Machine learning creates living atlas of the planet

Machine learning, combined with satellite imagery and Cloud computing, is enabling understanding of the world and making the food supply chain more efficient.


There are more than 7 billion people on Earth now, and roughly one in eight people do not have enough to eat. According to the World Bank, the human population will hit an astounding 9 billion by 2050. With rapidly increasing population, the growing need for food is becoming a grave concern.

The burden is now on technology to make up for the looming food crises in the coming decades. But fortunately there is no shortage of ideas and innovative minds are seeking solutions to combat this problem.

Machine learning to the rescue
Descartes Labs, a Los Alamos, New Mexico-based start-up is using machine learning to analyze satellite imagery to predict food supplies months in advance of current methods employed by the US government, a technique that could help predict food crises before they happen.

Descartes Labs pulls images from public databases like NASA’s Landsat and MODIS, ESA’s Sentinel missions and other private satellite imagery providers, including Planet. It also keeps a check on Google Earth and Amazon Web Services public datasets. This continuous up-to-date imagery is referred to as the ‘Living Atlas of the Plant’.

The commercial atlas, designed to provide real-time forecasts of commodity agriculture, uses decades of remotely sensed images stored on the Cloud to offer land use and land change analysis.

Descartes Labs cross-references the satellite information with other relevant data such as weather forecasts and prices of agricultural products. This data is then entered into the machine learning software, tracking and calculating future food supplies with amazing accuracy. By processing these images and data via their advanced machine learning algorithm, Descartes Labs collect remarkably in-depth information such as being able to distinguish individual crop fields and determining the specific field’s crop by analyzing how the sun’s light is reflecting off its surface. After the type of crop has been established, the machine learning program then monitors the field’s production levels.

“With machine learning techniques, we look at tons of pixels from satellites, and that tells us what’s growing,” says Mark Johnson, CEO and Co-founder, Descartes Labs.

How to tackle a data deluge
The total database includes approximately a petabyte — or 1015 bytes — of data. Descartes has actually reprocessed the whole 40-year archive starting with the first Landsat satellite imagery to offer completely Cloud-free view of land use and land change to create this ‘Living Atlas of the Planet’.

The data platform is said to have analyzed over 2.8 quadrillion multispectral pixels for this. It enables processing at petabytes per day rates using multi-source data to produce calibrated, georeferenced imagery stacks at desired points in time and space that can be used for pixel level or global scale analysis or for visualizing or measure changes such as floods, or changes in the condition of crops. “The platform is built for analysis. It is not built to store the data. This is a vastly different philosophy than traditional data platforms,” says Daniela Moody, Remote Sensing and Machine Learning Specialist, Descartes Labs.

The platform churns out imageries at specific locations for specific time at different wavelengths, thus offering unique insights into land cover changes over broad swaths of land. For instance, the NDVI (normalized difference vegetation index) reveals live green vegetation using a combination of red and near-infrared spectral bands (Figure 2). Combining NDVI with visible spectral bands allows a user to examine the landscape through many lenses. The platform offers both Web and API interfaces. While the Web interface offers options for visualizing data, whereas the API allows the user to interact directly with the data for specific analysis. The platform’s scalable Cloud infrastructure quickly ingests, analyzes, and creates predictions from the imagery.

Change is the only constant
The ability to have such fine-grained data on agricultural production will help in making the food supply chain more efficient. As Descartes Labs adds more geospatial data to its already robust database of earth imagery, these models will get even more accurate. Cloud computing and storage, combined with recent advances in machine learning and open software, are enabling understanding of the world at an unprecedented scale and detail.

Earth is not a static place, and researchers who study it need tools that keep up with the constant change. “We designed this platform to answer the problems of commodity agriculture,” Moody adds, “and in doing so we created a platform that is incredible and allows us to have a living atlas of the world.”



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