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Space detectives spot illegal waste sites

A company which describes itself as the world’s first ‘space detective agency’ is launching a service to identify illegal waste dumping or burning from the sky.

Air & Space Evidence says its equipment can examine sites from above and over time where someone has been caught acting unlawfully.

“It can show the extent of problem – which often takes place at multiple areas at the site – and how long it has been going on for. That is useful for sentencing, especially if they are burning waste, meaning there is a lack of evidence,” Ray Purdy, Air & Space founder and director told MRW.

The technology can also uncover operational sites that were previously unknown. In a proof of concept trial in Northern Ireland, 71% of sites detected in a blind trial were shown to be illegal.

Every year waste crime costs the UK more than £1bn and an estimated £63-£79bn across EU member states.

More than 1,000 illegal waste sites appear in England each year, while in Northern Ireland one site alone was estimated to have 1.5 million tonnes of illegally deposited waste – more than Northern Ireland produces in municipal waste in a year. 

Air & Space’s service uses ‘spy in the sky’ satellite technologies, and is based on the firm’s development of a semi-automated detection model using satellite data and machine learning algorithms.

We combined a variety of techniques from both radar and optical satellite sensors, aided by mapping data, to discriminate standard land use types, concentrating on anomalies. We effectively focused on finding the needle by eliminating the haystack,” said Purdy.

“Our technique discards the vast majority of items in the search area and allows us to isolate a realistic number of suspicious areas for further close-up satellite investigation.”

So far Air & Space has conducted investigations in the UK and Ireland, and is currently working with the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency on four further pilots looking at licensed and unlicensed sites.

It is also in partnership with TelespaziVega, a UK-based space engineering company, on a project funded by European Space Agency starting this September. This will further examine remote sensing and waste crime, to detect illegal sites and track waste movements.

Professor Ray Harris, joint founder and director, said: “Waste crime can cause environmental damage to surrounding land, air and water, and poses a risk to human and animal health. Living near an unlawful waste site can also ruin people’s lives.

”We are aiming to use cutting edge space technology to reduce the scale of the waste crime problem significantly.”

So far Air & Space’s waste crime detection project has received £87,700 from Odine, the EU’s incubator for technology startups working with open data.

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