Earth Observation data and services in times of COVID-19 (and beyond…)

The current pandemic is a crisis unlike any we have ever seen. It has taught us that decisive action matters. It has also shown that when called upon, the space sector can deliver”. These words were delivered by Simonetta di Pippo, UNOOSA Chief, in the keynote addressed to the G20 meeting (focused on the global space sector) the 8th of October 2020.

This statement highlights the unique contribution of satellite data to monitor the worldwide consequences of the Covid-19 crisis. In the light of recent concrete examples showing the potential and the added value of Earth Observation data (EO data), this article aims to give a realistic picture of the use of satellite data, and more specifically EO data, by policy and decision-makers in the short and long-term.

A rapid cooperation between space agencies

First of all, the pandemic crisis has proven that the space sector can react rapidly at a global scale with accurate and relevant data. The coronavirus crisis has brought on unprecedented challenges and several initiatives involved an international cooperation between space agencies.

Several online tools were developed in order to provide COVID-related information using Copernicus Sentinel satellite data:

  • Covid-19 Earth Observation Dashboard[1]: The three space agencies NASA, ESA and JAXA created an online tool to better understand the Covid-19 impacts at a global scale. This platform identified different indicators (economic, agriculture, air and water) to provide updated sets of measurements and investigate how social distancing measures and regional shelter-in-place guidelines have affected the Earth environment and certain human activities.
  • Rapid Action Coronavirus Earth observation”[2] dashboard (RACE): ESA and the European Commission worked closely to launch this tool. It used EO satellite data to measure the effects of the coronavirus lockdown and highlight possibilities for action. One of the functionalities of the platform allows the monitoring of air pollution at a global level. Using data collected by the Sentinel-5P satellite of the Copernicus programme, the map displays the average nitrogen dioxide concentrations over the main cities and regions of the world. To some extent, the platform also gave valuable information about the economic impact of the crisis. The example of the agricultural sector is a good illustration with the monitoring of asparagus crops in Germany. The data was used to help pickers from Europe to get a rapid transit across the border. The location of the maturing asparagus crop was an important factor to control their movements.

It makes no doubt that these tools show the potential of EO data by offering different measurements at the international and European level. However, even if the data was available, there is no evidence that this was actually used by policy makers. Is this because it was used but the links are just not visible? Or if it was not used, is this due to the nature of the information, its timely delivery, or a failure in process around the decision makers themselves?

Hopefully, as the crisis recedes, some of these questions can be answered to be better prepared for any future pandemics.

The potential of EO data: monitoring the consequences of the crisis

The availability and large amount of EO data combined with artificial intelligence algorithms and cloud computing allowed the development of improved solutions with enhanced change detection. These evolutions can explain why EO data could be helpful to measure and monitor the impacts of the Covid-19 crisis.

We would like here to give concrete illustrations with the examples of air pollution drops and economic indicator monitoring[3]:

  • The impact on airlines (number of unused aircrafts and on air traffic levels) was measured with the automatic detection of airplanes using Pléiades and Sentinel data combined with Artificial Intelligence machine learning algorithms.
  • The automated estimation of impact at car manufacturing plants (employee car park occupancy levels and production inventory levels) was also measured with Pleiades data (Barcelona).
  • EO images combined with machine learning algorithms helped quantify the drop in the level of production at the Volkswagen Production Plant in Tianjin, China[4].
  • Using a combination of Automatic Identification System data from satellites and satellite imagery, it was possible to identify and locate ships (Port of Long Beach, USA) and quantify the level of impact of the crisis on the shipping industry.

Other examples demonstrate that EO data unique global coverage and frequency could also be very helpful for crisis mitigation, especially for humanitarian purposes. The current situation in Yemen is a good illustration. A study using high- resolution satellite images[5] to analyse graveyards has found that deaths have nearly doubled in the city of Aden; this discovery has given an idea of the true scale of the pandemic’s impact in this country: “You can say x or y about the pandemic, but if there’s no data for it you can’t really know the impact. Using satellite imagery to create public health data is a very new science and we hope it will prove to be useful in places affected by conflict.”[6] A recent study conducted by the Politechnic School of Federal University of Bahia and the university of Twente (Geo-Information Science and Earth Observation) also demonstrated the value-added of EO data in support management of slum communities in Brazil during the Covid crisis[7]. It showed that EO data integration can help in “updating local datasets and in the acquisition of physical parameters of poor urban communities, which are often not systematically collected in local surveys.” Another recent research made a link between satellite data and the incidence of deaths linked to Covid[8].

All these different examples point out the relevant information provided by EO data and its unique potential, which could inform policy in the future.

From short-term responses to a long-term strategy: Covid-19 and EU Climate policy

As shown in the previous examples, the Covid crisis has proven the potential contribution of EO data, especially when it is combined with Internet of Things information (road traffics, mobile phones location…) and advanced numerical models. The example of cross-borders issues is a good illustration of the use of both Copernicus and Galileo data: “Some lockdown measures implemented by Member States to slow the spread of COVID-19 created issues at border crossings and over the European road network. Many European citizens were unable to travel back home, and trucks carrying medicine and essential goods were blocked. Using Earth Observation data from the Copernicus Sentinel satellites, the European Commission in coordination with national governments ensured these issues were quickly resolved, and the “normal” flow of traffic was restored”.[9]

Keeping in mind a long-term approach, it is important to remember that even if the Covid crisis has put the political focus on environment at risk[10], the European Union reaffirmed that the Green Deal would remain a priority and would stay at the heart of the economic recovery[11]. The ambitious goals for the environment and a low-carbon economy call for advanced and innovative capacities and services to monitor, analyse, predict and mitigate the impact of the human activity on natural resources (soil, air, water…). We know that EO data, combined with in-situ data and other sets of non-satellite based data, has become an essential operational tool to provide scientists with global change images and maps and to measure progress towards the environmental goals[12] set by the new European climate action plan and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

As far as we know, the Covid crisis had a significant impact on the environment[13] and EO data, to some extent, was able to measure it[14]. In that regard, the data used to measure climate changes (air pollution levels, water quality…) during the Covid crisis could be relevant to monitor the future evolutions of the environment and inform policy makers in the post-Covid era.

In this context, our objective is to continue to provide support and valuable information to help policy makers in the future. We strongly believe in the potential of EO data to support evidence-based and data-driven decision making and we should make sure that we work together to make the best use possible of these beneficial information.



[3] A PWC Report developed examples assessing the use of EO data to monitor the consequences of the pandemic for some industries, in particular manufacturing and transports: «Insight from Space: Assessing Impacts of the Covid-19 Crisis”, April 2020, 13 pages.

[4]Leveraging data and analytics generated by imagery from satellites over manufacturing plants and factories across the world and combining this with official statistical data can provide fresh insights on the impact of  Covid-19 crisis to the manufacturing industry”, p3.

[5] More precisely, the study used satellite pictures and combined them with official data sources and interview with researchers in Aden.

[6] Emilie Koum Besson from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical medicine about the context of Yemen (source: Bethan McKernan, “Satellite imagery of Aden  indicates scale of pandemic in Yemen,” The Guardian, 27th of October 2020 –

[7] Patricia Lustosa Brito,  Monika Kuffer, Mila Koeva, Julio Cesar Pedrassoli, Jiong Wang, Federico Costa, and Anderson Dias de Freitas, “The Spatial Dimension of Covid-19: The Potential of Earth Observation Data in Support of Slum Communities with Evidence from Brazil”, in ISPRS Int. J. Geo-Inf. 2020, 9(9), 557.

[8] The study, published in the Journal Cardiovascular Research revealed that long-term exposure to air pollution may be linked to 15% of Covid-19 deaths globally. The experts used satellite data of global exposure to particulate matter and ground-based pollution monitoring networks to calculate to what extent air pollution can be blamed for Covid-19 deaths.

[9] Source: OBSERVER: “A strong and united EU response to the COVID-19 crisis: how does Copernicus help?”

[10]The focus on the virus and the necessity, at a political level, to provide urgent responses, pushed the GreenDeal into the background.

[11]Ursula Von der Leyen: “the European Green Deal must be central to a resilient recovery after Covid-19”.

[12] On the 14th of October, the European Commission adopted the EU methane strategy in the context of the Green Deal: “The EU’s Copernicus satellite programme will (…) improve surveillance and help to detect global super-emitters and identify major methane leaks.”

[13] See for example :

[14] Especially because the lockdown measures limited human economic activities, consumption and movement.

Author: EARSC

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