy rainfall can lead to floods and landslides, causing damage to infrastructure, displacement of populations, and loss of lives. Coastal areas may also face an elevated risk of tropical storms and hurricanes.

Tell me about 1-2 of the most compelling applications you’ve seen from customers. What kind of before/after results are they seeing from using satellite data? 

One of the best applications I’ve seen is using Planet data to detect and monitor deforestation activities across different regions of Brazil. Fed into a platform that leverages artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to detect and alert them to change, daily satellite monitoring allows our customers to identify areas where illegal deforestation is taking place, enabling timely intervention and enforcement actions. They can also detect signs of mining operations, such as the presence of heavy machinery or changes in land cover, which helps them locate illegal mining sites and take appropriate enforcement actions. In some cases, this satellite imagery may provide visual evidence that may be used in enforcement proceedings against individuals or organizations accused of non-compliance. 

Another great example is from Bolivia, where our customer is utilizing our data to assist in land use planning and zoning activities. By mapping and classifying different land types and their suitability for various uses, they can develop land management plans, designate areas for agriculture, conservation, or urban development, and ensure sustainable land use practices. The valuable insights derived from our data supports our customer’s evidence-based decision-making, enables effective resource allocation, and contributes to the sustainable development and equitable distribution of land resources.

With all of the various governments and cultural systems across Latin America, what do you think can be done to better incorporate satellite data at the policy level?

This is something we discussed a lot at the RedeMAIS event! Rather than utilizing satellite data within a single government ministry, I believe governments should explore more country- or region-wide projects like Brasil MAIS. By pooling resources and jointly investing in a satellite data center, for example, governments can achieve cost efficiencies. Sharing both the price and talent resourcing of satellite data acquisition, processing, and storage reduces individual costs for each participating agency or country. This allows governments to access high-quality satellite data at a lower cost compared to individual procurement.

There are three critical steps that can be taken to better incorporate satellite data at the policy level across Latin America:

  • Establish Data Sharing Mechanisms: Governments can establish data sharing mechanisms and protocols to facilitate the exchange of satellite data among agencies and countries. This can involve creating regional data repositories or platforms where governments can access and share Planet imagery, analysis, and derived products. 
  • Develop Capacity Building Programs: Governments can invest in capacity building programs to enhance the skills and knowledge of policymakers, government officials, and technical experts in utilizing earth observation data. Training workshops, seminars, and educational initiatives can be organized to familiarize stakeholders with the potential applications of satellite data and how to incorporate it into policy development processes.
  • Promote International Cooperation: Latin American governments can engage in international cooperation and partnerships to leverage global expertise and resources in satellite data utilization. Collaborating with international organizations and space agencies, for example, can help governments get funding by international initiatives such as IDB (International Development Bank). 

Pivoting from the policy to the industry side, what tech advancements are you looking forward to that will take satellite data to the next level? And how do you envision these helping to solve challenges Latin American customers are facing?

Hyperspectral satellite data can play a very important role in the future – and I believe Planet’s upcoming Tanager constellation could be a game changer. Hyperspectral capabilities can revolutionize agriculture and crop monitoring here in LatAm as the detailed spectral information can assist in crop health assessment, disease detection, nutrient analysis, and precise crop management. This enables farmers and agricultural institutions to optimize yields, reduce resource use and make informed decisions to enhance food production. 

The world is watching what Amazonian countries are doing to combat environmental crimes and how they can preserve these carbon-rich ecosystems. So a hot topic over the next few years – especially as Brazil looks to host COP30 in 2025 – will be the ability to conduct carbon source identification using hyperspectral sensors. Our Tanager constellation, for example, is slated to be able to detect and differentiate spectral signatures associated with different land cover types and vegetation. By analyzing hyperspectral data, it may be possible to identify areas with high biomass – like dense forests and vegetation-rich regions – which are crucial carbon sinks.

But the underlying question about all of this orbital data is – how do you use it? Or when monitoring massive regions like the Amazon rainforest, how do you even know where to look? It’s critical we keep developing and working with partners to build advanced data processing and analytics techniques to make the data easier to use and understand. This includes algorithms for automated feature extraction, machine learning models for classification and prediction, and cloud-based processing platforms for efficient data analysis.

As you look out the next 1-2 years, what are you most excited about EO in Latin America?

I am incredibly pleased and optimistic to witness the increased investment in Latin America over the next 1-2 years to control and mitigate the impact of environmental challenges such as El Niño, carbon emissions, deforestation, and sustainable practices in agriculture. These initiatives are vital to ensuring food security and a sustainable future for all.

AI combined with geospatial technology has the potential to bring numerous benefits to Latin America – ranging from disaster response, to crop yield monitoring to resource and energy management. For example, imagine how AI combined with earth observation data can support urban planning and infrastructure development by analyzing spatial data, population density, transportation patterns, and environmental factors. This can help optimize city layouts, improve transportation networks, manage resources efficiently, and enhance the quality of life in urban areas. Or, like some or our partners are already doing, it can contribute to environmental conservation efforts by monitoring deforestation, habitat loss, and wildlife populations. It can also aid in the identification of protected areas, biodiversity hotspots, and potential areas for ecosystem restoration, facilitating effective conservation strategies. 

As we face the pressing realities of climate change and its consequences on our region, it is encouraging to see governments, organizations, and communities coming together to address these critical issues. The recognition of the importance of proactive measures and the allocation of resources toward environmental monitoring and sustainable practices is a significant step forward.

The commitment and investment in these areas demonstrate a collective determination to tackle environmental challenges head-on. I am confident that with increased collaboration, knowledge sharing, and the utilization of innovative technologies, we can make significant progress in creating a more sustainable and resilient Latin America.