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Aerospace & Defense

170 satellites to pinpoint disaster damage in Japan house by house

Broadcaster Sky Perfect Jsat aims to expand service across Asia

The Asia's largest satellite broadcaster Sky Perfect Jsat will provide the imagery from a constellation of 170 satellites. (Source photos by Sky Perfect Jsat and Kei Higuchi)

TOKYO -- A service expected to launch next year will harness a constellation of 170 satellites to monitor the whole of Japan and report on house-by-house damage caused by natural disasters, Sky Perfect Jsat said Thursday.

The Japanese satellite broadcaster said the service will be launched in April and aims to roll out the service across Asia.

The service will use imagery supplied by a fleet of optical and radar satellites, including those of U.S. satellite startup Planet Labs, flying in low-Earth orbit. Sky Perfect Jsat operates 19 satellites, mainly for broadcasting and telecommunications, the most for any Asian company.

The service will also utilize map data owned by Zenrin, Japan's largest mapmaker. It collects information either by visiting each building or by taking pictures with a camera mounted on cars.

Zenrin's data includes information about houses and buildings across Japan, including the number of stories and function such as hospital, factory or offices. Nippon Koei, the nation's largest construction consultant, will help analyze satellite data and estimate damage to structures from imagery.

The idea of disaster monitoring by satellites is not new. What makes the initiative unique is its use of a large satellite constellation, and its partnership with a top mapmaker and an infrastructure consultant, which together is now expected to turn satellite imagery into an actual commercial service.

The service, the first in Japan that uses satellite-based disaster monitoring, is expected to show that so-called commercial space is not a pipe dream, but is possible through the right business partnership.

The new service will help emergency responders find open roads and bridges and spot areas of damage to better plan rescue operations. It can also help businesses check the status of their own facilities during natural disasters. The service operators see local governments, businesses with large facilities across the country and insurance companies as potential customers.

The initiative comes as Asia suffers intensifying damage from typhoons and torrential rains amid global climate change. In July, torrential rains in southern Japan sparked a major flooding, leaving 83 people dead. In southern China this year, an estimated 63 million have been affected by the worst flooding in the region since 1961.

A Sky Perfect Jsat official says that the company is considering providing the service in other parts of Asia as well. Other applications include assessing the extent of land collapse in cities like Jakarta that suffer from land subsidence.

The company adds, however, that partnership with a local mapmaker would be necessary to provide the service overseas.

Information about the on-the-ground situation is hard to collect during a natural disaster due to loss of road access and disruptions to telecommunications networks. Satellites are in some cases the only way to find out about the damage in affected areas, officials say.

Sky Perfect Jsat said the satellite imagery will be analyzed using a computer system that is originally developed by Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).

The service can also be used outside of disasters. The satellite constellation can supply imagery of important infrastructure, such as bridges, dams, airports and cut slopes along the roads, to detect signs of deterioration. Much of the land infrastructure in Japan is past 50 years old and needs repair, but has not received a proper checkup or maintenance due to labor shortage.

Such a service is expected to find demand from infrastructure operators, such as railways, utilities and other transport system operators. Sky Perfect Jsat said it believes that those companies can save time checking infrastructure by analyzing satellite imagery.

The market for such service, estimated at 35 billion yen ($333 million) today, is expected to grow eightfold to 270 billion yen by fiscal year 2035. "We've judged that satellite-based infrastructure monitoring service can be made into a commercial business," a Nippon Koei official said.

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