History of Remote Sensing


Remote sensing is the process of collecting and interpreting information about the Earth’s surface without being in direct contact with it. This technology has its roots in the early 19th century when the first aerial photographs were taken of Paris from a hot air balloon. Since then, remote sensing technology has come a long way, with the development of satellites, drones, and other devices that can capture and analyze data about the Earth’s surface.

During the early 20th century, remote sensing technology was primarily used for military purposes, such as aerial reconnaissance during World War I and II. However, in the 1970s, the United States launched Landsat-1, the first satellite dedicated to remote sensing. This marked the beginning of a new era in remote sensing technology, with advancements in computing and image processing making it possible to analyze large volumes of data quickly and accurately.

Camera Obscura

Camera obscura, which means “dark chamber” in Latin, is a device that has been used for centuries to project an inverted image of the outside world onto a screen or wall. The device works by allowing light to enter a small hole or aperture in one side of a darkened room or box. The light passes through the aperture and projects an inverted image of the outside world onto a surface opposite the aperture. The image is upside down because the light travels in straight lines, and the aperture acts as a pinhole camera, inverting the image.

Early Camera Obscura, c. 1800-1830
Camera Obscura

The camera obscura was first described by the Chinese philosopher Mozi in the 5th century BCE. It was also used by the ancient Greeks and Romans as a tool for observing solar eclipses. During the Renaissance, the camera obscura was used by artists as a drawing aid, as it allowed them to accurately capture the perspective of a scene.

In the 17th century, the camera obscura was further developed by scientists and inventors such as Johannes Kepler and Athanasius Kircher. They improved the optics of the device and experimented with different lenses to enhance the clarity and brightness of the projected image.

The camera obscura continued to be used in various forms throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. It played a role in the development of photography, as early photographers such as Nicéphore Niépce and Louis Daguerre used camera obscuras as a means of creating images.

Today, the camera obscura is primarily used as a novelty item or for educational purposes, but it still holds an important place in the history of photography and the development of optics.

History of Remote Sensing

Remote sensing is the science of acquiring information about the earth’s surface without physically being in contact with it. This technique involves the use of various devices to gather information about the earth’s surface, such as its physical properties, features, and conditions. Remote sensing has a long history that dates back to the early 19th century.

The first recorded instance of remote sensing can be traced back to 1840 when the French photographer, Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, took aerial photographs of Paris from a hot air balloon. His photographs showed the city from a bird’s-eye view and provided a new perspective on the city’s layout and design.

Remote sensing is the science of obtaining information about the Earth’s surface without being in direct contact with it. This is typically done through the use of sensors that collect data from a distance, such as satellites, aircraft, and drones. The history of remote sensing dates back to the mid-19th century, with the invention of the camera and the balloon.

The earliest use of remote sensing was for military purposes, specifically for reconnaissance during World War I. Aircraft were used to take aerial photographs of enemy territory, which were then analyzed for military intelligence. During World War II, remote sensing technology advanced significantly with the development of photoreconnaissance aircraft, such as the Lockheed P-38 Lightning and the North American P-51 Mustang. These aircraft were equipped with cameras that could capture high-resolution images of the ground from high altitudes.

Year Development
1800Discovery of Infrared by Sir W. Herschel
1839Beginning of Practice of Photography
1840French photographer, Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, takes aerial photographs of Paris from a hot air balloon, marking the first recorded instance of remote sensing.
1847Infrared Spectrum Shown by J.B.L. Foucault
1858French and British armies use balloons for aerial reconnaissance during the Italian War.
1873Theory of Electromagnetic Spectrum by J.C. Maxwell
1906Julius Neubronner develops a miniature pigeon camera that can take aerial photographs.
1909Photography from Airplanes
1914-1918Aerial photography becomes a key tool for reconnaissance during World War I.
1928Harold Edgerton develops the first underwater camera, which eventually leads to the development of sonar.
1930Photogrammetry, the science of making measurements from photographs, is developed and becomes an important part of remote sensing.
1939-1945Aerial reconnaissance becomes even more important during World War II, with the development of radar and other technologies.
1946The US Army Air Forces begin using radar for remote sensing, which becomes an important tool for weather forecasting.
1957The Soviet Union launches the first satellite, Sputnik 1, which inspires the US to develop its own satellite program.
1859First Space Photograph of the Earth (Explorer-6)
1960The US launches the first weather satellite, TIROS-1.
1962The US launches the first telecommunications satellite, Telstar 1.
1970Skylab Remote Sensing Observations from Space
1972The US launches Landsat-1, the first satellite dedicated to remote sensing.
1972Rapid Advances in Digital Image Processing
1975Landsat-2 is launched.
1978 Landsat-3 is launched.
1980Remote sensing technology becomes more widely available and accessible to scientists and researchers.
1986French Commercial Earth Observation Satellite SPOT and Development of Hyperspectral Sensors
1990Advances in computing and image processing make it possible to analyze large volumes of data quickly and accurately, leading to new applications in fields such as agriculture, forestry, and urban planning.
1990Development of High-Resolution Spaceborne Systems
2000Remote sensing continues to evolve and expand its applications, with the development of new technologies such as drones and high-resolution satellites.
2010Remote sensing is used in a wide range of applications, including environmental monitoring, natural resource management, disaster response, and climate change studies. The availability of open data sources such as Landsat and Sentinel has facilitated wider access to remote sensing data for a range of applications.

This table provides a brief overview of the major events in the history of remote sensing, from the early use of balloons for aerial reconnaissance to the launch of satellites and the development of new technologies like drones. Advances in computing and image processing have made it possible to analyze large volumes of data quickly and accurately, leading to new applications in fields such as agriculture, forestry, and urban planning. Today, remote sensing is used in a wide range of applications, from monitoring land use changes to detecting wildfires and monitoring water quality.

Remote Sensing has a very long History dating back to the mid nineteenth century when cameras were first mad Air-borne using Balloons and Kites. The Advent of Aircraft further enhanced the opportunities to take photographs from the Air.

Moreover, During the First World War, the major break through was seen in the development of Remote Sensing as data and Information was now acquired using this technique.

Remote Sensing has seen a tremendous evolution through the years and this technology continues to be developing in a logical route.

The History of Remote Sensing can be broadly classified under 3 periods:

  • The Early Age: 1839-1907
  • The Medieval Age: 1908-1945
  • The Modern Age: 1946 onwards

Early Age (1839-1907)

The Early Age of photography, which spans from 1839 to 1907, was a period of rapid innovation and experimentation as inventors and photographers explored the possibilities of this new medium.

The History of Remote Sensing can be studied from the year 1839, when the PHOTOGRAPHY was invented. As early, in 1840 Director of Paris Observatory initiated the use of Photography for Topographic Surveying, and from that time, BALLOON photography flourished.

In 1839, Louis Daguerre introduced the daguerreotype process, which used a polished metal plate coated with a light-sensitive chemical to create a detailed, one-of-a-kind image. The daguerreotype was the first commercially successful photographic process, and it quickly spread throughout the world.

In 1851, Frederick Scott Archer introduced the wet plate collodion process, which allowed photographers to create multiple prints from a single negative. This process was widely adopted and remained in use until the late 19th century.

However, it was not easy task for them to perform this as a lot of complications was involved in whole process. But it was Gasper Felix Tournachon (a.k.a. Nadar) in 1858, who photographed the houses of French village of Petit-Becetre from a Balloon tethered at a height of 80m. This was a significant achievement.

After then, in 1860, Nadar took Aerial Photographs of the Enemy Troop movements for French army during Franco-Prussian War I. Since then, Military has used the Balloons for taking Aerial Photographs.

On October 13, 1860, James Wallace Black got achievement in taking Aerial Photographs of Boston from a Balloon at a height of 1200ft which is the oldest aerial Photograph known to still exist.

After the advent of dry plate techniques and camera improvements, KITES were used to obtain aerial Photographs from about 1882. The most famous Kite Photographer was the American G.R. Lawrence.

In 1888, George Eastman introduced the first Kodak camera, which was preloaded with film and made photography more accessible to the general public. The following year, Eastman introduced the first flexible roll film, which allowed for smaller, more portable cameras.

In 1903, Julius Neubronne patented a Breast-mounted Camera for Pigeons, which was capable to expose automatically at 30-s intervals.

In 1906, George Lawrence took the Aerial Photographs of San Francisco Earthquake.

In the year 1906, Albert Maul used a Rocket powered by compressed air to lift a camera and took an Aerial Photograph from a height of 2,600 ft; the Camera was then ejected and parachuted back to the Earth.

During this time, photography was primarily used for portraiture and documentation, with photographers capturing images of people, landscapes, and historical events. As the technology improved and became more widely available, photographers began to experiment with new techniques and subjects.

In the late 19th century, photographers such as Eadweard Muybridge and Etienne-Jules Marey began using photography to study motion, capturing images of humans and animals in motion to better understand how they moved. This work laid the foundation for the development of cinematography and modern sports photography.

The Early Age of photography was a time of rapid innovation and experimentation, as inventors and photographers pushed the boundaries of this new medium. Their work laid the foundation for the development of modern photography and set the stage for the creative experimentation and exploration that would follow in the decades to come.

Photograph of Boston, obtained by James W. Black in 1860

The Medieval Age (1908-1945)

The Medieval Age of photography, which spans from 1908 to 1945, was a time of further technological advancements and artistic experimentation as photography became more widely recognized as a legitimate form of art.

In 1903, Wilbur Wright and Orville Wright(Wright Brothers) of Dayton, Ohio invented the first Flying Machine by building up a 12-hp engine.

In 1908, the first commercially successful color process, the Autochrome, was introduced by the Lumière brothers in France. This process used glass plates coated with millions of microscopic grains of potato starch dyed red, green, and blue to create a color image.

The first time that an Airplane was used as a Platform to obtain Aerial Photography was in 1908, when motion picture photographer L.P. Bonvillian accompanied Wilbur Wright. A year later, the first motion picture was recorded in Italy by Wilbur Wright.

During World War I, photography was used extensively as a means of documenting the war effort, with photographers capturing images of soldiers, battles, and the devastation wrought by the conflict. The development of aerial photography during this time also allowed for a new perspective on the battlefield and helped to advance the field of cartography.

In the 1920s and 1930s, photography began to be recognized as a legitimate art form, with photographers such as Edward Steichen and Alfred Stieglitz using the medium to create artistic and abstract images. The Surrealist movement also emerged during this time, with photographers such as Man Ray and Maurice Tabard using photography to create dreamlike and surreal images.

The invention of the 35mm camera by Leica in 1925 also revolutionized photography, making it more accessible and portable than ever before. This allowed photographers to capture images more easily and to work outside the studio, leading to a new wave of street photography and documentary work.

During World War II, photography again played a significant role in documenting the conflict and shaping public opinion. Photographers such as Robert Capa and Margaret Bourke-White captured powerful images of the war effort, helping to shape public opinion and influence policy.

The Medieval Age of photography was a time of continued technological advancements and artistic experimentation, as photography became more widely recognized as a legitimate art form and a powerful tool for documentation and social commentary.

Modern Age or Space Age 1946 Onwards

The Modern Age or Space Age of photography, which spans from 1946 onwards, has been marked by significant technological advancements that have revolutionized the field of photography and opened up new possibilities for exploration and discovery.

In 1947, the first photograph of Earth from space was captured by a V-2 rocket launched by the United States Army. This marked the beginning of a new era of space exploration and the use of photography to study the Earth and the universe.

In the year 1954, Westinghouse, under sponsorship from United States Air Force, developed the first side-looking airborne radar system. This was the first movement towards active remote sensing.

The Soviet Union surprised the world when they launched Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite, on 4 October 1957. This was unexpected to the rest of the world and encouraged the government of the United States and others to make spare exploration a priority.

The development of electronic cameras and digital imaging in the 1960s and 1970s revolutionized the field of photography, making it faster, more efficient, and more versatile than ever before. Digital imaging also allowed for the manipulation and manipulation of images in ways that were not possible with traditional film photography.

The early earth observation and experimental (weather satellite, the Television and Infrared Observation Satellite (TIROS), was launched on 1 April 1960 by the United States.

Then, in the 1960s as man entered in the space, cosmonauts and astronauts in space capsules took photos out of the window.

The first multi-spectral photography from space took place during the 1968 Apollo-9 mission. The multi-spectral images acquired during this mission were used in the development of Landsat multi-spectral sensor, which was launched four years later.

In 1967, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) encouraged the US Department of the Interior, initiated the Earth Resource Technology Satellite (ERTS) program. As a result, ERTS-1 or Landsat-1 was launched on 23 July 1972 carried the multi-spectral scanner (MSS), which imaged the earth from a 900-km altitude with green, red, and two infrared spectral bands at 80 m spatial resolution ( ). It was originally called ERTS-1 but renamed Landsat. It made Satellite Imagery available to the general public for the first time and thereby Remote Sensing got a major breakthrough.

Another class of satellite remote sensors at present space is the radar system. With the launch of Seasat on 26 June 1978 by the NASA, the world entered an era of satellite-borne radar remote sensing. Seasat was the first civil synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellite; it mysteriously failed after only 106 days.

Starting in the mid-1980s, the Soviet Union (now Russia) entered the world arena with the earth-observing satellite program available on the open market. The RESURS-01 series provided a multi-spectral system (three visible to NIR bands; two to thermal) whose resolution was 160 m for optical, and 600 m for thermal. Like Landsat, RESURS were placed in near-polar, sun-synchronous orbits.

France entered the world of satellite remote sensing technology on 21 February 1986by launching SPOT-1 (Systeme Probatorie de la Observation de la Terre).

On 3 December 1986, the United Nations passed ‘Principles Relating to Remote Sensing of the Earth from Outer Space’.

India successfully operates several remote sensing satellites that gather data in different bands of electromagnetic spectrum, beginning with the launch of IRS-1A in March 1988.

During the Cold War, photography played a significant role in surveillance and intelligence gathering, with spy planes and satellites capturing images of enemy territory and military installations. This work laid the foundation for the development of modern remote sensing techniques and the use of photography for scientific and environmental studies.

In recent years, advances in satellite imaging, aerial drones, and other remote sensing technologies have revolutionized the way we study and understand the Earth and its environment. Photographers and scientists are now able to capture detailed images of the planet’s surface and atmosphere, allowing for the monitoring of environmental changes and the study of climate patterns.

The Modern Age of photography has been marked by significant technological advancements and the use of photography to explore and understand the world around us. From space exploration to environmental monitoring, photography has become an indispensable tool for scientific research and discovery.

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First Commercial Developments in Remote Sensing

Remote sensing, the science of obtaining information about objects or areas from a distance, has been used for various purposes since the mid-19th century. However, the first commercial developments in remote sensing began in the 1960s with the launch of Earth-observing satellites by the United States and the Soviet Union.

The first commercial remote sensing satellite was Landsat-1, launched by NASA in 1972. It was designed to provide images of Earth’s surface for resource management, land-use planning, and environmental monitoring. The Landsat program has since been expanded to include several other satellites, each with improved capabilities and technological advancements.

Another significant development in commercial remote sensing was the launch of the French SPOT (Satellite Pour l’Observation de la Terre) satellite in 1986. SPOT was designed to provide high-resolution imagery for a wide range of applications, including cartography, urban planning, agriculture, and forestry.

The early 1990s saw the emergence of commercial remote sensing companies such as DigitalGlobe and GeoEye, which launched high-resolution imaging satellites for a range of applications, including mapping, defense, and disaster response. These companies were able to offer higher-resolution imagery than government satellites, allowing for more detailed analysis of Earth’s surface.

In recent years, there has been a significant increase in the number of commercial remote sensing companies and the capabilities of their satellites. Today, there are dozens of companies offering remote sensing services for a wide range of applications, from precision agriculture to oil and gas exploration to disaster response. The growth of the industry has been driven by advancements in technology, including smaller and more powerful sensors, and increased demand for high-resolution imagery and data.

Year Development
1972Launch of Landsat-1 by NASA, the first commercial remote sensing satellite designed for resource management, land-use planning, and environmental monitoring
1986Launch of the French SPOT satellite designed for high-resolution imaging for cartography, urban planning, agriculture, and forestry
Early 1990sEmergence of commercial remote sensing companies such as DigitalGlobe and GeoEye, offering high-resolution imaging satellites for mapping, defense, and disaster response
1991 Launch of the first radar satellite ERS-1 by ESA
1992Launch of radar satellite JERS-1 by Japan
1995Launch of Radarsat by Canada
1995Launch of ERS-2 by ESA
1999Launch EOS: NASA Earth Observing Mission ‘Terra’ with MODIS and ASTER
1999Launch of IKONOS, a very high spatial resolution sensor system
2001Launch of QuickBird, a very high spatial resolution sensor system
2002Launch of ‘Aqua’ with MODIS by NASA
2002Launch of Envisat-1 with optical and radar instruments by ESA
Present Continued growth of the industry with dozens of companies offering remote sensing services for various applications, driven by technological advancements in sensors and increased demand for high-resolution imagery and data

Private Players

Since the early 1960s, of the approximately 2,700 satellites (up to 2011) in the orbit-with many active (now operating), most are/were either military in origin, or flown as a general service by the United States, France, Russia, India, Japan, and other governments.

Only about a few of these satellites are/were developed by companies that have entered what can be called Space Business. Most of those until recently have been communication satellites. Remote sensing and meteorological satellites were or are mainly sponsored and controlled by government agencies.

Earth Watch Inc. (now DigitalGlobe Inc.) launched Earlybird in December 1997. Unfortunately, all communication with the satellite was lost. Space Imaging Inc. (now GeoEye Inc.) launched IKONOS on 27 April 1999 and it failed to achieve orbit. A second IKONOS satellite was launched on 24 September 1999; the first successful remote sensing satellite launched by a private organization.

In recent years, there has been a growing interest from private players in the field of remote sensing, particularly in the area of Earth observation. These companies are often referred to as New Space companies, and they are using innovative technologies to collect and analyze data from space.

One of the most well-known private players in this field is SpaceX, founded by entrepreneur Elon Musk. SpaceX has developed reusable rockets and spacecraft that have significantly reduced the cost of accessing space, making it more accessible to private companies and organizations.

Another prominent company in this field is Planet Labs, which has developed a constellation of small satellites that can capture high-resolution images of the Earth’s surface on a daily basis. The company’s aim is to provide real-time data on a range of environmental and humanitarian issues, such as natural disasters and climate change.

Other private players in the remote sensing field include BlackSky Global, which uses a combination of satellite imagery and artificial intelligence to provide real-time insights to customers in industries such as energy, finance, and defense, and Spire Global, which specializes in tracking maritime and aviation traffic using a network of small satellites.

Private players in remote sensing are often able to move faster and be more agile than government agencies, allowing them to quickly respond to emerging trends and market opportunities. However, they also face significant challenges, such as the high cost of developing and launching satellites and the need to balance commercial interests with environmental concerns.


Remote sensing has a rich history that spans over centuries, with its roots in simple devices such as the camera obscura, to modern-day technologies such as satellites and drones. Over time, it has evolved from a tool used for artistic expression to a critical tool used in fields such as science, environmental monitoring, and national security.

Government agencies and private players alike have contributed significantly to the development of remote sensing technology, with each bringing unique perspectives and innovations to the field. The continued evolution of technology, particularly in the area of digital imaging and data analysis, has opened up new possibilities for remote sensing and is expected to drive further innovation and growth in the field.

As we move into the future, remote sensing is likely to play an increasingly important role in addressing global challenges such as climate change, natural disasters, and food security. By harnessing the power of remote sensing, we can gain a deeper understanding of our planet and make more informed decisions to ensure a sustainable and prosperous future for generations to come.

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