Why were we set up? Earth observation technologies have rapidly improved in the last decade, are continuing to develop, and increasingly offer greater levels of accuracy and opportunities to those wishing to use Earth observation data as legal evidence. Modern satellites and unmanned aerial systems (UAS) can allow digital data at resolutions approaching those of aerial photography to be obtained, with some now allowing for collection of near real-time information.
Using modern Earth observation technologies could clearly have huge advantages over traditional on-the-ground evidence collection. Significantly, they can allow regular and unprecedented access to information concerning nearly any location on Earth, at almost any time, without the technology coming into direct contact with the object or area or the need to gain permissions to fly over a country or area to collect aerial photography. This offers new opportunities for those wishing to observe activities in places that are difficult to monitor by conventional methods, such as monitoring environmental legislation in remote areas, or checking on human rights abuses within countries at war. There are also significant opportunities available to look back in time, and archives of Earth observation information can often provide historical evidence that would be otherwise unavailable.
Our academic work at University College London (where we worked together on interdisciplinary funded projects looking at the data policy, legal and evidentiary impacts of Earth observation data) found that the opportunities for evidence collection presented by Earth observation would become progressively more important to those working in the legal, law enforcement, auditing and insurance sectors. But we also found that many of those working in these sectors had little awareness, knowledge and understanding as to what Earth observation technologies can offer, its limits and its value as evidence. It is highly likely that whilst most lawyers, insurance investigators and legal enforcement officials would have looked at Google Earth (after all it has been downloaded by a third of all internet users in the world), most of them would have never seen a satellite image used in a legal context.
Over the last three years we received a number of calls each month at University College London from law firms (both in the UK, US and further afield) and regulatory bodies asking how they might get imagery, which could potentially be used in evidence in legal disputes. They had no idea where Earth observation imagery could be sourced from or the evidential implications of using it. Spotting a gap in the market, Air & Space Evidence was established to bridge the link between the imagery from these technologies and those working in a legal context; and provides assistance in sourcing and using Earth observation imagery as evidence.