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Beyond Borders: Satellite Applications for Humanitarian Emergencies

A recent report provides an overview of the current use of satellite applications in humanitarian settings

The Beyond Borders report was commissioned by the UK Humanitarian Innovation Hub (UKHIH) and written by a consortium of organisations including Caribou Space, the Satellite Applications Catapult and the United Nations Institute for Training and Research.

It explores how satellites are currently used in humanitarian emergencies, seeking to identify initiatives that could improve the uptake of satellite technologies – for earth observation, navigation and communications – and save lives.

The report takes a broad view of humanitarian emergencies, covering five domains: disasters, health emergencies, food insecurity, conflict and security and population displacement.

It highlights use cases ranging from infrastructure mapping and exposure to hazards, to early warning systems; and from humanitarian supply chain management to search and rescue missions.

The research involved a diverse community of humanitarian stakeholders, as well as satellite data providers and users, looking at what has worked well and areas for improvement.

Researchers also identified barriers that could obstruct or delay increased use of satellite applications in the humanitarian sector.

The report makes clear recommendations on how stakeholders can explore opportunities for the transformational impact of satellite applications in humanitarian assistance. 

Highlighting the role they can play in responding to humanitarian emergencies, Caribou Space Senior director Nicki McGoh said: ‘The insights gathered from analysing and profiling over 500 humanitarian satellite applications shows the huge potential they have in promoting anticipatory action and in supporting humanitarian operations and response by providing accurate and timely information.’

Commenting on the value of the report, UKHIH Head of Operations Mark Beagan described the use of satellite technologies ‘as an important innovation in the humanitarian sector’.

He continued: ‘From responding to weather-related disasters to supporting communities facing protracted famine events or operating in conflict situations… satellite communications, navigation services and earth imagery can and should be playing a role to support decision-making, to take swift action and ultimately to save more lives.’

Overview of the Beyond Borders report

The report includes:

  • A breakdown of supply- and demand-side stakeholders of satellite technology for the humanitarian sector.
  • Examples of where satellite technologies have been used in humanitarian domains.
  • A landscaping of over 500 humanitarian satellite applications.
  • Key barriers to the adoption of satellite applications and solutions to overcome them.
  • Two case studies from the Asia-Pacific region and East Africa, providing real-world insight.

Satellite applications and satellite technologies

Satellite applications use three types of satellite technology:

  • Satellite earth observation – the gathering of information about the physical, chemical and biological systems of the planet via remote-sensing technologies.
  • Global navigation satellite systems (GNSS) – a constellation of satellites providing positioning, navigation and timing signals from space. GNSS is used to track people and physical objects, and to provide geotagging (adding geographical data to media) during humanitarian emergencies.
  • Satellite communications – providing voice and data/internet connectivity in regions not covered by terrestrial mobile networks. Platform and cloud services, along with technologies such as machine learning, are simplifying access to and use of satellite applications.

Environmental and situational data for humanitarian decision-making

Satellite applications provide a unique source of data about people and their surrounding environment, with the potential to fill significant data and information gaps in humanitarian management and decision-making processes.

They provide:

  • More timely decision -making through real-time and predictive modelling
  • Decision -making supported by greater accuracy of data
  • Greater confidence in the decision-making process
  • Greater accountability across stakeholders

Ecosystem of satellite applications for humanitarian emergencies

The ecosystem comprises a complex network of organisations that can be arranged along a spectrum, from supply side (product and service providers) to demand side (product and service users), with some overlap.

Supply-side organisations include:

  • Private suppliers – satellite operators and resellers, cloud computing providers, platform/solution providers, and hardware/software suppliers
  • Public suppliers – satellite operators and analytics providers
  • Academia
  • NGOs
  • Media
  • Development agencies

Demand-side organisations include:

  • Governments
  • First responders
  • Private sector
  • Academia
  • NGOs
  • Media
  • Development agencies
  • People affected by crises
  • Other people
  • Landscape of humanitarian satellite applications

The report includes a landscaping of over 500 humanitarian satellite applications, which found that:

  • 42% targeted government users.
  • 62% were ‘customised’ for a specific user.
  • The highest number (92) were for ‘food, security, nutrition and famine events’ in Africa.
  • They could address data gaps in sectors such as health and education.

Overcoming barriers to uptake of satellite applications in humanitarian emergencies

Researchers identified 13 barriers to the uptake of satellite applications in humanitarian emergencies. Industry, governments and development organisations are addressing each barrier to varying degrees. 

The development organisations have prioritised a subset of eight barriers for interventions:

  • User awareness and resistance
  • Inadequate monitoring and evaluation
  • Data availability
  • Ethics and privacy
  • Technical expertise and skills
  • Financing for application development and scaling
  • Procurement challenges
  • Piloting and duplication


The report describes the current landscape of satellite applications being used in humanitarian emergencies, providing a snapshot of a rapidly evolving sector. 

Supply-side stakeholders have developed a wide range of applications for use in humanitarian emergencies that have improved understanding of hazards, assessment of vulnerabilities and deployment of capabilities.

However, despite the large number of satellite applications that have been piloted in the humanitarian sector, there is a limited body of evidence to offer guidance to humanitarian organisations on where they can use satellite technologies most cost-effectively and with the best outcomes for people affected by crises.

Rapid innovation and increased piloting have led to duplication of effort on the supply side. Meanwhile, humanitarian organisations have not yet fully acquired an understanding of the capabilities of the new technologies and satellite applications’ potential relevance to their work. 

Regulatory and legal frameworks have also struggled to keep pace with new developments.

Public and private sector stakeholders have an opportunity to reflect on what more they could do to increase the use and impact of satellite applications in humanitarian assistance. 

Over the coming months, the Beyond Borders project will be developing recommendations on what actions to take and the potential outcomes of such interventions.

The UK Humanitarian Innovation Hub is an independent entity hosted within Elrha and fully funded by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office.

Beyond Borders: Satellite Applications for Humanitarian Emergencies

A recent report provides an overview of the current use of satellite applications in humanitarian settings

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