At the beginning of 2021, Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced the “The Line” urban construction project, which will be a “civilization revolution” with a sci-fi color.
The zero-carbon megacity plans to accommodate up to 9 million people, all of whom will live in a “linear city” that is 170 kilometers long, 500 meters high, and only 200 meters wide.
Within its high walls of mirrors, residents do not need to use cars, relying entirely on subways and electric air taxis for travel.
Exclusive satellite images obtained by MIT Technology Review recently show the massive, linear construction site of the $500 billion project taking shape, straight as an arrow through the desert and mountains of northern Saudi Arabia .
The construction site is tens of meters deep, and hundreds of construction vehicles can be seen everywhere. From this, thousands of workers are working on the construction site and living in a large and well-equipped base nearby.
This information is available through satellite imagery and crowdsourced maps from Australian start-up Soar Earth, which aggregates the data into an online digital atlas.
The company’s analysis of satellite imagery showed that workers had excavated some 26 million cubic meters of dirt and rock, a figure 78 times the volume of the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa.
In October 2022, drone video released by The Line Project Officials shows a convoy of bulldozers, trucks and excavators digging the foundation.
However, if you visit the location of The Line project on Google Maps and Google Earth, you will only see outcropping rocks and bare desert.
The stark difference in satellite imagery raises questions about who has access to high-resolution satellite technology: If we can’t see the largest urban construction site on Earth on Google Maps, what else can’t we see?
The Line project is both controversial and futuristic. Critics have questioned the practicality and environmental friendliness of building such a massive structure in the desert.
Meanwhile, many of the technologies it claims to use remain unproven, including aerial seeding, air taxis, domestic robotic servants and desalination using renewable energy.
Despite the controversy, construction on The Line is still due to begin in April 2022. In June of the same year, The Line’s parent company Neom was awarded the tunnel boring and blasting contract for the project’s high-speed passenger and freight rail tunnels.
When the Saudis released drone footage of the project, Soar Earth CEO and founder Amir Farhand wondered why no high-resolution satellite imagery of the $500 billion project could be found ?
The Google Maps we are most familiar with obtains satellite imagery from a range of suppliers, including government satellites such as Landsat in the US and Sentinel 2 in the European Union, as well as commercial providers such as Maxar and Planet.
While lower-resolution Landsat and Sentinel 2 images are available for download, confirming that some construction activity is progressing in the area, at least one private company appears to have stopped taking high-resolution photos of The Line project in March 2022 . ”When we started zooming in on the satellite imagery, we found that there were big gaps in the coverage of Maxar,” Farhan said. “In fact, you can’t find
high-resolution imagery that is publicly available.”
Some users, who also confirmed they were unable to access detailed images of the area. “It’s not just us that have this problem, it’s everybody else’s,” Farhan said
. The activities of their competitors and countries around the globe.
See, for example, “how many cranes the Manhattan skyline contains, or how many oil tankers dock in port,” says Jamon van den Hoek, a professor of geography and director of the Conflict Ecology Lab at Oregon State University.
Hawke added: “If Maxar satellite imagery doesn’t capture an area that’s moving fast and has massive economic investment, it could mean something fishy.
One of the simplest explanations is that there are interested parties at the very top of the satellite imagery supply chain who have bought these images in order to maintain their own exclusive rights to them. Not
everyone agrees with that explanation. “I haven’t heard of any commercial companies trying to limit certain things,” said Doug Spector, a lecturer in geography at the University of Westminster in London. My first reaction is that people generally don’t care about high-res imagery of that area because it’s in the desert and the cost of owning and distributing high-res imagery is prohibitively high.
”We don’t have any recent high-resolution imagery collected in these areas,” Stephen Wood, senior director of news at Maxar, told MIT Technology Review .
He wrote that the company primarily focuses on areas of interest to clients, but “as we have imaging time available, we will collect additional areas as part of our overall mission to continuously update high-resolution imagery of the entire planet. ” We tend to focus on the most variable regions first (cities, etc.), but populate other regions of the globe as well. ”
When asked if clients could get exclusive access to Maxar imagery, Wood replied: “The vast majority of what we collect is in our public image archive, which is the cornerstone of our imagery business. These images are available buy, and we end up servicing our clients through a range of different contract types.”
High-resolution satellite imagery of some of The Line’s projects appears to be for sale, although so far it has not been publicly displayed on Google Maps.
A Google spokesperson told MIT Technology Review: “As more imagery becomes available from our satellite imagery provider, we will continue to update it. Since our provider typically focuses on densely populated cities and regions, these areas tend to be Update imagery more frequently.”
Satellite imagery on Google Maps covers only 1/5 of the earth’s surface, but 98% of the planet’s population.
While satellites photograph the entire surface of the Earth in low-resolution multiple times a day, the sharpest images from the newest commercial satellites still sell for as much as $3,000, according to a price list from satellite imagery aggregator Apollo Imaging.
Satellite imagery manipulation is common in conflict settings, says Van Den Hoek: NGOs might try to download satellite photos of new refugee camps or destroyed bridges they know have been collected but find none in the database.
”What’s behind this situation is what they don’t know — that the imagery may have been embargoed by the U.S. Department of Defense, and they want that intelligence to be the only ones they have,” he said.
Whatever the reason for the inability to find images of The Line project in Saudi Arabia, Farhan wanted to learn more about The Line.
In October 2022, he paid two Asian startups, China’s CG Satellite and Singapore’s 2 1 AT, to have their low-Earth orbit satellites take pictures of construction areas. He was shocked by what he saw.
Farhan said: “Oh my god, I can’t believe they’re actually doing this. Look at how many trucks there are, how much dirt and rocks have been hauled away. I can’t believe how big the construction camp at Neom is. .”
Soar used machine vision to count excavation equipment operating on a 5-kilometer stretch of road in the valley and subsequently assess the condition of the Th eLine project.
The images show 425 excavation vehicles at The Line construction site and more than 650 more vehicles in a construction site covering an area of more than 5 square kilometers near construction workers’ residences. The base is equipped with multiple swimming pools, football pitches, cricket pitches and it even has its own solar farm.
Another satellite image, taken about 60 kilometers from the coast, shows shallower excavations and fewer construction vehicles – about 100 in a similar 5-kilometre radius. Meanwhile, the east end of The Line building site is less active.
Soar’s imagery analysis of the earthworks shows that current construction activity to date has covered only about 50% of The Line’s claimed 170km length and only a quarter of its final area.
While Neom says The Line project will eventually be 200m wide, the width in the image is only around 70m to 150m.
Shadows cast by the excavated walls show that they extend to a depth of about 20 meters, while the foundations of buildings 500 meters high often extend 60 meters or more underground.
”Each part of this project will require massive improvements, some of which will permanently change the surrounding environment,” Farhan said, pointing to the massive causeway being built near the floodplain at the project’s western end. Neom did not immediately respond to a request for comment
. ask. According to its announced plan, The Line project is currently scheduled to complete the initial phase of the project in 2030 to admit the first batch of residents.