Defence & Security

Using satellite data to combat disasters

28 September 2011

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  • Aerial view of the tsunami disaster
    Aerial view of the tsunami disaster

    Aerial view of the tsunami disaster: taken in March 2011 by the German TerraSAR-X Earth-observation satellite, this radar image illustrates the impact of the tsunami on the east coast of Japan. The image shows the Higashi-Matsushima airport and the port of Ishinomaki in the Sendai prefecture. Areas marked blue have been flooded while regions where the infrastructure has been destroyed are magenta-coloured.

  • Evaluating satellite data
    Evaluating satellite data

    Evaluating satellite data at the Centre for Satellite-based Crisis Information (ZKI)

  • Forest fires in Greece, 2007.
    Forest fires in Greece, 2007

    Forest fires in Greece, 2007.
    Data evaluation: DLR
    Data based on Terra MODIS.

Rapid assistance in emergencies: in the event of a natural disaster, the DLR Centre for Satellite-based Crisis Information (ZKI) provides Earth-observation data to support authorities and relief forces. Its information may also be used to improve disaster preparedness and prevention.

Whenever the Earth quakes, as it did in Haiti, or a tsunami wave rears up, as it did in Japan, we realise with a shock that our living environment is under threat, all the time. Moreover, it is an established fact that the impact of such disasters on the population and the economic assets in the regions affected has been increasing markedly in the last few decades. Still, satellite-based Earth observation may help mitigate the consequences of such natural and environmental phenomena by crucially supporting rapid disaster response and assisting in disaster preparedness and prevention.

The demand for satellite-based information is on the rise

Satellite data not only permit surveying emergency situations on a large scale, they also facilitate a detailed evaluation and assessment of the damage caused. In addition, Earth-observation data also permit making specific vulnerability assessments, which enables authorities and relief forces to improve their preparations for possible future threats. For this reason, the demand for satellite-based information to assist with natural and environmental disasters, humanitarian relief campaigns, and even civil-security issues has been increasing significantly in recent years.

In response to this growing demand, the German Aerospace Center (DLR) set up the Center for Satellite-based Crisis Information (ZKI) in Oberpfaffenhofen in 2004. ZKI users may avail themselves of its services at any time of the day. Extensive research and development activities serve to develop the Center’s services and products permanently and keep them at the leading edge of research and technology. Years of experience in national and international missions and the outstanding quality of its maps have given the ZKI its reputation. The ZKI’s coordinating DLR institute is the German Remote Sensing Data Centre (DFD).

Quality management certified under ISO 9001

An extensive quality management system certified under ISO 9001 forms the foundation of the ZKI’s work, enabling it to procure rapidly whatever satellite data may be needed in the event of a crisis, and to evaluate them according to user requirements. Users include civil-defence authorities and their operation centres, political decision-makers, international relief organizations and, last but not least, the relief forces and command centres on the spot. Keeping very close contact with all these is the most important prerequisite for optimally identifying current requirements and meeting them quickly. The key challenge confronting the ZKI is translating the users’ requirements into concrete technical solutions, services, and information products.

As one of the leading institutes in the field the ZKI participates in numerous national and international projects in security research and disaster management. Its focus is on developing new methods and products to enhance the protection of the population. For this purpose, the solutions developed by the ZKI cover the entire cycle of an emergency, from immediate response to reconstruction, risk analysis, prevention, and early warning. One of its core competencies in this context is rapid mapping. In an emergency, the ZKI will procure satellite data as quickly as possible, evaluate them, and forward the information derived from them in the format specified by the users.

Joint action across national boundaries

In October 2010, DLR joined the International Charter on Space and Major Disasters, an agreement concluded between the space agencies and facilities of several countries. In the event of a disaster, it provides for joining satellite systems by common consent to acquire and deliver data – without cost to the user. The objective is to obtain and share information about the situation as quickly as possible. DLR has committed its TerraSAR-X and TanDEM-X satellite systems to this agreement.

DLR scientists are also taking part in the European Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) programme. This project is very similar to the Charter in that one of its key objectives is setting up emergency response and disaster management services. At present, the GMES Emergency Response Service is being developed in an extensive European joint project (SAFER) under the EU’s research framework programme. The rapid mapping activities in this project are coordinated by DLR through the ZKI.

DLR expertise in demand worldwide

Various examples impressively show how great the worldwide demand is for the ZKI and its expertise. In 2010 alone, the Center’s map material was used in three of the worst disasters of the year: the devastating earthquake in Haiti, the large-scale floods in Pakistan, and the forest fires in Russia that burned for weeks. In the spring of 2011, the ZKI provided maps to assist Japan in coping with the earthquake and the subsequent tsunami. Two German satellite systems, RapidEye and TerraSAR-X, took images showing the extent of the damage caused by the flood wave (see photo), the data being forwarded to the users in Japan immediately after their evaluation. In Germany, too, the ZKI’s services were employed on several occasions, mainly in connection with mapping flooded areas as in January 2011, when four federal states along the river Elbe demanded up-to-date maps of the extent of the flood.

The ZKI provides not only quick emergency mapping but also information on crisis prevention. Thus, it assists in planning large-scale events such as the 2009 NATO summit in Strasbourg. It was even involved in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, for which it provided up-to-date satellite maps and situation reports.

Thus, the ZKI has established itself in recent years as one of the leading institutes in satellite-based crisis information – nationally, in Europe, and in the wider international field. The factors that have been crucial for its success include its capability to provide information reliably and quickly, advise and train people competently, and keep in close contact with users. To be successful in the long run, however, the ZKI must keep on developing its services and adapting them to new requirements and technical resources on an ongoing basis. Needless to say, DLR researchers and scientists are working hard on that.

Scientists from two of DLR’s main research areas, space and transport, are involved in this project, which at the same time forms part of DLR´s security research, a cross departmental programme under which defence- and security-related research and development activities are being planned and controlled.

Last modified:
21/09/2011 11:08:37



Prof. Dr. Günter Strunz
German Aerospace Center (DLR)

German Remote Sensing Data Center

Tel.: +49 8153 28-1314

Fax: +49 8153 28-1445