What is Remote Sensing?

We perceive the surrounding world through our five senses. Some senses (touch and taste) require contact of our sensing organs with the objects. However, we acquire much information about our surrounding through the senses of sight and hearing which do not require close contact between the sensing organs and the external objects. In another word, we are performing Remote Sensing all the time.

Generally, Remote sensing refers to the activities of recording/observing/perceiving (sensing) objects or events at far away (remote) places. In remote sensing, the sensors are not in direct contact with the objects or events being observed. The information needs a physical carrier to travel from the objects/events to the sensors through an intervening medium. The electromagnetic radiation is normally used as an information carrier in remote sensing. The output of a remote sensing system is usually an image representing the scene being observed. A further step of image analysis and interpretation is required in order to extract useful information from the image. The human visual system is an example of a remote sensing system in this general sense.

In a more restricted sense, remote sensing usually refers to the technology of acquiring information about the earth's surface (land and ocean) and atmosphere using sensors onboard airborne (aircraft, balloons) or spaceborne (satellites, space shuttles) platforms.

Satellite Remote Sensing

In this CD, you will see many remote sensing images around Asia acquired by earth observation satellites. These remote sensing satellites are equipped with sensors looking down to the earth. They are the "eyes in the sky" constantly observing the earth as they go round in predictable orbits.

Effects of Atmosphere

In satellite remote sensing of the earth, the sensors are looking through a layer of atmosphere separating the sensors from the Earth's surface being observed. Hence, it is essential to understand the effects of atmosphere on the electromagnetic radiation travelling from the Earth to the sensor through the atmosphere. The atmospheric constituents cause wavelength dependent absorption and scattering of radiation. These effects degrade the quality of images. Some of the atmospheric effects can be corrected before the images are subjected to further analysis and interpretation.

A consequence of atmospheric absorption is that certain wavelength bands in the electromagnetic spectrum are strongly absorbed and effectively blocked by the atmosphere. The wavelength regions in the electromagnetic spectrum usable for remote sensing are determined by their ability to penetrate atmosphere. These regions are known as the atmospheric transmission windows. Remote sensing systems are often designed to operate within one or more of the atmospheric windows. These windows exist in the microwave region, some wavelength bands in the infrared, the entire visible region and part of the near ultraviolet regions. Although the atmosphere is practically transparent to x-rays and gamma rays, these radiations are not normally used in remote sensing of the earth.

Optical and Infrared Remote Sensing

In Optical Remote Sensing, optical sensors detect solar radiation reflected or scattered from the earth, forming images resembling photographs taken by a camera high up in space. The wavelength region usually extends from the visible and near infrared (commonly abbreviated as VNIR) to the short-wave infrared (SWIR).

Different materials such as water, soil, vegetation, buildings and roads reflect visible and infrared light in different ways. They have different colours and brightness when seen under the sun. The interpretation of optical images require the knowledge of the spectral reflectance signatures of the various materials (natural or man-made) covering the surface of the earth.

There are also infrared sensors measuring the thermal infrared radiation emitted from the earth, from which the land or sea surface temperature can be derived.

Microwave Remote Sensing

There are some remote sensing satellites which carry passive or active microwave sensors. The active sensors emit pulses of microwave radiation to illuminate the areas to be imaged. Images of the earth surface are formed by measuring the microwave energy scattered by the ground or sea back to the sensors. These satellites carry their own "flashlight" emitting microwaves to illuminate their targets. The images can thus be acquired day and night. Microwaves have an additional advantage as they can penetrate clouds. Images can be acquired even when there are clouds covering the earth surface.

A microwave imaging system which can produce high resolution image of the Earth is the synthetic aperture radar (SAR). The intensity in a SAR image depends on the amount of microwave backscattered by the target and received by the SAR antenna. Since the physical mechanisms responsible for this backscatter is different for microwave, compared to visible/infrared radiation, the interpretation of SAR images requires the knowledge of how microwaves interact with the targets.

Remote Sensing Images

Remote sensing images are normally in the form of digital images. In order to extract useful information from the images, image processing techniques may be employed to enhance the image to help visual interpretation, and to correct or restore the image if the image has been subjected to geometric distortion, blurring or degradation by other factors. There are many image analysis techniques available and the methods used depend on the requirements of the specific problem concerned. In many cases, image segmentation and classification algorithms are used to delineate different areas in an image into thematic classes. The resulting product is a thematic map of the study area. This thematic map can be combined with other databases of the test area for further analysis and utilization.

Visual System
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Please send comments/enquiries/suggestions about this tutorial to Dr. S. C. Liew at scliew@nus.edu.sg Copyright CRISP, 2001