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China to stand strong in remote sensing and digital Earth space

Prof. Dr. Guo Huadong
Director General
Institute of Remote Sensing and Digital Earth (RADI) China

China’s satellite development programme has seen rapid progress for the past 30 years. From multispectral to hyperspectral to SAR; from small satellites to the recently launched high-resolution satellite; the country is not looking to slow down. Prof. Dr. Guo Huadong, Director-General of China’s Institute of Remote Sensing and Digital Earth (RADI) tells Geospatial World what’s next.


I understand RADI is a consolidation of two institutes under the Chinese Academy of Sciences: the Institute of Remote Sensing Applications (IRSA) and the Center for Earth Observation and Digital Earth (CEODE). What was the strategy behind this consolidation?

You’re right. RADI is a new institute, established through a merger of two older institutes, IRSA and CEODE. CEODE was mainly focusing on technical development, where we have satellite receiving stations and an airborne remote sensing center with very strong focus on digital Earth and data reception. IRSA’s concentration, on the other hand, was on developing applications. So through the merger, we conduct our research from space-borne, air-borne, and on-the-ground data collection to the applications, under one institute. After the merging, we became the biggest remote sensing institute in China and the world.

Being the largest remote sensing institution in China, RADI will be a major resource producer in this field. What is your vision in developing remote sensing capacity for the country and to maintain its competitive edge in terms of international competency?

Right now we have about 700 employees, including 96 full professors and 173 associate professors. On top of that, we have some 500 students pursuing PhD or master’s degrees, so altogether we have about 1,200 people. We’re lucky to have a lot of resources, and at the same time we have great facilities—receiving stations and airborne systems.

As you know, remote sensing and digital Earth technologies are evolving very quickly. Different countries have different strategies. In most western countries, remote sensing activities are occurring in universities, some countries are dominated by private companies, while other countries are government-oriented. For us, since we have high-level scientists, and advanced facilities and many resources, I think we stand strong in terms of international competency.

Remote sensing technology is becoming more significant in national development planning today. What is the level of awareness of this technology in China?

Remote sensing is becoming popular in China and the world. It’s hard to say the exact level of awareness in China, but I would say between high and intermediate level. If talking about top management and decision makers, I can tell you that our President and Prime Minister are aware of remote sensing technology. To cite an example, after an earthquake event some years ago, we presented remote sensing data showing the level of damage directly to the Prime Minister. Since then, we have been using maps and satellite imagery to map disaster areas.

The Government of China recently started a momentous campaign of “Beautiful China”. How can remote sensing technology contribute in this campaign?

When we say Beautiful China, we think of blue sky, clear water, green environment, etc. Remote sensing and digital Earth technology can play a very important role in building Beautiful China. With a rapidly developing economy, we face a lot of pollution problems. Remote sensing can be used to monitor pollution. We also have dedicated satellites for environmental monitoring. These data can be used for ecosystem studies. Also, we can use remote sensing and digital Earth data to produce base maps for city planning. Beautiful China to a certain degree can also mean Sustainable China. Remote sensing and digital Earth data can help decision makers to make the right decisions to develop the country sustainably.

Which sectors are the major users of remote sensing applications in China?

There are vast usages of remote sensing in China, especially by government agencies. Remote sensing is used in the agricultural sector for crop yield estimation, land-use mapping, forestry, forest fire monitoring, hydrology, soil moisture monitoring, etc. Remote sensing is also used in mineral exploration and geological mapping. In China, we have a rule that all mapping up to 1:20,000 scales must be done using remote sensing data. Other than that, remote sensing is used for urban development, cartography, disaster mitigation, and other applications. I can say in China, there are about 10 equally major users of remote sensing technology.

Is there any new sector that you foresee will emerge as a big user in the future?

I think it will be global change study. Previously, global issues, such as climate change and urbanisation, have been undertaken separately by different sectors. For global environmental change studies, geographically, it should be global. Not only in China but also other countries, maybe through some government collaborations. In recent years, we have been doing this a lot.

Another one is natural and cultural heritage studies. We recently established the International Centre on Space Technologies for Natural and Cultural Heritage under the Auspices of UNESCO.

What is the mechanism to obtain remote sensing data in China?

We have many receiving stations covering all of China, for land, ocean and meteorological usages. Users can buy data directly from the receiving stations.

RADI is active in various international remote sensing and digital Earth initiatives. What is your policy in terms of international cooperation and technology transfer?

We have a lot of international cooperation, both bilateral and multilateral, and many are scientific initiatives, e.g., for disaster remote sensing and global change. We are the leader of the ABCC (Australia, Brazil, Canada, China) programme. All four countries are using remote sensing to monitor global change. For technical collaboration, we have cooperation with developing countries, mainly for software and system development. For example, we have cooperation with Cambodia for world heritage studies, South Africa for software development, and others.

China’s satellite development programme keeps on progressing. From multispectral to hyperspectral to SAR; and from small satellites to the recently launched high-resolution satellite. What’s next?

Our high-resolution satellite programme was initiated three years ago, intended to continue for ten years until 2020. In this programme, we will launch a series of satellites—not only multispectral, but also hyperspectral and SAR satellites. The purpose is not only for land but for ocean coverage as well.

The next step is to develop higher resolution satellites with multi-wavelength capabilities, e.g., passive and active microwave. Although now we have many satellites, each of them is being used for different purposes and different users. The future vision is to develop satellites that will be controlled by the central government, so one satellite can be used by many different users.

We’re developing not only satellites, but also our airborne remote sensing systems. RADI owns two remote sensing aircraft, and the central government recently provided us with another two. We’re now working on developing ten different sensors for the aircraft. Some advanced sensors we will purchase from abroad, while other sensors, such as hyperspectral, multi-band SAR, POLSAR, and INSAR sensors will be developed by ourselves. So I think within three years, you will see new advancements in airborne remote sensing systems in China.

Digital Earth is always associated with big data issues. What are your views on big data trends in the geospatial industry today?

Digital Earth is already 15 years old. It’s not old but it’s not new either. But the technology is evolving so quickly. Yesterday we didn’t know what the Internet, cloud computing, and big data were, but now everybody knows. I believe digital Earth will become just as familiar as these other technological trends, and similarly supply the needs of governments, researchers, and the public. This is why digital Earth should be supported over the long term as it dynamically adopts new technologies to face new challenges.

Big data is still very new. Different people might have different ideas about big data, but as a scientist I think big scientific data is one of the most important issues in science and technology today. Big data doesn’t mean just “a lot of data” but to a certain degree, a new frontier of science. Data helps scientists to develop new technology and produce new knowledge. Just doing analyses on these data can lead to exciting discoveries. In this way, data is the engine of innovation. From a digital Earth point of view, digital Earth also means bigger Earth observation data. That is my idea.