CWI researchers in Amsterdam are building the infrastructure for a virtual observatory that will be able to interpret and combine satellite images almost real-time with geographical information. This could help to timely detect and fight forest fires. Each day, satellites send huge amounts of data to Earth: up to thousands of gigabytes, too many to be processed by human beings. A virtual observatory – a cleverly designed, powerful computer – can do this. The international research project, called TELEIOS, is funded by the European Union. CWI develops its technology for large-scale database management. The project will start on September 1, 2010 and will run until 2013.
How should a virtual observatory operate? Satellites permanently observe large parts of the Earth's surface, but they only ‘see’ pixels. In those pixels an observatory should not only recognize a smoke plume but also distinguish it from, e.g., a condensation line behind an airplane. Using geo-information it should be able to determine whether there is a logical explanation for the smoke, such as a factory. If there really is a forest fire, the observatory has to calculate scenarios for fire development in the short and long term: the expected speed and direction due to weather circumstances. Finally, it should recommend evacuation sites and indicate the best ways to combat the fire, based on simulations.
The CWI researchers use the latest database management technology, which stores raw satellite data and allows for efficiently querying them. CWI uses its open-source database system MonetDB, which is already being used world-wide for data warehouse applications. It will be further developed into a good tool for scientific and environment monitoring applications. Efficient, domain-specific algorithms will be developed to integrate satellite images with geographic and meteorological data. Technical challenges are the huge amount of data and a quick access to them with new query techniques, both in terms of stored satellite images, sensor information and information from the semantic web.
Research in the Netherlands is carried out by the Database Architectures group of CWI, led by Martin Kersten. Project leader of the TELEIOS project is the National Observatory of Athens (NOA) in Greece. Other partners include the Greek National and Kapodistrian University of Athens (NKUA), the Fraunhofer Gesellschaft and the Deutsches Zentrum für Luft und Raumfahrt in Germany, and Advanced Computer Systems (ACS) in Italy. The project is funded by the Seventh Framework Programme of the EU. Managing the data explosion is an important research theme for CWI. This project sets a fine example.
Picture: satellite image of forest fires in Greece, 2009; source: NASA MODIS project
Picture above text: A forest fire; source: Yarik Mishin
Founded in 1946, Centrum Wiskunde & Informatica (CWI) is the national research institute for mathematics and computer science in the Netherlands. It is located at Science Park Amsterdam and is part of the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO). The institute has a strong international position. Over 160 researchers conduct cutting-edge pioneering research and share their acquired knowledge with society. Approximately 30 researchers are also employed as professors at universities. The institute has generated roughly twenty spin-off companies.