War! Huh! What Is It Good For?

Well remote sensing for starters….

Edwin Starr sang of the devastating impacts of wars around the world, I wonder if he too was a fan of RS?

Wars, while obviously have devastating consequences and deeply affect those affected, often mark some of the biggest advances in technology, and remote sensing is no different.

Because of the need to constantly get the upper-hand over an enemy, technology is forced forwards. The results are often impressive, if not slightly tainted by the reasons for their creation. As mentioned in an earlier post, the two World Wars as well as the Cold War all helped push remote sensing on in its development.

This post is focused mainly on the use of RS to determine the impacts of war in the end of the 20th and start of the 21st centuries.

The use of remote sensing for monitoring the impacts of the Gulf War between Iraq and Kuwait was one of the first to gather media and public attention (Al-doski et al, 2013). For the first time, the satellite images gathered by various scientific and military bodies were being released to the public.

This satellite image shows damage to the Great Mosque in Aleppo, Syria. Remote sensing can be used to further detail exactly to what extent the damage is.

Remote sensing instruments are still surprisingly limited to study war and conflict impacts and still the ability of satellite imagery for detecting war impacts such as: bullet-pocked walls, abandoned buildings and individual mines are limited and difficult due to spatial, spectral and temporal characteristics of the data

(Al-doski et al, 2013).


Al-doski, J., Mansor, S. B., Mohd Shafri, H. Z. (2013), War Impacts Studies Using Remote Sensing, IOSR Journal of Applied Geology and Geophysics, 1:2, pp. 11-15.

americantreasuretour.com, (2015), FESS!, Available at: http://americantreasuretour.com/blog/fess, (Accessed on: 24th May, 2017).

Van Den Hoek, J., Basic, G., Kurgan, L., & Brawley, D. (2016), Conflict urbanism; Aleppo, available at: http://c4sr.columbia.edu/conflict-urbanism-aleppo/remote-sensing.html, (Accessed: 24th May, 2017).


Remote Sensing Through The Ages


Louis Daguerre
Louis Daguerre (1789 – 18

Remote sensing relies heavily on photography and so their histories and subsequent development are intertwined. While there were several attempts made to capture images using photography, it wasn’t until Louis Daguerre (the man with the glorious moustache on the right) reported the results from his experiments with photographic chemicals in 1839, that photography was born (Campbell & Wynne, 2011).

Once man had acquired the ability to take photographs, the next step towards remote sensing was to take an aerial photo and Gaspard-Félix Tournachon was the man to do just that! In 1858, after attaching an early camera to a tethered balloon, Nader, as he was affectionately known, captured an aerial shot somewhere in France (all his aerial photographs have been sadly lost so the exact location of the image is unknown, although many early shots from other pioneers still remain).

While it would be a stretch to refer to these early images as ‘remote sensing’, they certainly led the way for the field to be born.

We have to jump forward to WWI before aerial photography became routine and, while it was still somewhat rudimentary in method, proved extremely useful for reconnaissance and surveillance. Obtaining aerial images allowed for better informed military decisions as well as predictions regarding enemy movement (Baumann, 2014).

WWII marked a turning point in the history of RS; the use of electromagnetic radiation moved from using exclusively visible light to include both infrared and microwaves. While their existence had been known for over a century prior to the war, practicality hadn’t been obtained until this point.

Photographic reconnaissance has been our main source of intelligence in the Pacific. Its importance cannot be overemphasized.

(Admiral J. F. Turner, 1945)

Aerial photography continued to provide useful images for a variety of uses. It was notably used during the Cold War periods by both sides to provide recon of missile development and testing. This period also saw the first satellite images and it became possible to routinely gather visual information from space.

Landsat 1
Landsat 1 (Source: airandspace.si.edu)

Remote sensing was also used for civilian work such as to assess and identify problems in crops, as well as degradation of forested areas and coastlines. The field developed in leaps and bounds and by 1972 Landsat 1 was launched. Landsat 1 was the first of many Earth Orbiting satellites that would document land surface change on Earth (Campbell & Wynne, 2011).

As with much of the technology in the 20th Century, remote sensing and the data gathering satellites it used developed at an incredible rate. Within 60 years, the field essentially went from a man leaning over the side of a plane with a camera, to the first orbiting satellite over Earth!

So keep an eye out, who knows what could be next…?

Fun Fact: In 1976, Landsat 1 discovered a tiny uninhabited island 20km off the eastern coast of Canada. In its honour, the island was named Landsat Island!


airandspace.si.edu, (2017), Looking at the Earth! Landsat and radar, Available at: https://airandspace.si.edu/exhibitions/looking-at-earth/online/orbital-vistas/landsat.cfm, (Accessed: 23rd May, 2017).

Baumann, P. R. (2014), History of remote sensing, aerial photography, Available at: https://www.oneonta.edu/faculty/baumanpr/geosat2/RS%20History%20I/RS-History-Part-1.htm, (Accessed: 10th May, 2017)

Campbell, J. B. & Wynne, R. H. (2011), Introduction to remote sensing, 5th edn., New York: The Guilford Press, pp. 7.