• Urban Innovation
  • Air Quality Monitoring
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Microsatellites Can Help with Connectivity and Air Quality Issues in Cities

Grant Samms
Dec 21, 2021

Guidehouse Insights

When the US and the Soviet Union competed in the 1950s and 1960s for increasingly complex feats of space exploration, everyday people began to see space’s potential to improve society. Air pollution elimination, accurate weather forecasting, and communications via satellite were among their hopes. After 60 years, many of these techno-optimistic visions have come true. The recent emergence of microsatellites is lowering the previously high cost of using space to collect and transmit data. Smart cities are using microsatellites to close the digital divide and address air pollution and heat islands.

Closing the Digital Divide

Perhaps the largest impact that microsatellite developments might have is on internet connectivity. Amid stay-at-home orders and remote learning, the digital divide between those with sufficient internet access and those without became impossible to ignore. School districts and nonprofits scrambled to provide mobile hotspots and buses equipped with Wi-Fi to support equal access to digital classes for students who were already at risk of receiving sub-standard education.

Internet-providing satellite constellations work to fill the digital divide. Companies such as SpaceX and OneWeb have been building networks of small, low orbit, geosynchronous satellites that could overcome the biggest infrastructure challenges present in more conventional home-internet connections. Assuming that access to these satellite networks is provided at a reasonable cost, these constellations can also provide digital access to those who have historically lacked access.

Improving Air Quality Forecasting

Microsatellites can also help spot areas with chronically poor air quality. As air quality can change dramatically over just a few blocks, cities interested in understanding where air pollution concentrates need to gather a large amount of data. Deploying enough physical sensors to adequately monitor an entire city is cost prohibitive, but the small satellite revolution has enabled a wave of lower cost solutions to the air quality problem. Companies such as BreezoMeter and IQAir are working to combine information from microsatellites and ground stations with AI to give cities a simulated, real-time look at air quality that can guide policymaking to limit pollution levels. 

Cities can also take advantage of more targeted sensing to identify the highest sources of both point and non-point pollution to further address air pollution and bolster emissions reduction efforts. Detailed tracking of smoke plume intensity from wildfires has been a valuable application of satellite-based air quality monitoring. Fine particulate pollution levels can be reported at a high resolution and used to guide public health officials in issuing air quality alerts. 

Studying Urban Heat Islands

Microsatellites also have other applications for public health. While temperature measurements by satellite have been used for scientific study since the 1960s, the cost of these orbital stations limited the amount of time that they could be dedicated to specific projects. Now, with the cost of designing and launching microsatellites rapidly decreasing, these barriers are being lifted. Students at Arizona State University were able to place a dedicated satellite in orbit to study heat island effects in seven US cities. Their data will help clarify the lifecycle of urban heat islands, putting better information into the hands of decision makers and public health officials.

Perhaps the greatest potential of microsatellites is that they can help overcome the infrastructure costs of more traditional service methods. Accessibility to some equipment will remain an issue to address through intelligent policymaking, but the proliferation of these orbital stations helps eliminate some infrastructure barriers to data and connectivity. It also allows for a hyper-focus on municipal issues down to the city block scale. These two advantages of microsatellites are laying a foundation for quality of life improvements that would make technologists of the 1950s smile.