You can see the impact of coronavirus from space

Looking for some sanitizer?
Looking for some sanitizer?
Image: Reuters/Stephane Mahe
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

The effect of coronavirus on the global economy isn’t just visible from the trading floor—it’s also visible from space.

Remote-sensing data gathered by satellites in orbit and augmented by remote sensors on the ground provides grist for the machine-learning mills operated by companies like Orbital Insight. The Palo Alto data science firm provides intelligence on everything from oil production to deforestation to various customers, including real estate developers, petroleum manufacturers and environmental nonprofits—not to mention hedge funds.

Now, their analysts are turning up evidence of how the Covid-19 epidemic is upending the flow of goods and people around the world.

Consider Tae Chul Industrial, a South Korean firm that makes auto parts in Daegu. According to Orbital Insight, satellites peering down from space see fewer cars in the employee parking lot, and a build-up of trucks outside its loading docks, suggesting that production is slowing down and goods are not being shipped out.

Using computer vision, the process where algorithms can derive meaning from digital photos or video, Orbital Insight can quantify the cars and trucks on the grounds of Tae Chul Industrial.

As the virus causes production to slow down in some places because governments seek to halt its spread, other industries in other parts of the world are responding with more activity.

Orbital Insight maintains an index of activity at 3M, for example. 3M is the US conglomerate that makes, among other things, the kind of masks used to prevent the spread of airborne disease. Demand for these masks is soaring as medical professionals gear up to care for patients and consumers seek them for their own protection. The company has said it is ramping up production, and sure enough, sensors tracking employee foot traffic at its facilities each day confirm it:

What else do you need to fight the spread of a virus? Hand sanitizer is also in high demand. (Nota bene: Thorough washing with soap and hot water works just as well.)

While New York governor Andrew Cuomo has the state’s prisoners manufacturing a substitute, we also know that GOJO, the firm behind Purell, is putting more people to work. Orbital Insight’s platform can analyze anonymized data that shows how many mobile devices are in a given geographic area. That gives them a proxy to measure the number of people at places like the Purell factory, which appears to be increasing its weekend shifts during the month of February.

One of the few companies to escape the stock market bloodbath is Regeneron, an anti-viral drugmaker that is developing its own treatment for the coronavirus. Orbital Insight’s dataset on Regeneron isn’t as detailed as others it has assembled, but the firms analysts did detect a large increase in the number of vehicles in the company’s parking lot compared to last year.

Another product you typically need to fight a viral infection are fever reducers like acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol. Orbital Insight has documented an increase in activity at a Tylenol manufacturing plant in Puerto Rico.

A Jan. 15, 2020 satellite image of the Las Piedras, Puerto Rico Tylenol Plant.
A Jan. 15, 2020 satellite image of the Las Piedras, Puerto Rico Tylenol Plant.
Image: Maxar Technologies.

In recent weeks, the plant has seen a jump in both the number of cars in its parking lot and the number of trucks arriving to pick up finished products. That suggests more painkillers are being manufactured and shipped to help sick patients around the world get a little relief.