Finding oneself, lost, in plain sight: Distress calls for satellite imagery


News, Movies, and The Life Random –

A little about how my brain works: I was watching the news, hearing about those football players lost at sea, and I saw how big and obvious the overturned boat looked from the video.  Then I thought of the movie Cast Away, wondering just what I would do to signal people… and then I thought of James Kim and the tragedy he and his family suffered.  At the same time, I had just looked up a restaurant on Google Maps and as I zoomed into to the map I noticed the big white arrows we paint on the roads for turning lanes.  I hadn’t really noticed them before, but thought to myself just how much they stand out when you actually look for them… and somehow I came back to how big and obvious the boat looked in the water.

boatThen I had the thought that many have had before me – "wouldn’t it be nice if Google Maps was real-time so we could search for things live; we could find those lost people quickly.".  Obviously we have the ability to see sufficient resolution, even when restricted by the government.  DigitalGlobe and GeoEye (the providers behind  Google and Microsoft) offer resolutions as tight as 1.3 ft per pixel.

At the moment, unfortunately, individual commercial satellites can only capture so much of the planet per day – an area about the size of Nevada.  More satellites are going up all the time, plus all the government satellites.  So in combined capacity we may be approaching a level where something like this is possible.  The technology is there… it is only a question of scale.

But the biggest problem with finding people alive is knowing they are missing in the first place.  Real time imagery doesn’t help if no one is looking, so search and rescue operations often don’t start until those in distress are already at the brink, or beyond.  We have no way for those without some kind of transmitter device to effectively signal their distress to the only observer that’s always watching – a satellite.  Perfectly healthy people are lost and die in plain sight of our space based cameras.  In James Kim’s case, the absence of a way to effectively signal for help was the difference between making the fateful decision to go off on his own to find help, or staying with his family to wait for help which eventually did arrive.

 

FaceDetectionComputers find Waldo very quickly -

So, let’s say we have the ability to snapshot the bulk of the planet at 1-2 ft sq resolution at least once per 24-72 hr period.  How do we search for someone we don’t know is lost?   The same way we detect other things like faces, retinas, missile launches, bad eggs and poorly manufactured rivets, etc.  Computers already analyze images for expected signs, patterns and shapes across visible and invisible spectrums… and they alert people when matches are found.

Just like someone lost on a desert island might carve messages in the sand or light fires in a clearing… if the cameras in space were actively awaiting a sign… a specific sign… 24 hours a day, it would be more effective than the biggest bon fire you can build. Pattern recognition software is commonplace and efficient, and adding it to the standard post-processing regimen of satellite imagery does not seem an unreasonable burden.

 

sos The most important Twittering you’ll ever do -

So what I’m suggesting is a world wide standard signal of distress/rescue for satellite imagery.  Not something for the rescuers to look for after they know you’re missing, but a something you can display as soon as YOU know you’re missing.  I’m not sure if actively scanning satellite imagery for distress signals is a new idea, but I don’t seem to find it in my substitute brain, Google.  Certainly it is a logical next step in the common art of catching the eye of a pilot or passing ship.

This sign could be part of standard survival gear in the form of a mylar sheet with tent stakes.  The sign could be etched on other survival gear or shown on stickers so people know to carve it into the dirt, or make it out of branches or arrange it with stones… anything of sufficient size and contrast that it can be recognized from space.  It could even be painted on the bottom of boat hulls, sewn into the top of emergency parachutes, the bottoms of airplane floatation seats, life rafts & jackets, even deployed like a popup tent in the desert.

 

The Search for Terrestrial Intelligence (STI) -

We need a shape that does not occur in nature and simple enough to construct quickly… color independent and so unique that it can be detected even with some tolerance to the exact shape.  It may be tough to find a unique shape that isn’t found in Urban areas and this is why I think that urban, or reasonably populated areas should be excluded from the search.  You still have to contend with clouds, but there may even be ways around that with IR-reflective materials. showimage

The task of identifying and proving a good candidate signal shouldn’t be that hard.  Simply identify a few candidate shapes and see if, or how often, the same shape can be found in existing satellite imagery.  Then test to see how easily the signal can be identified when constructed in potential survival scenarios.

Essentially, everything needed to make this work already exists in some form or another.  The biggest question is how quickly/often images are typically pulled from satellites and analyzed… and whether that can be done on a sufficient schedule to make it useful.

Then it becomes more of a diplomatic effort.  If we have an international distress signal, we also need some international cooperation in protecting the shape from being used for non-distress uses and in architectural design.  Perhaps multi government agreement to make searching for the signal a standard part of planetary surveillance as a matter of humanitarian cause.

 

laser Someone up there likes me -

When I think even further down the road, since we already have lasers that can burn a hole through a missile casing at 200 miles, why not embed a satellite based laser that can make a visible dot, or even graphics/text on the ground from 200 miles up?  Once a distress sign is identified, the satellites themselves could signal back to the lost… as well as pinpoint the location for rescuers or unmanned craft with supplies, just like painting a target with a laser in combat scenarios.

Why would we put visible lasers on satellites?  Well, just think of the commercial possibilities (and potential blindness law suits) of projecting laser signage onto the Earth from space (my idea, pay me).

How many people could we save?  Hopefully enough to be worth all the "stalking pop up ads from space", and the glowing ring at your feet as you walk around (also my idea, pay me).

You’ll never see the SIMS the same.

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Reader Comments

My first thought is that there’s a standard of 3.

Any good scout knows to create three piles of stones, preferably with 3 stones in each pile on a small scale. This is supposedly why SOS was chosen in the days of Morse code, the short, three long, three short.

My second thought is that 3 dots may not be enough, so I suggest three connected triangles (also viewed as one large triangle, with a smaller inverted triangle in the middle). And then only do the graphical analysis on pictures/tiles that have had substantial updates to their appearance.

In any case, people lost at sea without a signal device (new & improved, or not) are screwed no matter what.

3rd thought is cost-benefit analysis. You could spend 40Billion on this project, and save maybe 100 people a year, or spend 40billion and wipe out malaria, saving tens of millions of lives. Not nearly as cool to watch from space, but a better investment.

As for earth-directed lasers, Real Genius drove me away from supporting that a long time ago.