Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) Satellite Imagery Applications

Source: Umbra

What is Synthetic Aperture Radar Satellite Imagery?

Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) satellite imagery is a type of remote sensing technology that uses radar signals to create high-resolution images of Earth’s surface. Unlike traditional optical satellite imagery, which relies on sunlight to illuminate the target area, SAR systems use their own radar signals, making them capable of operating in any weather condition and at any time of day or night.

SAR satellites send out pulses of microwave energy toward the Earth’s surface and then measure the time it takes for the signals to bounce back after interacting with the terrain or objects on the ground. By processing these returning signals, a SAR system can generate an image with information about the surface features and the properties of the materials present.

Some key characteristics of SAR satellite imagery are described below.

High Resolution

SAR technology can produce high-resolution images, often with a spatial resolution of a few meters or even less. This allows for the detailed observation and analysis of the Earth’s surface and the ability to detect small-scale features such as individual trees, buildings, or vehicles.

All-Weather Capability

SAR systems can penetrate clouds, rain, and other atmospheric conditions that often obstruct optical satellite imagery. This allows for reliable data acquisition in regions with frequent cloud cover or during extreme weather events.

Day and Night Operation

Since SAR satellites use their own radar signals, they can operate independently of sunlight. This enables them to acquire images during both day and night, which is particularly useful for monitoring dynamic events such as natural disasters or human activities that may occur at any time.

Penetration Capabilities

In some cases, SAR signals can penetrate through certain types of vegetation or even shallow layers of snow, sand, or soil, providing valuable information about the underlying features or structures.

Interferometry and Change Detection

By comparing SAR images acquired at different times, it is possible to detect changes in the Earth’s surface, such as subsidence, landslides, or deforestation. Additionally, SAR interferometry (InSAR) can measure very small surface displacements with great precision, providing valuable data for applications such as monitoring volcanic activity, earthquakes, or infrastructure stability.


SAR satellite imagery has a wide range of applications across various industries, owing to its unique capabilities. Some applications include:

Land use and land cover classification: SAR can be used to classify different land cover types, such as urban areas, agricultural lands, and forests, which is crucial for land use planning, resource management, and environmental impact assessments.

Disaster management: SAR can help detect and monitor natural disasters such as floods, landslides, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions. Its ability to penetrate clouds and image at night enables quick assessments of damage and aids in relief efforts.

Infrastructure monitoring: SAR can monitor the structural integrity of critical infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, and buildings, by detecting ground subsidence, landslides, and other deformations.

Climate change studies: By providing data on ice sheets, permafrost, and sea level rise, SAR contributes to our understanding of climate change impacts and helps inform adaptation strategies.

Archaeology: SAR can help detect and map buried archaeological sites, ancient settlements, and landscape features that are otherwise difficult to observe.

Defense, intelligence and security applications: SAR can be employed for reconnaissance, target identification, and surveillance, as well as terrain mapping and change detection. It can also be used for border control and monitoring conflict zones.

Forestry management: SAR can help assess forest health, biomass, and biodiversity, as well as track deforestation and reforestation efforts.

Environmental monitoring: SAR can be used to monitor land cover changes, deforestation, desertification, wetland dynamics, and other natural processes, as well as to track the effects of climate change, such as melting ice caps and rising sea levels.

Agriculture: SAR can help monitor crop growth, estimate yields, and assess the impact of natural disasters like floods or droughts on agricultural productivity. It can also detect and track soil moisture content, which is essential for irrigation management.

Urban planning and infrastructure monitoring: SAR imagery can be used to monitor urban expansion, map transportation networks, and analyze the structural integrity of infrastructure like bridges, dams, and buildings. It can also detect land subsidence and help identify potential areas for development.

Oil and mineral exploration: SAR can detect geological features and changes in landforms, which can indicate the presence of oil, gas, or mineral deposits. It can also monitor oil spills and help in the management of mining operations.

Maritime surveillance: SAR is useful for tracking sea ice, monitoring coastal erosion, and detecting oil spills, illegal fishing, and marine pollution. It can also be employed in search and rescue operations at sea.

Glaciology: By studying ice movement and changes in polar regions, SAR can help researchers understand glacier dynamics and the impact of climate change on ice sheets.

Seismology and tectonics: SAR can detect ground deformation resulting from earthquakes, volcanic activity, or other tectonic events, which can provide valuable data for researchers studying Earth’s geodynamics.

Hydrology: SAR can be used to study water resources, such as rivers, lakes, and reservoirs, as well as monitor changes in water levels, flow rates, and flood extents. This information is vital for water management and flood mitigation.

Coastal management: SAR can be used to study coastal dynamics, including shoreline changes, erosion, sediment transport, and the impact of human activities on coastal ecosystems.

Oceanography: SAR can help monitor ocean currents, waves, and wind patterns, which are important for understanding ocean dynamics, climate change, and weather forecasting.

Wildlife habitat monitoring: SAR can detect changes in ecosystems and habitat fragmentation, which is crucial for biodiversity conservation and wildlife management.

Avalanche monitoring: By tracking snow cover and snowpack changes in mountainous regions, SAR can help identify areas at risk of avalanches and support mitigation efforts.

Infrastructure stability: SAR can monitor the stability of large-scale engineering projects, such as dams, pipelines, and railways, by detecting ground deformation and potential hazards.

Atmospheric research: SAR can provide data on atmospheric properties, such as temperature, humidity, and wind speed, which can be used for weather forecasting and climate modeling.

Mapping and cartography: SAR can be used to create high-resolution elevation models and update topographic maps, which are essential for navigation, land use planning, and geospatial analysis.

Insurance and risk assessment: SAR data can help assess the risk of natural disasters and other hazards, such as floods, landslides, and earthquakes, which can inform insurance underwriting and disaster preparedness planning.

Permafrost studies: SAR can help monitor permafrost dynamics, including thawing and freezing processes, which have implications for infrastructure stability, climate change, and carbon emissions.

Snow cover monitoring: SAR can track snow cover extent and changes, providing essential information for water resource management, climate studies, and winter sports and tourism.

Coral reef monitoring: SAR can help assess the health of coral reefs by detecting changes in reef structure and extent, which can inform conservation efforts and management strategies.

Soil erosion monitoring: SAR can provide information on soil erosion rates and patterns, helping to inform soil conservation and sustainable land management practices.

Wetland monitoring and conservation: SAR can be used to map wetland areas, monitor their health, and assess the impacts of human activities on these ecosystems, which is essential for wetland conservation and management.

Volcanology: SAR can detect ground deformation related to volcanic activity, helping to monitor and predict volcanic eruptions and their potential impacts on human populations and the environment.

Atmospheric pollution tracking: SAR can help monitor air quality by detecting and tracking pollutants, such as particulate matter and aerosols, which is essential for public health and environmental protection.

Wind energy planning: SAR can be used to study wind patterns, helping to identify suitable sites for wind energy installations and optimizing the placement of wind turbines.

Geological hazard assessment: SAR can help identify and monitor geological hazards, such as landslides, sinkholes, and subsidence, which is crucial for infrastructure planning and risk mitigation.

Who Uses SAR Imagery?

SAR satellite imagery is used by various organizations across multiple sectors. Some of the primary users of SAR satellite imagery include:

Defense and Intelligence Organizations

SAR satellite imagery is an important tool for various defense agencies around the world. Some U.S. defense agencies that utilize SAR satellite imagery include:

The Department of Defense (DoD) uses SAR imagery for various purposes, such as monitoring foreign military installations, tracking the movement of vehicles and troops, and supporting military operations.

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) provides geospatial intelligence to the DoD and other intelligence agencies. SAR imagery is used to support its mission by providing detailed, up-to-date information on various geographic features and human-made structures.

The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) designs, builds, and operates the U.S. government’s reconnaissance satellites, including those equipped with SAR capabilities. They provide the imagery to other intelligence and defense agencies.

Environmental Agencies

SAR satellite imagery is widely used by various environmental agencies and organizations for monitoring and assessment of the Earth’s surface. Some of these agencies include:

The United States Geological Survey (USGS) uses SAR imagery for a variety of purposes, including monitoring natural disasters, mapping land cover, and studying the Earth’s surface.

Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) uses SAR data for various purposes, such as monitoring sea ice, oil spills, and other environmental changes.

The European Environment Agency (EEA) uses SAR data to support its environmental monitoring and assessment activities, particularly in the areas of land cover, natural hazards, and climate change.

Many other national and international environmental organizations also use SAR satellite imagery for various applications, such as monitoring deforestation, assessing flood risk, and tracking glacier movements.

Private Companies

Many commercial SAR satellite operators, like Umbra, Maxar, and Capella Space, provide SAR satellite imagery as a commercial product for private companies in industries such as agriculture, forestry, mining, and oil and gas exploration.

Meteorological Agencies

SAR imagery is also used by meteorological agencies like the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT) for weather forecasting and monitoring.

Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and Research Institutions

NGOs and research institutions use SAR satellite imagery for various purposes, including humanitarian aid, biodiversity conservation, and scientific research. A NGO is a nonprofit organization that operates independently of any government, typically one whose purpose is to address a social or political issue.

How Easy is it to Utilize SAR Imagery?

Using SAR satellite imagery can be relatively difficult for those without the necessary technical expertise or experience. Some factors that affect ease-of-use include:

SAR satellite imagery can be challenging for beginners, as it requires a strong understanding of radar principles, signal processing, and image interpretation. Users with experience in remote sensing, geospatial analysis, or related fields may find it easier to work with SAR data.

Acquiring and processing SAR data can be complex, depending on the specific satellite system, data format, and software tools. Some commercial and government organizations, such as the European Space Agency (ESA), provide user-friendly platforms for accessing SAR data, like the Copernicus Open Access Hub. Various software tools, like SNAP (Sentinel Application Platform) or SARscape, have been developed to help users process and analyze SAR data more easily.

Interpreting SAR images can be challenging, as the images are often affected by factors like speckle noise, geometric distortions, and radar-specific phenomena (e.g., layover, shadowing, and foreshortening). However, with the appropriate training and experience, users can effectively analyze SAR data for a wide range of applications, such as environmental monitoring, disaster response, and urban planning.

SAR vs Electro-Optical Imagery

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SAR and Electro-Optical (EO) imagery are two different remote sensing technologies which are both complementary and competitive. Each of these technologies has its own set of advantages and disadvantages, which are described below.

SAR Imagery


  • SAR can penetrate through clouds, fog, and rain, allowing for image acquisition in all weather conditions.
  • SAR operates independently of sunlight, making it possible to collect data during both day and night.
  • SAR can penetrate certain materials, such as vegetation or thin structures, providing information about the features hidden underneath.
  • SAR is capable of providing elevation information and monitoring surface deformation through interferometric techniques.


  • SAR image processing and interpretation can be complex, requiring specialized knowledge and software.
  • SAR images suffer from speckle noise, which can affect image interpretation and require additional processing to reduce.
  • SAR typically has a lower spatial resolution compared to high-resolution electro-optical imagery.
  • SAR provides limited color information, usually in grayscale, making it less suitable for applications requiring detailed color differentiation.

Electro-Optical (EO) Imagery


  • EO sensors can provide high-resolution imagery, allowing for detailed analysis of small features.
  • EO imagery is captured in various spectral bands, including visible and infrared, providing rich color information that can be useful for various applications, such as vegetation analysis and land-use classification.
  • EO imagery resembles photographs, making it more intuitive for interpretation and analysis.
  • A large number of EO satellites and airborne sensors are available, providing a vast amount of data.


  • EO imagery is susceptible to atmospheric conditions, such as cloud cover, haze, and fog, which can obstruct the view of the target area.
  • EO sensors rely on sunlight for image acquisition, limiting their use to daytime operations.
  • EO imagery cannot penetrate through obstacles, such as vegetation or buildings, providing only surface information.
  • Some EO sensors have limited spectral capabilities, which may affect their ability to discriminate between certain features.

Which is better?

The choice between SAR and EO imagery depends on the specific application and requirements. SAR is more suitable for all-weather, day and night operations, while EO imagery is better for applications requiring high-resolution and color information. In many cases, the integration of both SAR and EO data can provide more comprehensive and accurate information for analysis.

What Challenges Do SAR Companies Face?

Commercial SAR satellite operators face several challenges related to customer adoption and commercial profitability. An overview of these challenges are provided below.

High Development and Launch Costs

Designing, manufacturing, and launching SAR satellites can be expensive. The initial investment required for developing SAR technology and the ongoing costs for maintaining and operating these satellites can be a significant barrier to entry for new players and can impact commercial profitability.

Technical Complexity

SAR satellites require advanced technology and engineering expertise to design and operate effectively. Ensuring high-resolution imagery, managing large volumes of data, and maintaining optimal orbit control can be challenging. Additionally, the technology is evolving rapidly, requiring ongoing research and development to stay competitive.

Data Processing and Analysis

SAR data is complex and requires significant computational resources and expertise to process and analyze. Developing user-friendly tools and applications to extract valuable information from SAR data is essential for driving adoption and commercial success. This also includes the need for efficient data storage solutions and reliable data access.

Regulatory Hurdles

SAR satellite operators must comply with various national and international regulations related to spectrum allocation, satellite launch, orbital management, and data sharing. These regulations may restrict operations, limit access to specific markets, or increase costs.


The space industry is highly competitive, with numerous players offering different types of remote sensing and satellite-based services. SAR operators must compete with both traditional optical satellite providers and other SAR providers, offering unique value propositions and distinguishing themselves in the market. SAR providers must also compete with free SAR imagery from programs such as Copernicus.

Market Awareness and Demand

SAR technology is relatively less known compared to optical satellite imagery. Many potential customers may not be aware of the benefits and applications of SAR data, leading to slower adoption. Operators must invest in marketing and education efforts to raise awareness and demonstrate the value of SAR data for various industries.

Privacy and Security Concerns

The high-resolution imagery produced by SAR satellites can raise privacy and security concerns. Operators must navigate these concerns while maintaining transparency and addressing regulatory requirements.

Scalability and Business Model

To achieve commercial profitability, SAR operators must find ways to scale their business and develop sustainable business models. This may include leveraging partnerships, exploring new revenue streams, and optimizing operational efficiency.

Satellites Providing SAR Imagery

Government Operators

Sentinel-1 (A and B): Part of the European Union’s Copernicus program, the Sentinel-1 mission consists of two satellites, Sentinel-1A and Sentinel-1B, which provide continuous, all-weather, day-and-night radar imaging for various applications, including land and ocean monitoring.

COSMO-SkyMed (Constellation of Small Satellites for Mediterranean Basin Observation): A constellation of four Italian satellites, COSMO-SkyMed is designed for both civilian and military applications. It provides high-resolution SAR imagery, primarily for monitoring the Mediterranean region.

TerraSAR-X and TanDEM-X: These German satellites were developed by the German Aerospace Center (DLR) in collaboration with Airbus Defence and Space. Both satellites operate in X-band, providing high-resolution SAR imagery for various applications, including topography, land use, and infrastructure monitoring.

RADARSAT Constellation: A series of three Canadian Earth observation satellites, the RADARSAT Constellation provides C-band SAR imagery for various applications, including maritime surveillance, disaster management, and ecosystem monitoring.

ALOS-2 (Advanced Land Observing Satellite 2): Also known as “DAICHI-2,” ALOS-2 is a Japanese satellite that provides L-band SAR imagery primarily for monitoring disasters and managing natural resources.

SAOCOM (SAR Argentine-2): An Argentine satellite constellation consisting of two satellites, SAOCOM 1A and 1B, which provide L-band SAR imagery for various applications, including agriculture, hydrology, and land management.

NovaSAR-1: A British S-band SAR satellite developed by Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL) in collaboration with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and Airbus Defence and Space. NovaSAR-1 was launched in 2018 and provides medium-resolution SAR imagery for various applications, including maritime surveillance and environmental monitoring.

NISAR (NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar): A joint mission between NASA and the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), NISAR is designed to provide L-band and S-band SAR imagery for Earth observation purposes. The satellite is scheduled to be launched in 2024 and will primarily focus on studying natural hazards, ecosystems, and climate change.

Kompsat-5 (Korea Multipurpose Satellite-5): A South Korean satellite launched in 2013, Kompsat-5 provides X-band SAR imagery for various applications, including environmental monitoring, disaster management, and natural resource management.

PAZ: A Spanish X-band SAR satellite launched in 2018, operated by Hisdesat. PAZ provides high-resolution SAR imagery for various applications, including defense, intelligence, and environmental monitoring.

Commercial Operators

ICEYE: A Finnish company operating a constellation of small X-band SAR satellites that provide high-resolution SAR imagery for insurance, and government customers.

Capella Space: A US-based company operating a constellation of small X-band SAR satellites that provide high-resolution SAR imagery for commercial, government, and defense customers.

SpaceAlpha: A Canada-based early stage start-up developing X-band and L-band SAR satellites.

Planet Labs: A US-based company currently offering electro optical imagery is deploying SAR capability in 2023.

Synspective: A Japan-based company operating a constellation of small SAR satellites. They sell imagery, and also offer cloud-based solutions for the following use cases: land displacement monitoring, flood damage assessment, disaster damage assessment, offshore wind assessment, and forestry inventory management.

Umbra: A US-based company operating a constellation of small satellites that provide high-resolution SAR imagery for commercial, government, and defense customers. They focus on providing imagery and do not offer any vertical market solutions.

Market Size and Opportunity

NSR forecasts a total revenue opportunity of $16.9 Billion from 2021-2031 for SAR markets, which amounts to 24% of the total EO market, growing from $821 Million in 2021 to $2.4 Billion in 2031 at an 11% CAGR.

Primary Customers

NSR expects Defense and Intelligence and Public Authorities being key customers:

Defense and Intelligence SAR vertical is a strong and early adopter of commercial SAR imagery data due to their in-house capabilities to work with commercial SAR data – developed over the years using their own assets.

Public Authorities is another SAR vertical with a majority of demand for IP, driven by disaster monitoring and other solutions for better policy implementation. Public Authorities refers to government entities or institutions that are responsible for carrying out public services and functions in a given jurisdiction.

SAR Forecast by Segment

NSR forecasts that SAR imagery data will remain a smaller part of the total market opportunity compared to cumulative service revenues driven by IP and Big Data. This trend is mainly driven by availability of free SAR imagery data in the short term and increasing reliance on analytics solutions in the long term, which means SAR products are key engine drivers for EO SAR markets.

Source: NSR

Information Products and Big Data

In the context of Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) satellite imagery, “information products” and “big data” refer to different aspects of the data processing and analysis pipeline.

Information products are the processed and analyzed outputs derived from raw SAR satellite data. Information products are generated by applying various algorithms and processing techniques to extract useful information from the raw data. These products can be tailored to specific applications or user needs and may include features such as land use classification, infrastructure mapping, vegetation monitoring, or ice monitoring. Information products are typically easier to interpret and use than raw data, as they highlight the relevant information for a particular task or decision-making process.

In the context of SAR satellite imagery, big data refers to the massive volume, variety, and velocity of raw and processed data generated by SAR satellites. As SAR satellites continuously collect data over large swaths of the Earth’s surface, the amount of data generated can be overwhelming. The term “big data” encompasses not only the raw SAR images but also various intermediate and processed data formats, including the information products mentioned earlier. Big data presents challenges in terms of storage, processing, and analysis, requiring advanced computational methods and infrastructure to manage and extract valuable insights from the data.

In summary, information products are processed and analyzed outputs derived from raw SAR satellite data, while big data refers to the massive volume of raw and processed data generated by SAR satellites. Information products are designed to be more user-friendly and provide specific insights, while big data encompasses the entire dataset and presents challenges in storage, processing, and analysis.

Value Added Services

In the context of SAR satellite imagery, value-added services refer to the additional processing, analysis, or integration of SAR data with other datasets that enhance the usefulness, value, or applicability of the information products. These services aim to provide customized solutions for end-users, tailored to their specific requirements or use cases.

Some examples of value-added services in the SAR satellite imagery domain include:

  • Data Fusion Combining SAR data with other types of satellite imagery (e.g., optical, multispectral) or datasets (e.g., weather, topographic, demographic) to provide a more comprehensive view and analysis of the area of interest.
  • Time-Series Analysis: Analyzing the changes in SAR data over time to identify trends, patterns, or anomalies. This can be useful for monitoring land use changes, infrastructure development, or natural disaster impacts.
  • Advanced Processing and Analysis: Applying more sophisticated algorithms, machine learning, or artificial intelligence techniques to SAR data to extract higher-level information or insights, such as object detection, classification, or segmentation.
  • Customized Visualization: Creating tailored visualizations, maps, or reports that present SAR-derived information products in an accessible and easy-to-understand format for end-users.
  • Decision Support: Integrating SAR-derived information products with decision support systems or tools to aid in decision-making processes for various applications, such as natural resource management, urban planning, or emergency response.
  • Training and Consultation: Providing training, workshops, or consulting services to help end-users better understand and utilize SAR-derived information products and value-added services for their specific needs.

Value-added services in the SAR satellite imagery domain are designed to enhance the usefulness and applicability of the information products, making it easier for end-users


The wide range of uses for SAR satellite imagery demonstrates its value and use for diverse fields and industries, contributing to a better understanding of our planet and supporting informed decision-making.

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