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Earth Observation – A story of tech marvel and unkept promise

Prof. Arup Dasgupta
Managing Editor
[email protected]

On April 1, 1960 NASA launched TIROS 1, a 150 kilogram, experimental satellite with two vidicon cameras to image the earth at a resolution of 320 metre. On January 8, 2012 China launched Ziyuan 3, a 2650 kilogram satellite with three CCD cameras imaging the earth in stereo at 2.5 metre resolution. Between these two events is a story of a technology that has taken the world by storm and yet has not quite achieved its promise.

Today earth observation programmes are there in almost every country. A whole industry has sprung up for the manufacture and launching of satellites, data acquisition, data processing, distribution and value addition. The US pioneered the privatisation of earth observation systems and was closely followed by Canada, France and Germany. Other countries like India, China and Russia kept it under the government. The UN debated and evolved a policy on the principles of remote sensing. Every country with a space programme evolved their data policies. Google came out with its game-changing Google Earth which put earth observation data in the hands of the common person.

In the area of science, particularly meteorology, environment and oceanography, the success is very high. While funding for these programmes are fully governmental and they suffer from a lack of priority, yet the utilisation and benefits are enormous. Areas of public good such as disaster management are now critically dependent on earth observation systems.

In spite of such a vibrant scenario, there are troubling issues. The market remains largely with the government and the defence establishments. Earth observation data cannot stand alone. It has to be part of a data ensemble for practical applications. While some industries are specialising in creating such ensembles, by and large remotely sensed data seems to revel in its unique identity. The promise of commercial adoption for mapping has not been realised. Privatisation thus is restricted to large government contracts. Perhaps this has led to complacency among the players and not enough has been done to create more clients in the civilian industry.

The time has come for the earth observation industry to take a closer look at itself. In particular it has to find out why it remains the preserve of governments. Short term quick fixes are not the answer. It requires some out of the box thinking.