Earth Observation goes Back to the Future

Typhoon Atsani over the Pacific Ocean on 25 August 2015. Image from Himawari-8. Copyright 2015 EUMETSAT.

Typhoon Atsani over the Pacific Ocean on 25 August 2015. Image from Himawari-8. Copyright 2015 EUMETSAT.

Today is Back to the Future Day! Or more precisely, October 21st 2015 is the date that Marty McFly and Doc Brown travel back to in the second of the Back to the Future (BTTF) films. We’ve seen a few recent articles comparing the imagined 2015 with the actual year, and we decided this week’s blog will examine how Earth observation technology compares to the film’s predictions.

You might be reading this thinking you don’t remember any Earth observation data in the BTTF film? Well that is not strictly true! Whilst there might not have been any reference to pure satellite remote sensing such as Landsat, precision weather forecasting was present.

After arriving in 2015 in the film, Marty doesn’t want to get out of the DeLorean as it is pouring with rain. Doc looks at his watch and tells Marty to wait for five seconds, at which point the rain stops and the sun comes out. Now admittedly, getting such precision timing from a watch is stretching reality a bit, but we’re not that far away. In terms of the device, an Apple Watch with a weather forecasting app is the most obvious equivalent. Although, all smartphones have weather apps and are not that dissimilar; interestingly, the development of mobile technology was something completely missed by BTTF.

On the accuracy of the predictions, regular readers of this blog will know we are Formula One fans and we even sponsored a car last year. On the commentary of those races you will hear the teams using their rain radar maps to give their drivers weather updates such as ‘rain is predicted in ten minutes, it will last five minutes and expected to be heavy’. Accurate predictions are getting closer, although it may be some time until we know the second the rain will stop.

The other major link to Earth observation within the film is the examples of drone technology. The first example is the use of ‘hovercams’ to provide video of breaking news events; whilst again this is something not widely used by news agencies, the concept of using drones to take videos or collect data is something that is very much used within the remote sensing community. There is a second example with the shot of a drone walking a dog, and it looks very similar to drones currently being used. Not quite sure that a drone could walk a dog yet though, despite the videos on the internet!

However, the potential for drones to become more commonplace was recognised this week by the US Transport Secretary who called for a national register and drones and owners. The number of drones flown by the general population is expected to grow rapidly. It’s likely that some form of development of the legal or regulatory framework will occur to ensure these are operated in a manner that does not undermine safety and privacy.

Earth observation and remote sensing technology was part of the 1989 BTTF film. If we look forward 26 years from today to 2041, anyone want to predict what will be the rising technology in remote sensing? Tweet us your ideas!