The Visual Power of Pattern
The first picture of earth from space was taken by accident. It was captured 65 miles above the planet’s surface on Oct 24th, 1946, from a V-2 rocket as it fell back to earth. When the film was recovered from the desert floor, the grainy black and white image gave humans a brand-new perspective on the place we’ve lived for around 300,000 years.
While the rocket was meant to capture images looking out towards space, the shot became the first in a series of captivating portraits of our planet. Now retired, NASA’s former chief historian Bill Barry remarked, “During almost every mission we turn around and take a picture…there seems to be an irresistible tendency to look back at home.”
Today aerial and satellite images are part-and-parcel of our everyday lives: from keeping an eye on approaching weather fronts to checking out what’s in someone’s garden on Google Maps. The ubiquity of these images means they’re no longer the front-page news they once were.
Matt Manolides, Technical Program Manager at Google Maps explains that the company completes the mammoth task of replacing its photos of the world’s major cities every year. “We aim to update satellite imagery of the places that change the most. Our goal is to keep densely-populated places refreshed on a regular basis to keep up with a changing world”.
Yet while the images may now be commonplace, there’s still something compelling about adopting this top-down perspective. Their beyond-human scale means that the complexities and details vanish, and even the largest surface features are reduced to patterns. And it’s the new ‘visual shorthand’ that these patterns create that allows us – thanks to science – to derive meaning.
For example, satellite mapping based on images from the European Commission’s Copernicus Sentinel-2 11 allowed the British Antarctic Survey team to discover 11 new emperor penguin colonies – 20% more than they’d previously thought. While even the largest colonies are too small to be seen in satellite images, it was the giant stains that their droppings leave behind on the ice that made them easier for scientists to spot.
A few years back we worked on a satellite services-based project focused on the emerging field of precision agriculture. Improving how existing land and resources are used will be vital to help feed the planet’s rapidly growing population. While farmers have used satellite images of fields since the early 1970s, the new emphasis is about integrating high resolution satellite-based information directly into everyday operations.
Again, it’s the patterns that emerge from this birds’ eye view data – both visual and numerical – that allow machine learning systems to instruct automated equipment, accurately calculate yields and monitor crop health down to the level of individual plant.
So given the right perspective a picture can paint a thousand words. And it doesn’t always have to originate from orbit.
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