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States and private actors are increasingly investing in satellite (SAT) technology. This paper presents an analysis of the reasons underlying the diffusion and strategic value of SAT technology, particularly with regard to the importance of information and data both in international policy and the management of humanitarian crises and issues.

Humanitarian emergencies are characterised by elements of uncertainty that can be mitigated through the use of objective analytical tools that have the potential to predict outcomes. The dynamics examined concern the overlapping functions of space technology (in particular, Synthetic Aperture Radar) and data processing. The intensification of investments in SAT technology is due to the reduction of costs, public–private partnerships in the management of resources and assets to tackle the various crises, and, particularly, the dual-use or civil–military framework. There also remains strong international competition in the field of space research, which drives progress in space exploration and cybenetics.

The paper investigates the potential of SAT technology in humanitarian work, taking into account the risks and opportunities that coexist in every great technological innovation and shape the expectations of the various players in its development and use.

Emilio Guida holds an MA in Political Science from the State University of Milan. He is the author of the book “Intelligence. Costante storica, variabile teorica e prospettive post-bipolari” published by Ledizioni in 2016.

This paper has been published by the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies (NCHS), a joint initiative of  the Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI), the Norwegian Institute of Interational Affairs (NUPI) and the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO). The NCHS promotes humanitarian research and brings together scholars, practitioners and policy makers to facilitate discussion on humanitarian related issues.

The author acknowledges the support of the project “Humanitarian Diplomacy: Assessing Policies, Practices and Impact of New Forms of Humanitarian Action and Foreign Policy” funded by the Research Council of Norway and led by Antonio De Lauri, Research Professor at CMI.


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[2] SAR here refers not to the classic optical technology but to radar measurement and imaging reconstruction technology.

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[21] For SAR technology see Preeti Wadhwani and Prasenjit Saha, ‘Synthetic Aperture Radar Market’, Global Market Insights, December 2020,

[22] See

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[25] The database is financed by the Max Planck Society and the University of Constance. The development was also supported by the National Science Foundation, the German Aerospace Center, the German Science Foundation and NASA.

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[31] Space-borne optical remote-sensing image types and quality are strongly dependent on the satellite’s on-board sensor technologies. Optical space-borne sensors can cover single or multiple regions of the optical electromagnetic spectrum, from infrared to the highest light frequencies, with different numbers of ‘channels’, resolutions and accuracies. Sensor systems can operate in the visible spectrum with bands equivalent to the three primary colors – blue (380–440 nm), green (440–600 nm) and red (600–750 nm) – the near infrared range (750–1100 nm), and the short-wave infrared range (1550–2400 nm). For further details, see: J. G. Liu, ‘Remote Sensing: Passive Sensors’, Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences, reference module, 2013,; European Space Agency, ‘The Information Contained in an Image: Analogue Versus Digital’, eduspace, 6 November 2012,; ‘How are Satellite Images Different from Photographs?’,

RGB refers to the red, green and blue spectral bands, each of which carries different information. The sensor can detect multiple wavelength ranges separately or simultaneously; each of them forms an image. A set of such images is called a multispectral image and each images in the set is called a band spectral.

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[33] Canadian Space Agency, ‘RADARSAT Constellation Mission’,

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[35] United Nations Institute for Training and Research, ‘United Nations Satellite Centre UNOSAT’,

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[37] This is not an undisputed issue and there is the potential for misuse as satellite data might contribute to more restrictive migration policies, hindering migrant vessels to reach a safe harbour.

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[42] Human geography concerns the mapping of people, groups, organizations, sentiments and attitudes, norms, belief systems, social activities, and ‘ways of doing business’ over space and time. See Andrew Jones, Human Geography: The basics, London: Routledge, 2012. For evolution in geospatial intelligence, see Robert M. Clark, Geospatial Intelligence: Origins and Evolution, Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2020.

Humanitarian Diplomacy

Jan 2019 - Dec 2022