What is the Copernicus EMS rapid response service activated to trace the Iranian President? | Explained

What is the Copernicus-EMS programme? How does its on-demand rapid mapping technology aid emergency responses, such as in the search for the Iranian President’s helicopter?

Updated - May 20, 2024 10:17 pm IST

Published - May 20, 2024 07:45 pm IST

The helicopter carrying Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi takes off, near the Iran-Azerbaijan border, on May 19, 2024. The helicopter later crashed with Raisi on board.

The helicopter carrying Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi takes off, near the Iran-Azerbaijan border, on May 19, 2024. The helicopter later crashed with Raisi on board. | Photo Credit: Reuters

The story so far: As part of a multi-agency effort to locate a helicopter carrying Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi that crashed in East Azerbaijan province on Sunday (May 19), the European Union activated its emergency satellite mapping service at Iran’s request as adverse weather and darkness hampered search and rescue operations.

“Upon Iranian request for assistance we are activating the EU’s Copernicus EMS rapid response mapping service in view of the helicopter accident reportedly carrying the President of Iran and its foreign minister,” European Commissioner for Crisis Management Janez Lenarčič said on X. “The provision of a Copernicus EMS satellite mapping upon request for facilitating a search and rescue operation is not an act of political support to any regime or establishment. It is simply an expression of the most basic humanity,” Mr. Lenarčič later added.

On Monday morning, the helicopter was found after an extensive search, with state media confirming that President Raisi, Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian and other officials were found dead at the crash site located near the border with Azerbaijan.

Ebrahim Raisi | A hardline President who had the backing of Iran’s clerical establishment

What is Europe’s Copernicus programme?

The rapid response mapping technology is a critical component of the Emergency Management Service (EMS) within the Copernicus programme. Named after the renowned 15th-century scientist Nicolaus Copernicus, the programme is the earth observation component of the European Union’s space initiative. Copernicus was launched in 1998, and was earlier known as the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security Programme (GMES).

The programme uses global data from satellites, and ground-based, airborne, and sea-borne measurement systems to provide environment-related information to researchers, policymakers, public authorities, international organisations, and commercial and private users to address issues related to climate change, disaster management, and agriculture, among other uses.

The Copernicus system | Photo Credit: Copernicus official website

The Copernicus system | Photo Credit: Copernicus official website

The space segment uses a group of satellites, called the Sentinels and the Contributing Missions. It is complemented by a ground segment which includes in-situ sensors that provide access to the Sentinels and Contributing Missions data.

Presently, the programme is implemented by EU member states with the support of the European Space Agency (ESA) for the space component and the European Environment Agency (EEA) for the in-situ component. The European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT), the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF), EU Agencies and Mercator Océan, the European Environment Agency (EEA) and the Joint Research Center (JRC) also assist.

Notably, data from the Copernicus programme is freely available and accessible to all.

What is the rapid response mapping service activated to locate the Iranian President?

Copernicus provides geospatial information from satellite images and other data sources to help manage a wide range of emergencies resulting from natural or man-made disasters like flood, earthquake, and tsunamis, as well as aid during humanitarian crises by monitoring refugee and internally displaced people.

Active since 2012, the Copernicus Emergency Management Service (CEMS) works on two models — on-demand mapping and early warning and monitoring — to issue warnings, risk assessments and information on the impact of disasters worldwide, before, during, or after a crisis.

While on-demand mapping offers detailed information for specific emergencies, early warning provides critical geospatial data through monitoring and forecasts for floods, droughts, and forest fires. In the case of the Iranian President’s helicopter crash, the EU activated the rapid response mapping service.

How does rapid mapping work?

The Copernicus EMS on-demand rapid mapping provides geospatial information within a few hours or days of a request to support efforts in the immediate aftermath of an emergency or a disaster anywhere in the world.

It acquires, processes, and analyses satellite images, geospatial data, and relevant social media in rapid mode to provide information, according to the Copernicus official website. “A rapid mapping activation is defined by one event and a location. There can be more than one area of interest (AOI) in an activation but these need to be linked to the same event. AOIs represent the geographical areas to be analysed and mapped,” it says.

An example of products delivered by the Rapid Mapping service as part of the CEMS programme. (Courtesy: Copernicus official website)

An example of products delivered by the Rapid Mapping service as part of the CEMS programme. (Courtesy: Copernicus official website)

The service offers four “products” — one pre-event reference and three post-event (first estimate, delineation, grading). Each comprises delivery packages including maps and a vector package of spatial data.

Once a rapid response mapping service is activated in case of an emergency, the “First Estimate Product” offers a fast but rough assessment of the most affected area using the earliest post-event image. “Delineation” assesses the extent of the impacted area and an update on the situation if requested. The information is derived from images taken soon after the emergency. “Grading” provides a detailed damage assessment, its spatial distribution and extent.

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