History and development of Remote Sensing

In this Chapter, we are going to see the brief History and development of Remote Sensing Technology.

The Evolution of Aerial Photography

In 1783, Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier invented the hot-air balloon In France  (Lopez, 1995). To lift the balloon and basket off the ground, they burnt wool and straw. Animals were the first passengers in balloons. The first people to take a Montgolfier ride in balloon were J. F. Pilatre de Rozier and the Marquis d’Arlan- des traveled above Paris.

The first-known aerial photograph was obtained In 1859. Gaspard Tournchon took an oblique Photograph of a small village near Paris, And from that point, started this trend all over the world. (he called himself Nadar) On October 23, 1858, Tournachon submitted an application for a patent for what is now known as an aerial survey because he saw the potential benefits that aerial photography could have in the future. He had numerous failures in his attempts to take an aerial photo because the gas erupting from the balloon’s mouth desensitised the collodion-coated glass plates he was using. Over the Val de Bievre, a district of Paris, he finally succeeded when he flew in a tethered balloon only 80 metres (264 feet) above the earth.

Two years later, on October 13, 1860, James W. Black and Samuel A. King, flying in the tethered balloon Queen of the Air, captured the first successful aerial images that are known to exist over Boston, Massachusetts. They did this from a height of 1,200 feet . The images were captured on wet collodion plates (Tennant, 1903). Black was a skilled photographer who worked for the company Black & Bathelder. King owned King & Allen, a photography studio.

For The Atlantic Monthly (Newhall, 1969), Sir Oliver Wendell Holmes, a photography student of Samuel King, photointerpreted the content of this image in July 1863:

“Boston, as the Eagle and the Wild Goose See It” by James Wallace Black. Photo: James Wallace Black / The Met
“Boston, as the Eagle and the Wild Goose See It” by James Wallace Black. Photo: James Wallace Black / The Met

“Boston, as the eagle and the wild goose see it, is a very different object from the same place as the solid citizen looks up at its eaves and chimneys. The Old South and Trinity Church are two landmarks not to be mistaken. Washington Street slants across the picture as a narrow cleft. Milk Street winds as if the cowpath which gave it a name had been followed by the builders of its com- mercial palaces. Windows, chimneys, and skylights attract the eye in the central parts of the view, exquis- itely defined, bewildering in numbers…. As a first attempt it is on the whole a remarkable success; but its greatest interest is in showing what we may hope to see accomplished in the same direction.”

During the American Civil War, Union General McClellan utilised balloons to assess Confederate Army deployments and movement. For instance, the Union Army deployed tethered balloons in June 1862 to map out Richmond, Virginia’s defences and gather intelligence at a height of 1,400 feet. A unique hydrogen-producing mechanism was used to inflate the Intrepid.  Some aerial photographs are thought to have been taken by observers using tethered balloons. However, not a single aerial photograph from the Civil War (1861–1865).

They also used kites and Pigeons with cameras attached to them to gain information about enemy territory. Similar to how other technological and scientific developments during the American Civil War accelerated the development of photography, lenses, and the practical application of this technology to the air, Even though the era of remote sensing was still decades away after the Civil War, successful designs of rockets with imaging systems were already the subject of patents in Germany in 1891 under the heading: “new or improved apparatus for getting bird’s eye photographic views of the earth.” The design included a parachute-recovery camera system that was driven by a rocket.

First remote sensing balloon
Le Géant. Author’s collection.

Meanwhile, Gaspard Felix Tournachon (Nadar) was still working in balloon aerial photography in Europe. In 1863, he actually created and constructed a massive balloon known as Le Geant (The Giant). The gondola of the balloon, which contained 210,000 feet of gas, was actually a two-story house with three-decker beds, a bathroom, and even a printing press. 12 passengers may fit comfortably in the gondola (Newhall, 1969). Unfortunately, the enormous balloon lowered itself too quickly in October 1863. Ms. Nadar was one of nine passengers who nearly died when the balloon was dragged 25 kilometres over rural France. Le Geant did not provide any aerial photos that have survived. However, Nadar was able to successfully capture oblique aerial photo- graphs from the Hippodrome using what may have been the first aerial multiple-lens camera. 1,700-foot-high balloon anchored above Paris in 1868

The dry-plate method, invented by Richard Maddox in 1871, was a tremendous asset for taking high-quality aerial images from balloons since it did not require a wet laboratory inside the gondola or nearby on the ground, and the emulsion developed considerably more quickly, reducing image blur. This led to a significant increase in balloon aerial photography in the final decades of the nineteenth century. La Photographie en Balloon, the first book on aerial photography from balloon platforms, was written by Gaston Tissandier (Newhall, 1969).

The first government-organized air photography missions were developed for military surveillance during World Wars I and II by Europe. they found that Aircraft are more reliable and more stable platforms for earth observation than balloons. The use of aerial photographs for civilian purposes began in the years between World Wars I and II. At the time, geology, forestry, agriculture, and cartography were among the application fields for aerial photographs. These advancements result in better cameras, films, and interpreting technology.

During World War II, aerial photography and photo interpretation achieved their most significant advancements. Other imaging systems, like radar, thermal sensing, and near-infrared photography, were developed during this time. Thermal infrared and near-infrared photos were very helpful in separating real vegetation from camouflage. The first successful aerial imaging radar was useful for nighttime bombing. The method was developed in Great Britain in 1941 and given the name “plan position indicator” by the military. The remote sensing technology developed for war efforts in 1950 continued to advance after the wars 

It has been discovered that color infrared photography (CIR) is extremely useful for plant sciences. Colwell experimented with the application of CIR for the classification and identification of vegetation types as well as the detection of diseased, damaged, or stressed vegetation in 1956. Significant advancements in radar technology were also made in the 1950s.

Two types of radar were developed at that time:

SLAR: Side-looking Airborne Radar

SAR: Synthetic Aperture Radar.

The acquisition of images at the maximum resolution was the goal of development. The US Air Force Research Center’s ability to use a frequency analysis algorithm on the returning radar signal to precisely resolve the Doppler frequencies was essential to the creation of SAR. The US began to put remote sensors in orbit at the beginning of the 1960s for weather observation and later for land observation.

TIROS (Television Infrared Observation Satellite) was the first meteorological satellite. A long series of meteorological satellites followed this one. 1960 was also the beginning of a famous US military space imaging reconnaissance program called Corona (McDonald, 1995). Unfortunately, much of this program remained classified until 1995. In 1970 the TIROS program was renamed NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).

TIROS satellite
TIROS satellite
(Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/)

As of right now, the NOAA Advanced Very High-ResolutionResolution Radiometer (AVHRR) has been orbiting the earth and gathering data on visible, near-infrared, and thermal weather patterns. Launched on June 24, 2002, was NOAA-17. The organizational growth of remote sensing was also influenced by the 1950s and 1960s. Universities and many civic research organizations had a keen interest in these newer technologies.

The publishing of remote sensing journals including the IEEE Transactions on Geoscience and Remote Sensing, International Journal of Remote Sensing, Remote Sensing of Environment, and Photogrammetric Engineering & Remote Sensing in addition to the founding of numerous professional associations as a result. Today, high schools and universities both offer courses in remote sensing. The ERTS-I Earth Resources Technology Satellite, the first satellite created particularly to collect information about the earth’s surface and its resources, was developed and launched in the early 1970s. This programmer was later dubbed Landsat in 1975. This first earth resources satellite was actually a Nimbus weather satellite that had been modified to carry three return beam vidicon television cameras and a four-waveband multi-spectral scanner (MSS).

Landsat 2 and 3 were launched in 1975 and 1978, respectively, and carried the same payload as the fi rst satellite of this series. The payload was changed in 1983 with Landsat 4. The technically more advanced Thematic Mapper (TM) sensor replaced the RBV. An improved design of the TM, the ETM+ ( Enhanced Thematic Mapper) was mounted aboard Landsat 7 and launched in 1999. The Landsat series is a very successful program, various MSS and TM sensors exceeded by far its design lifetime and its imagery is probably the most widely used data in the Earth sciences. One black spot on its historical record is the ‘failure upon launch’ of Landsat 6 in 1993.

Artist's rendering of Landsat 1 (very similar to Landsat 2)
Artist’s rendering of Landsat 1 (very similar to Landsat 2)
(Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Landsat_2)

Various other successful earth observation missions carried out by other countries followed the Landsat program. In 1978 the French government decided to develop its own earth observation program. This program resulted in the launch of the first SPOT satellite in 1986. To the original SPOT design of three spectral bands a new sensor called Vegetation was added aboard SPOT-4 in 1998.

Other earth observation missions are the Indian Remote Sensing Programme (IRS) started in 1988, the Russian Resurs series first launched in 1985, and the Japanese ADEOS (Advanced Earth Observing Satellite) put in orbit in 1996.

The European Space Agency (ESA) launched its first remote-sensing satellite, ERS-I, in the year 1991. ERS carries various types of sensors aboard among which is the AMI, a C-band (5 cm radar) active microwave instrument. The main focus of the ERS program is oceanographic applications although it is also widely used for monitoring tropical forests. In 1995 ERS-2 was successfully launched. In March 2002 ESA launched Envisat-1, an earth observation satellite with an impressive payload of I3 instruments such as synthetic aperture radar (ASAR) and a Medium Resolution Imaging Spectrometer (MERIS).

An important recent development is the launch of high-resolution earth observation systems such as IKONOS and QuickBird. These systems have multi-spectral systems collecting information in 4 bands (blue, green, red, and near-infrared) at a spatial resolution of 4 meters or better. IKONOS has also a panchromatic mode (0.45-0.90 Pm) with a spatial resolution of 1 m. With IKONOS, QuickBird, and similar systems, space-borne remote sensing approaches the quality of airborne photography

Milestones in the History of Remote Sensing (More Information)

1800- Discovery of Infrared by Sir W. Herschel
1839- Beginning of Practice of Photography
1847- Infrared Spectrum Shown by J.B.L. Foucault
1859- Photography from balloons
1873- Theory of Electromagnetic Spectrum by J.C. Maxwell
1909- Photography from Airplanes
1916- World War I: Aerial Reconnaissance
1935- Development of Radar in Germany
1940- WW II: Applications of Non-Visible Part of the electromagnetic spectrum
1950- Military Research and Development
1959- First Space Photograph of the Earth (Explorer-6)
1960- First TIROS Meteorological Satellite Launched
1970- Skylab Remote Sensing Observations from Space
1972- Launch Landsat-1 (ERTS-1): MSS sensor
1972- Rapid Advances in Digital Image Processing
1982- Launch of Landsat-4: New Generation of Landsat Sensors: TM
1986- French Commercial Earth Observation Satellite SPOT
1986- Development of Hyperspectral Sensors
1990- Development of High-Resolution Spaceborne Systems
First Commercial Developments in Remote Sensing
1991- Launch of the first radar satellite ERS-1 by ESA
1992- Launch of radar satellite JERS-1 by Japan
1995- Launch of Radarsat by Canada
1995- Launch of ERS-2 by ESA
1999- Launch EOS: NASA Earth Observing Mission ‘Terra’ with MODIS and ASTER
1999- Launch of IKONOS, a very high spatial resolution sensor system
2001- Launch of QuickBird, a very high spatial resolution sensor system
2002- Launch of ‘Aqua’ with MODIS by NASA
2002- Launch of Envisat-1 with optical and radar instruments by ESA

(Source: CCRS Tutorial “Fundamentals of remote sensing”)

Additional Information

The history of remote sensing technology can be traced back to the early 20th century when aerial photography was first used for mapping and surveying. During World War II, the use of aerial photography for intelligence purposes became widespread. The development of satellite technology in the 1950s and 1960s marked a major advancement in remote sensing. The first weather satellite, TIROS-1, was launched in 1960, and the first civilian Earth-observing satellite, Landsat 1, was launched in 1972. These and other satellites have been used for a wide range of applications, including monitoring natural disasters, tracking environmental changes, and surveying natural resources.

In recent years, advances in sensor technology and the increased availability of satellite data have led to a significant expansion of the field of remote sensing. New sensors, such as radar and lidar, have been developed to provide new types of information, and the development of machine learning and other data analysis techniques has made it possible to extract more information from satellite data than ever before. Remote sensing technology is becoming an important tool for monitoring the earth and its resources and will be increasingly used in the future.

In addition to satellite technology, other platforms for remote sensing have also been developed, such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and balloons. These platforms have the advantage of being able to fly at lower altitudes than satellites, which allows for higher-resolution imagery and a greater ability to access difficult-to-reach areas.

Remote sensing technology has also become more sophisticated over the years, with the development of multispectral, hyperspectral, and thermal imaging sensors, which can detect different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. This allows for a more detailed understanding of the Earth’s surface and the materials that it is made of.

Another important development in remote sensing is the use of data from multiple sources, such as satellite, airborne and ground-based sensors, to create a more comprehensive view of an area or object. This is known as multi-sensor or multi-platform remote sensing.

The field of remote sensing is constantly evolving with new technologies, new sensors, and new analysis methods. This allows for a more accurate and detailed understanding of the earth and its resources and is an essential tool in many fields such as agriculture, forestry, urban planning, disaster management, and many more.

Share your thoughts with us.


  • Praveen Kumar, History of Remote Sensing, PDF, 08-08-2020. http://www.geo-informatie.nl/
  • Jensen, J.R., 2007, Remote Sensing of the Environmentan Earth resource perspective, 2nd ed., Prentice Hall, 592p. 
  • CCRS Tutorial “Fundamentals of remote sensing”.

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