Fans of crime writer Raymond Chandler’s wise-cracking prose would no doubt be pleased that there’s a real-life private detective agency run by two men called Raymond. But Ray Harris and Ray Purdy are not planning to tail unfaithful spouses to seedy motels like Chandler’s pulp detective Philip Marlowe. Rather, the two Rays are cosmic private eyes, running the world’s first outer space detective agency – and they don’t care who knows it.
The pair’s aim is to use satellite photography to help clients argue cases in court – anything from property border disputes, to establishing rights of way, spotting stolen vehicles and illegal landfills – or proving serious environmental harm to vital wetlands and ancient woodlands.
Purdy, a space lawyer, and Harris, a geographer schooled in the use of geospatial imagery and databases, set up their space detective agency, Air & Space Evidence, in October 2014. Both hail from University College London, but Purdy is now working at Oxford University.
The technology could increasingly be used to solve boundary disputes (Credit: Getty Images)
Their familiarity with imaging satellites, and how the law applies, gives them a distinct advantage. And the technology can be extremely useful. “With resolution as high as 30 centimetres you can see a mailbox or a manhole cover from space now,” says Purdy.
Their arrival on the detective scene certainly stirred public imaginations. While the pair expected some attention when they announced their venture, they were surprised by the response as the media clicked they were planning to offer something new. “The reaction was completely unexpected. It was phone call after phone call for about two months. We had virtually every single British newspaper ring up, plus magazines and TV production companies wanting to make fly-on-the-wall documentaries. We’re still getting the TV calls now,” Purdy says.
A lot of people assumed there would be video satellites, not just snapshots – Ray Purdy
Many had, however, firmly grasped the wrong end of the stick. Thanks to TV dramas like Homeland and Spooks, many believed the planet’s surface is being constantly video recorded from space – and at extremely high resolution to boot. A lot of the detectives’ early work has involved putting would-be clients straight over the real capabilities of today’s space imaging systems.
For instance a woman who was being stalked asked the agency to try to identify the suspect from space – sadly, not possible. Another potential customer wanted to see who had hammered nails into her car tyres. Other clients have wanted them to identify vehicles used in a burglary and a bank robbery – including the expectation of seeing licence plates from orbit. “A lot of people assumed there would be video satellites, not just snapshots,” says Purdy. “I can’t blame people. It’s quite exciting and the technology is moving fast. But not as fast as some might think.”
Visual time travel
Although video-recording satellites do exist they don’t have the resolution of the best stills cameras in orbit – and can’t yet offer extended coverage. Google-owned Terra Bella – formerly Skybox Imaging – for instance, is building a fleet of imaging Cubesats in low-Earth orbit. These are capable of providing 90-second-long clips of video over a spot on Earth – before it moves out of range. Watch the video of a plane flying over Dubai’s Burj Khalifa building below.
This video is no longer available
Eventually they want to do this over one spot many times each day as the fleet approaches its target of 24 satellites – but that isn’t necessarily at the precise time somebody might want it.
One of the space detectives’ first paid-for cases involved a Californian who had a neighbour claim that an online mapping service showed a right of way existed right through his property – and the neighbour wanted it formally recognised. “By going back to original space imagery over time we could determine that there had never been a track or road there,” says Purdy. That visual time travel trick was possible because space images have been archived by satellite companies since the 1970s – initially in low resolution but gradually improving until, in 1999, images that could resolve down to less than a metre became available outside the military, and now much sharper 50cm and 30 cm images possible today.
Images from space could help find illegal landfills (Credit: Getty Images)
Image timelines are crucial to all this – and Purdy’s experience as a space lawyer, knowing what makes for admissible evidential imagery, is key. “We have to be able to show a court they can rely on it as evidence,” he says. That involves proving the image has been properly stored and that no alterations has been made to it.
The agency was asked if it could spot from space which ship had collided with an offshore wind turbine
Space images can form part of a complex web of evidence. Boundary disputes are common cases for A&SE and the imagery often helps determine which side was right. But the agency cannot always help: as clouds, shadows, bushes and brambles can get in the way on some crucial historic images showing, for example, where a fence line was a decade ago.
In one case they were asked to look at the illegal dredging of a lake which is a protected European wetland. They were able to source images revealing the number and size of dredging operations, and provide evidence of how much dredged sand was being stored alongside the lake – and even how the volumes had changed dramatically over the years.
While a satellite might not catch a ship crashing into a wind turbine, it could identify which was in the area at the time (Credit: Getty Images)
A&SE also use radar-armed satellites in their work. As these bounce microwave radar signals off an area, instead of acquiring reflected sunlight, they can be used for very different tasks, such as where stolen industrial machinery might have been moved to. “But they are also great for quickly telling if a house or building has been extended. The different shape registers straight away on radar,” says Purdy.
GPS satellites help in detection, too – thanks to the tracking services they have made possible like their identification system for ships. The agency was asked if it could spot from space which ship had collided with an offshore wind turbine. While it’s almost impossible to see the moment of impact Purdy says such tracking can help identify which ships were in an area at the time. Forensic evidence – scraped-off hull paint, for instance – from the accident site could then help identify the collider.
Another strong vein of the space detectives’ work is unfolding: solving environmental crime. In a case in the Republic of Ireland, for instance, the cutting down of an ancient woodland posed questions – was it done so long ago that no-one could be prosecuted for it, or more recently? A&SE’s space imagery timelines were able to show definitively that it had disappeared in a period of a few weeks in 2014.
Illicit landfills have become a growing problem, and space images are expected to be a major source of future evidence against offenders. One recent example was an illegal landfill in Northern Ireland holding some 1.5 million tonnes of rubbish, much of it construction waste. “That could potentially cost hundreds of millions of pounds in lost landfill taxes and clean-up fees,” says Purdy. So, with Interpol and Europol backing, A&SE has been seeking research funding to develop ways to use space images to spot illicit landfills as they are being created. “We want to catch them in the act,” says Purdy.
Another project they are looking for funding for is to spot disturbed earth from orbit, which could help police forces find buried human remains. The big problem is producing data that is of high enough resolution to be useful to investigators.
The same satellites providing GPS navigation could also help future detectives in their work (Credit: Getty Images)
It's clear that the possibilities of this type of detective work will mushroom as satellite image resolution improves and video imaging options arrive. And as more imaging satellites are launched, especially by emerging space powers such as China and India, and with constellations of low-cost imaging cubesats from the likes of Terra Bella and PlanetLabs joining those of established imaging firms like Digital Globe and Airbus-owned Spot Satellite Imagery, space-based crime detection will become more and more capable. As an example, PlanetLabs promises a 50-gigapixel snapshot of the whole planet, every day, once it has 100 cubesats in orbit.
But the increasing numbers of Earth imaging satellites could have “profound implications” for privacy in the future says Richard Tynan, technologist at London pressure group Privacy International. “Satellites can focus their capabilities across borders and examine the pattern of life of societies on a large scale or be used to track individuals,” he says – suggesting the industry needs privacy-sensitive regulation.
The point at which a space image breaches personal data protection law may still need defining
He’s not alone in that view. “With commercial satellite resolution comfortably down to 30cm, it is now verging on the realm of surveillance and military imaging. So we are hearing more concerns voiced around data protection and human rights related to such imaging,” says Joanne Wheeler, a London-based space lawyer and a UK representative at the UN’s Office of Outer Space Affairs in Vienna.
In particular, she says, the point at which a space image breaches personal data protection law may still need defining. The European Commission has been developing data protection policies for Earth observation – with one measure having anything photographed under 2.5 metre resolution needing careful checks before it can be released. But for the moment, says Wheeler, the EC’s plan has been refused as an “anti-competitive” hindrance to the operators in this new market.
So if, as Raymond Chandler wrote in The Big Sleep, you live in a “nice neighbourhood to have bad habits in”, take care – you never know what’s going to be orbiting overhead. Or how powerful its cameras are.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital, Travel and Autos, delivered to your inbox every Friday.