From Aerial Photography to Remote Sensing - A History of Aerial Photography and Space Imagery Acquisition in Australia


John Manning





Aerial Photography developed as a promising mapping technique during the First World War. The subsequent Australian application of this technique developed in the 1920s and 1930s as aircraft came into increasing use in remote areas.


With better aircraft performance and stable flight ability, systematic flight lines became possible and trimetrogon reconnaissance photography was commenced in 1942 but vertical aerial photography had become the major tool of the topographic mapmaker by the end of the Second World War. Extensive systematic vertical aerial photography was flown principally by the RAAF leading to a complete coverage of the Australian Continent.


Since the 1970s imagery from space craft has become widely available, firstly with SKYLAB photography and a complete cloud free Landsat data set over Australia is now commercially available.


In the 1980s, Large Format Camera photography from the U.S. manned space shuttle flights and imagery from the French SPOT satellites has produced analogue and digital imagery with resolutions approaching 10 metres. Soviet space photography is also commercially available across most of the Australian Continent.


This paper traces the development and application of aerial photography in Australia and examines the current trends of space imagery for mapping purposes.




Historical Background


The first reference to the application of photography in making topographic maps probably was in 1840, when Dominique Francois Jean Arage, the French geodesist, appeared before the Chamber of Deputies in Paris, and advocated the use of the daguerreotype photographic process for topographic mapping. In 1849, Aime Laussedat, an officer in the Engineer Corps of the French Army, sought to prove that photography could be used with advantage in the preparation of military topographic maps. Much of his work was with terrestrial photography from a phototheodolite. In 1858 Laussedat experimented with a glass plate camera in the air, first supported by a string of kites and later by a "captive" balloon. Laussedat also made a few maps of Paris with the aid of balloon photography; converting overlapping perspective photographs into orthographic projections (Graham and Read, 1986).


About 1900, Captain Theodor Scheimpflug of the Austrian Army, provided a solution for a problem in aerial photography that was a stumbling block to Laussedat - How to obtain complete coverage of the area visible from a camera station in the air?


Scheimpflug used an eight-lens camera attached to the basket of a balloon. This camera consisted of seven oblique lenses grouped around a central vertical lens, thus producing one vertical and seven oblique views that could be transformed into an extremely wide-angle single composite photograph. Scheimpflug conceived the representation of whole tracts of terrain in the form of photomaps composed of aerial photographs. He encountered problems with the positioning and orientation of his cameras and saw the advantages of taking photographs from planned positions such as moored dirigibles.


With the invention of the aeroplane in 1903, aerial photography took on a new and more important meaning to the map maker. In 1909 the first recorded photographs were taken from an aircraft whilst Wilbur Wright was giving exhibition flights in Italy. In 1913 the Watson Air Camera was designed specifically for aerial photography in the British Royal Flying Corps (RFC). It was flown initially in the dirigible airship "Beta" but the camera was virtually destroyed a year later in a heavy aircraft landing when "the aeroplane crumpled into an unrecognisable heap of wood, wire and fabric" (Lamboit, 1985).


World War I


When World War I was declared an Experimental Flight was established by the RFC and in September 1914 the first hand held photographs over enemy positions were taken at the Battle of the Aisne. Soon after the Type 'A' camera was produced by the Thornton-Pickard Company. This employed 5" x 4" plates and an 8 inch Zeiss Tessar Lens. It was first used over enemy trenches on 2 March 1915 (Lamboit, 1985). In 1915 Oscar Messter also built the first specialised German aerial camera.


At a meeting of the Royal Photographic Society in 1919, the Chief of the British Air Staff, General Sykes, gave some details of the progress made in photography from aeroplanes and other devices during World War 1. He had gone to the Dardanelles in 1915 and found that when aerial photography was started there:


"It was discovered bit by bit that the maps upon which they were relying were absolutely inaccurate. They then set to work to make new maps, entirely from aerial photographs."


With regard to the war in France he summarised the growth in aerial photography acquisition in that period:


"Between January and August 1916, the number of different photographs taken was 87,000 and between the same period in 1918 the number totalled 827,000" (Australasian Photo Review 1919.)


Germany also had used more than 200 of Oscar Messter's excellent mapping cameras to record more than 7 million square kilometres in the form of strip-mosaics before the war ended, and by 1919 these cameras were mapping the entire Western Front every two weeks (Graham and Read, 1986).


At the end of the war no fewer than 400 different camera designs were employed on the British front; 4,000 cameras were in use in the field and a further 5,000 cameras of all types for training in England, although not all were aerial cameras (Parry, 1982).


Australian Aerial Photography in World War I


Photography from an aeroplane appears to have been non existent in Australia at the outbreak of World War I. As soon as the Australian No. 1 Squadron arrived in Egypt, it was realised that photography was an essential function of Flying Corps activities, and an urgent cable was dispatched to Australia for photographers to be included in the first reinforcements due to sail from Melbourne on 25 July 1916.


An advertisement was placed in the Melbourne "Argus" on Saturday 12 July 1916 for three photographers to serve overseas with the Australian Flying Corps. One of the photographers chosen, Harry Leckie, recalls their training at Point Cook:


"We all then had to make our first flight. Those who drew the Depussier had the Observers Cockpit to sit in while with the Bristol, a kerosene case was nailed behind the Pilot and in front of the propeller at the rear, with nothing within reach to hold on to. I was the only one of our three to go up in the Bristol and to take my camera up with me, and thus became the first accredited Photographer in the Air Force to take photos from an aeroplane in Australia. The negatives I still have were secured by holding the camera over my head and shooting past the tail plane and along the shores of Port Phillip Bay" (Leckie 1973).


The Australian Flying Corps photography unit in the Middle East was known as the 67 Squadron and was attached to the 5th Wing Royal Flying Corps. Its photographs were used extensively in hostilities across the Sinai Desert and Palestine. The first mosaics to show desert trench positions were produced from glass negatives with flight lines flown only half a mile apart. In Palestine the whole of the mapping work was undertaken from aerial photographs and Leckie comments on their success:


"We were rather pleased after the first Gaza Battle and the many skirmishes that led up to it, when the Squadron was paraded at Kilo 143 Drome before Major General Salmond who singled out our Photographic Section - for their magnificent work in turning out such fine photography under extraordinarily difficult conditions across the desert, and thus greatly facilitating the planning of the Light Horse attacks" (Leckie 1973).


In later years Brigadier Fitzgerald (1962) noted that during the campaign in France a Topographical Section of the Australian Corps, had also been responsible for all tactical maps needed by the Australian Division. These maps were based on a French 1:20 000 series supplemented and amended with trench detail from aerial photography taken by the Australian Flying Corps.


The valuable but elementary application of aerial photography to mapping during the First World War indicated its great potential for civilian topographic mapping.


Early Airborne Photography in Australia


After World War I the first records of aerial photographs taken in Australia indicated that general purpose photos were taken with the camera held over the side of the aeroplane. In 1922 a Vickers flying boat had been employed in Tasmania to carry out aerial mapping work and in the same year J. King made an aerial photographic survey of Launceston for the City Council at the cost of 80 pounds (Copley, 1976).


The first Commonwealth vertical aerial photography of defined areas for mapping purposes was taken on an experimental basis by the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) in 1924. The areas were Western Port Bay in Victoria and Wisemans Ferry in NSW and the photographs were taken with a P18 plate camera with a 4" x 5" format. They were not covered with regular overlapping runs but were a series of individual photos which overlapped each other to varying degrees and the results were not successful for mapping (Fitzgerald, 1962).

More successful however was the co-operative project between the RAAF and the Royal Australian Naval Surveying Service. This project used experimental aerial photography for charting the Cumberland Channel of the Great Barrier Reef in 1926. The 1,250 tonne HMAS GERANIUM was specially fitted to carry a Fairey III D seaplane on her quarter deck. Vertical aerial photographs were mosaiced to show reef outcrops for assistance in detailed depth sounding.


Following World War 1 the British War Office recognised the significance of aerial photography and the need to apply it to the best advantage. An Air Survey Committee was created under Lieutenant Hotine. It was a report from this committee dated June 1927 which led to the raising of a permanent RAAF Survey Flight. In that year two RAAF officers were sent to England for instruction in the then new technique of photographing areas with straight parallel flights; with correct lateral and side overlaps and with the camera being maintained within a few degrees of vertical.


On the return of these RAAF officers a start was made on systematic aerial photography in Australia. The cameras used were the Williamson F8 series which had been converted from a plate camera to use film. The early models had an 8-1/4" lens but later models were fitted with 7" and 10" lenses. The photography format was 7" x 8-1/4" of which 1-1/4" was used to photograph an instrument panel. Each roll of film provided for 100 exposures.


The first areas were flown in the eastern states. Flight lines were north/south with east/west key strips. The map sheets photographed from Westland Wapiti aircraft included Nowra, Kiama, Moss Vale, Albury, Mittagong, Saint Albans, Wallerawang in NSW, Dugandan, Caboolture, Springbook, Tweed Heads and Warwick in Queensland, and Melbourne and Yan Yean in Victoria. (Fitzgerald, 1962). By the end of 1930, an area of 19,000 square miles had been flown.


While the RAAF was active on the eastern seaboard, in the west and in remote inland areas, private flying companies struggled to establish mail and passenger air routes and welcomed aerial survey work. In 1927 the WA Government let a contract to a private air survey firm for vertical stereoscopic aerial photography to be used for contouring so that the best railway routes could be determined through the Darling Ranges, east of Perth. Sir Norman Brearley described the flying operations on that project:


"We started the survey, but soon found difficulty in piloting along a series of parallel straight courses. The monotonous bush country had very few features by which one could navigate. One step towards overcoming this difficulty was to divide the control of the plane between two people. In the passenger cabin was installed a rudder control consisting of a joy-stick which moved only to left or right. An opening cut in the front of the cabin roof allowed a "helmsman" to stand up behind a windshield and and steer the plane. The pilot at the rear, with his feet off the rudder bar, kept the plane level and at a uniform height while the straight runs were made. My brother Stan was the pilot and I was the helmsman in this new arrangement.


We also devised a method of making parallel straight runs while we flew at a height of 8,000 feet. A road ran almost north and south near the western side of the 400 square mile area to be surveyed. On the road we placed a man with a car. He took up a position at the western end of the first strip to be "shot and we took up our position in the plane at the other end of this strip. When the ground guide sent sun flashes from a large mirror to give us his position, we flew straight towards him. We then flew a compass course back on the next strip, while the guide motored a measured distance along the road and was ready to repeat the performance for our next run. The plan worked well. The results of the survey were good, and the Chief Engineer expressed the satisfaction of his Department and the Government" (Brearley 1971).


The Queensland government also used chartered Qantas aircraft for aerial photography as early as 1928 to help survey crown lands around Barcaldine for farming subdivision.


In 1929 Dr C.T. Madigan obtained support of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia for a project to carry out an aerial reconnaissance of the dry lakes of South Australia. The RAAF lent him two of their new Westland Wapiti aircraft complete with crews and used Williamson Eagle vertical cameras to produce aerial strip photography. These flights culminated in long sorties over the Simpson Desert and the MacDonnell ranges and nearly seven thousand kilometres were flown. The photographers took hundreds of vertical and oblique photographs. Madigan, a geologist, was pleased with the photographs of the macdonnell Ranges but reported that there had been little of interest to photograph in the desert.


In the early 1930s the Western Mining Company began to undertake large scale gold prospecting in Central Australia using new specially equipped DH84 Dragons for their geological survey. One aircraft was fitted with a Williamson Eagle IV, the most modern camera of the time.


In May 1934 the Commonwealth Government announced that a complete aerial geographical and geophysical survey of northern Australia would be carried out by the RAAF. This brought a reaction from the private flying companies. The magazine "Aircraft" at the time applauded the idea but commented:


"The RAAF is ...... simply not equipped with proper personnel or material for such an expedition ....... only established aerial survey companies can do the job. Obviously, the only and proper way is for the Government to call tenders among private organisations".


The survey went ahead and up to the beginning of World War 2 many areas in northern Australia were photographed in Avro Anson aircraft at a scale of 1:20 000 for the project.


Aerial Photographic Coverage of Australia


As a wartime expedient trimetrogon photography was introduced in 1942 for reconnaissance mapping purposes along the Northern Coast and in South Australia and Western Australia. This was discontinued and replaced when increased vertical photography capability became available. During the war years large areas of Australia and New Guinea were photographed for mapping projects, intelligence and other defence purposes. The Williamson Eagle IV camera was used extensively but in 1943 the RAAF introduced the Fairchild K17 camera with a 6", wide angle lens and a picture format of 9"x 9".





At the end of the war, Aerial Survey Branches were set up in Victoria and Tasmania state mapping authorities and photography carried out by civilian agencies for these authorities soon commenced.


In 1950 aerial photography operations were commenced by the South Australian Department of Lands with a test flight in a Fox Moth aircraft. The pilot, Alan Vial, summarised the results:


"The only real failure though was the navigator's, in that the flight lines although quite parallel, were at 7 degrees to true north, and he had forgotten to allow for the magnetic variation in the courses which were passed to the pilot. A heinous crime in the world of navigation, but it did not detract from the overall results, which were very encouraging, so much so that permission was granted for the Department to call for tenders for the supply of an aircraft to meet certain specifications". (Vial 1959)


Robby's Aerial Services won the subsequent aerial photograph contract with an RC5 camera installed initially in an Avro Anson aircraft which was later replaced by a Douglas DC3 in 1957.


The 87 Squadron


From its formation during the Second World War until disbandment in 1953, the 87 Squadron of the Royal Australian Air Force was the main source of aerial photography acquisition for mapping over Australia.


The No. 1 Photographic Reconnaissance Unit (which became 87 Squadron) was formed at Laverton Victoria on 8 June 1942. Its objectives were to carry out long range strategical and tactical reconnaissances. Initially resourced with Brewster Buffalo aircraft and Williamson F24 cameras the Squadron moved to North West Australia in August and commenced operations in September 1942.


The Buffalo aircraft were not suited to offshore operations and were used on the photographic survey of local aerodrome sites as well as work requested by RASVY. Due to accidents, enemy action, and an aircraft destroyed in a forced landing near Derby on 25 September, only one aircraft was left serviceable. Lockheed Lightnings were added to the Unit and on 3 November the first overseas photographic reconnaissance of enemy held territory was flown over the Tarimbar Islands.


The Unit history recorded constant operational problems encountered with unsuitable aircraft. The situation did not improve until delivery of the first modified Mosquito aircraft in June 1944. The Unit became the 87 (PR) Squadron on 10 September 1944. Vincent (1982) gives an excellent account of the operations of the 87 Squadron in his book "Mosquito Monograph". After the war 87 Squadron was disbanded on 24 July 1946. Aircraft, men and equipment were posted to the Survey Flight which in turn became the Survey Squadron on 1 November 1946.


By the end of the Second World War plane tabling had been completely replaced and aerial photography was the only tool efficiently used for topographic mapping.


RAAF aerial photography continued in 1947 with detachments working in most states and in March 1948 the Squadron commenced operations under the title No. 87 (Survey) Squadron. In the period from 1 June 1947 to 18 June 1948 the Squadron was very active and photographed 328,000 square miles of Australia with 40,000 photographs.


In 1953 the Squadron carried out their last project, the photography of a large part of the Great Sandy Desert, completing the Noonkanbah sheet on 29 August. The Squadron was disbanded by the end of that year but a valuable asset in reconnaissance photography over a million square miles of the continent had been flown, mainly from Mosquito aircraft at scales from 1:45 000 to 1:50 000. The extent of photography coverage at this time is shown in Figure 2.



Survey Flight established.



No.1 Aerial Photographic Reconnaissance Unit (PRU) established.

September 1944

No. 1 PRU renamed No. 87 (PR) Squadron.



No. 87 (PR) Squadron disbanded and transferred to Survey Flight.

November 1946

Survey Flight renamed Survey Squadron.



No. 87 (Survey) Squadron established.

November 1949

Renamed No. 87 (PR) Squadron.

December 1953

No. 87 (PR) Squadron disbanded.


Table 1 : Chronology of RAAF Aerial Photography Units



Post 1953 Photography


In 1953 the RAAF sought approval for the creating of a special air survey organisation over and above the normal RAAF establishment on the basis that its operational expenses would be reimbursed from the money allocated for national development. Cabinet however decided to terminate the arrangement whereby RAAF undertook civilian mapping photography for the nation, and directed that contracts should be let to commercial air survey firms for any aerial photography required by Commonwealth Departments up to a limit of 120,000 pounds per annum.


With the transfer of aerial photography for mapping to the civilian sector, the RAAF limited its aerial photography operations to reconnaissance, surveillance and defence requirements. In 1961 all non restricted RAAF films were transferred to the Division of National Mapping for the sale of derivatives to public users. In 1973 however aerial photography operations in support of the RASVY mapping activities were recommenced with aerial photography from the high altitude Canberra bombers. Areas were flown in Western Australia with RC10 cameras with super wide angle lenses.


The photography was black and white at a scale of 1:138 500 from 40,000 ft. Later a number of areas were flown in the Northern Territory at a scale of 1:80 000 from 25,000 ft before the Canberra bombers were taken out of service in 1983. As replacement, over the next four years, 6 Sqn RAAF crewed a leased Learjet aircraft to take 1:65 000 scale photography from 20,000 ft for mapping purposes.


The first private Commonwealth aerial photography contracts were undertaken by Brown and Dureau and the Adastra aerial survey companies. In 1953/54 the sum of 85,000 pounds was spent on Commonwealth aerial photography contracts in New Guinea and Australia. Additionally a contribution of 12,900 pounds made to the State Mapping Authorities for photography of areas not covered by the Commonwealth program. This subsidy was at a rate of five shillings per square mile.


The following year similar Commonwealth contracts were let for 127,000 pounds and in 1955/56 for 113,000 pounds with additional payments each year to State authorities. However, difficulties were encountered with the cameras and in 1955 following adverse comment by State Authorities the National Mapping Council passed Resolution 109:


"That this Council notes that aerial photographic film supplied by the two private aerial survey companies to Government agencies in some cases contains distortions beyond the limits specified under contract and requests the Director of National Mapping to convey to these two companies that in future a more rigorous check will be kept on these distortions" (National Mapping Council 1955).


Commonwealth aerial photography for the R502 1:250 000 scale topographic map series continued on a contract basis with private sector contractors using mainly Fairchild K17 cameras until 1960 when the Division of National Mapping purchased the first Wild RC9 super wide angle cameras. These were supplied to contractors and standard coverage at a scale of 1:80 000 was commenced. The effect of the coverage provided by the super wide angle lens in the RC9 camera was to reduce the number of models per map area by approximately 75%, with similar economies in subsequent handling but required more skillful photo interpretation of map detail at the smaller scale. The state of the civilian industry as of 1 January 1960 is shown in Table 2.




Aerial Survey Cameras


Avro Anson


Lockheed Hudson

De Havilland Beaver

Williamson Eagle IX

Williamson  OSC

Fairchild K17

Wild RC5

Wild RC7

Wild RC8

Wild RC9

Zeiss RMK

Division of National Mapping













Dept External Affairs - Antarctic Division













Snowy Mountains

Hydro-Electric Authority 













Department of Lands,

New South Wales 













Department of Lands & Survey, Victoria 













Department of Lands,

South Australia 













Department of Lands & Survey, Western Australia 













Adastra Airways Pty Ltd














Table 2 : Aircraft and Cameras in use by Australian Civilian Mapping

Agencies as at1 January 1960 (National Development, 1960)


By 1960 a considerable area of Australia had been covered with aerial photography, much of it flown immediately after the war years and in 1963 the first cover of Australia with aerial photography had been completed, even though the photography of some areas had been taken with cameras showing large distortions. This photography however was becoming out of date, and in areas where intensive post war development was taking place, was totally inadequate in satisfying the requirements of various users (National Mapping Council, 1959). For example Lines (1962) found it necessary to use supplementary spot photography with hand held F24 cameras to upgrade information even for the initial compilation of R502 1:250 000 first edition maps.


Over the next fifteen years 15 private companies flew systematic E-W, 1:80 000 contract aerial photography over practically all of Australia, except for small pockets in Western Australia which were proving logistically difficult and the tip of Cape York, which had persistent cloud coverage.


In 1976 the Division of National Mapping, following successful American experience with high altitude jet aircraft chartered a Lear Jet aircraft and covered the remaining desert areas with North-South Wild RC10 photography centred over map sheets from 45,000 ft ASL at a scale of 1:152 000. This photography was planned to enable an orthophotomap covering an entire 1:50 000 scale map sheet to be produced from a single photograph. Problems were encountered in resolution of the final product and with the tip and tilts resulting from the roll and pitch of the aircraft. The short wing on the aircraft made it slow to react to flying corrections in the thin atmosphere at that altitude.


High altitude photography was flown in 1977 at 40,000 ft ASL (scale 1:138 500). The Lear Jet aircraft stability improved at this altitude but single photo coverage for a whole 1:50 000 map sheet was not attainable. Resolution and orientation again presented problems with some photographs but Australia had now been totally covered with aerial photography flown with metric cameras. Commonwealth aerial photography for topographic mapping continued with a chartered Learjet at a flying height of 25,000 ft for three more years before being replaced with a conventional Cessna 421C aircraft.


Satellite Imagery


The earliest satellite images of Australia were provided by the TIROS and NIMBUS series of weather satellites in the early 1960s. These were for meteorological purposes and were of no consequence to the Australian cartographer.


Space Photography


In the 1970s the situation began to change as manned satellite stations brought back film photography from space missions.


In 1974 a swathe of colour imagery from Cape Howe to Alice Springs was received in Australia from NASA for evaluation of its mapping potential. This photography was taken from the manned American Skylab III satellite in the winter of 1973 with an S190B earth terrain camera, using 5 inch Kodak S0-242 colour film. Flying time for this run was six minutes, the scale approximately 1:945 000, and with a focal length of 460mm, the ground cover was approximately 109 x 109 kilometres for each photograph.


The Large Format Camera, built by Itek, was flown by NASA during shuttle mission STS-17 in October 1984. Swathes across Australia were photographed from Shark Bay to Tasmania and along the Queensland coast. Good quality imagery with a resolution of about 10m per line pair was achieved on a 23 x 46 cm format. It was suitable for many applications but although both colour and black and white film were used the lack of systematic coverage inhibited its wider utilisation. Some of this imagery has however been used for the photogrammetric plotting of the Great Barrier Reef (Manning, 1987), where the large area coverage, 380 km x 190 km and the sound metric accuracy available were used to advantage.


The USSR has built up a bank of space photography from manned flights over Australia in SALYUT and SOYUZ satellites since 1975. The Zeiss Zena MKF-6 multispectral cameras were used in a number of these space vehicles. It consisted of a bank of six photographic film cameras each with a separate spectral range. At flying heights of 250 and 350 km the following parameters are applicable (Kraemer and Szangolies, 1986).


Photo Scale

1:2 million to 1:2.8 million

Area Photographed

70 km x 160 km by 100 km x 225 km

Ground Resolution       

13 m to 19 m


Recent Russian Kate series cameras (Kate 200, Kate 140 and KFA-1000) with larger formats have built up the coverage of about 90% of Australia at scales of 1:1 000 000, 1:500 000 and 1:200 000 respectively. Resolution is stated as ranging from 6m to 60m. This coverage provides high resolution imagery with stereoscopic overlap in either multiband or panchromatic modes. Some of the photography has been digitised and is available on Computer Compatible Tapes as raw or rectified data at resolutions of 5, 10 or 20 lines per mm (Technical and Field Surveys, 1987).


Scanned Imagery


One of the technology highlights of the 1970s was the series of Earth Resources Technology Satellites (ERTS) equipped with multi-spectral scanners (MSS). This new scanning technology showed the immense potential of a system which could produce virtually complete world coverage every 18 days with 80 metre pixel resolution. The first of the series, ERTS 1 (later LANDSAT 1) was launched by NASA on 25 July 1972 and MSS imagery of Australia was available that year in digital and photographic forms and the different spectral bands could also be merged to produce colour composites.


This imagery had a scale of approximately 1:1 million with a ground cover of 185 x 185 km per scene. Orbital path was sun sychronous in the morning with an inclination of nine degrees east of north, satellite flying height was 920 kilometres. The imagery was widely used for thematic cartography and geological exploration purposes.


In 1979 the Australian Landsat Station, now the Australian Centre for Remote Sensing (ACRES), was established to receive and distribute Australian imagery under license to the USA. Full coverage of Australia was achieved in 1980 and this is still updated every sixteen days. Currently both Landsat 4 and 5 are operational and carry MSS and Thematic Mapper (TM) sensors. They are flown at a lower altitude of 705 km but provide similar ground coverage which is on a 16 day cycle. However, reception of the 30 metre pixel TM imagery by ACRES has only been available in Australia on a limited basis using equipment developed by CSIRO and the Australian Mineral Industries Research Association.


In 1987/88 the Commonwealth Government approved a A$14 million upgrade of ACRES to enable the direct reception and processing of Landsat TM and the French SPOT satellite data (Gray et al, 1987). The Landsat program will continue into the 1990s under the operational control of the Earth Observation Satellite Company (EOSAT) and Landsat 6 is due for launch in 1991. In addition to an Enhanced Thematic Mapper (ETM) sensors with seven multispectral bands and 15 metre panchromatic capability, mission plans include the Sea Wide Sensor for ocean colour and temperature data, and a new thermal infrared capability. The ETM will allow for the first time easy co-registration of composites using 60 metre thermal infrared data, 30 metre multi spectral data and 15 metre panchromatic data.



Launch Date



23 July 1972

7 January 1978


22 January 1975

27 July 1983


5 May 1978

7 September 1983


16 July 1982

Part operational


1 March 1984

Fully operational



Lost at Launch


Table 3 : Landsat Operational Dates




In February 1986 the first of a new series of satellites, the System Probatoire Observation de la Terre (SPOT), was launched by the Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales (CNES) France. This satellite has been positioned to provide a repeat cycle of 26 days with a 117 km wide swath from the twin scanners viewing vertically from an altitude of 835 km. SPOT has the capability to produce either 10 metre panchromatic pixels or 20 metre multi spectral pixels. Importantly the cross track direction of the twin scanners can be programmed and stereoscopic imagery with quite strong internal geometry can be produced from different orbits. Ground cover for each scene is approximately 60 km x 60 km and orbit track is about 10 degrees east of north. The French company SPOT IMAGE operates on a commercial basis and areas can be programmed and purchased through ACRES.


The use of this imagery in Australia is still in its early days but indicates a significant step forward in technology. It has good potential for revision of small scale topographic maps, as planimetric accuracies suitable for 1:50 000 scale mapping are achievable. (Manning and Evans, 1988). Products are offered at different processing levels. Level lA is raw imagery with little correction at a scale of 1:400 000; 1B is near nadir imagery which has a number of geometric and radiometric corrections at a scale of 1:400 000; Level 2 imagery has radiometric and precision geometric corrections applied fitting the image to topographic map data. SPOT 2 is due for launch early in 1989 and SPOT 3 will have the added capability of readily producing merged 10 metre panchromatic and 20 metre multispectral products without loss of accuracy.


Radar Imaging Systems


Results from Australian tests with airborne Side Looking Airborne Radar (SLAR) and Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) in the 1970s did not warrant its widespread application for mapping. Similarly spaceborne SAR systems such as SIR-A and SIR-B provided some Australian data but again this did not prove suitable for medium scale topographic mapping (Trinder and Wise, 1987).


Japan launched their first experimental remote sensing satellite, MOS I in February 1987 with a MESSR push broom scanner and other sensors. Under an intergovernmental agreement, the ACRES receiving station is being equipped to receive this data for a test period of six months from mid 1988. Japan is also developing JERS-1 for launch in 1990. It will be a radar system and will operate across a 75 km swathe in the L band (23.5cm wave length) with a resolution of 18m.


The European Space Agency's Earth Resources Satellite ERS-1 is also due for launch in 1990. This satellite is equipped with instruments primarily designed to sense the ocean environment. The upgraded ACRES receiving station will be able to receive real time data from ERS-1, including the high bit rate data from the on board Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) instrument with a resolution of 30 metres. The Canadian RADARSAT is programmed for launch in the early 1990s and will provide data with 25m resolution across a 130 km swath.


Landsat MSS



Band 1(4)



Band 2(5)



Band 3(6)

Near IR


Band 4(7)

Near IR





Landsat TM



Band 1



Band 2



Band 3



Band 4

Near IR


Band 5

Near IR


Band 6



Band 7

Near IR





SPOT Multispectral



Band 1



Band 2



Band 3

Near IR





SPOT Panchromatic

Visible (green-red)



Table 4 : Spectral Wavelengths of current satellites


Future Trends


A feasibility study of a linear array digital camera to replace the standard aircraft borne analogue aerial camera has been undertaken by Wild Heerbrugg. Work on this approach is proceeding slowly and has been constrained by the high rate of data transfer required. In the interim, aerial photographs are increasingly being scan digitised to provide data for image analysis systems.


The next few years should see an increase in the number of earth observation satellites as a growing number of countries are planning to launch satellites. Each satellite operates with its own reference system, eg GRS for SPOT, WRS for Landsat. These satellites will carry an increasingly wide variety of sensors which will produce a requirement to be able to combine data sets from different satellites with other geographically oriented information.






Resolution Ground






Pixel (m)


Height (m)

Position (m)























Spacelab 1





















































Camera ATLAS-1









Stereo- MOMS























To be defined


Table 5 : Space Missions with Stereoscopic Imaging Capability





During the last sixty years an immense volume of aerial photogaphy of Australia has been flown mainly for photogrammetric purposes. It provides an important archive of the Australian physical environment and the changes that have taken place over time and is of great value to many disciplines. All Commonwealth Government photography taken by the Commonwealth Government is on safety film stored in controlled environments and photographic derivatives are available for public sale.


In the last fifteen years, an immense volume of space imagery has also been built up, much of it multispectral. The Landsat series of satellites, with a cycle of 16 days produce a huge amount of data in one system alone. Recent trends indicate that a plethora of satellite systems can be expected to produce high volumes of data over Australia in the next decade. This presents the user with a problem of how to absorb and integrate all this information.


Geocoding the data sets on common ground areas can provide a solution where data is produced for standard ground blocks by resampling the imagery from the individual satellite acquisition reference system. The data is then rotated and transformed to correspond to a standard geographic co-ordinate system, such as the Australian Map Grid. This makes possible the combination of data sets from different sensors in the one satellite or from different satellites, with other geographical based data sets. This is a common sense approach and currently under technological development by some companies (MacDonald, 1987). Geocoding is planned to be available for Landsat and SPOT data from ACRES in 1989.


The ability to integrate and holistically make use of all available remotely sensed data, even that of digitised analogue aerial photography, will allow the most effective use of the large volume of imagery shortly to become available in Australia.





"Aerial Photography", in Australasian Photo Review, 15 February 1919, p148-9, Melbourne.


AUSTRALIA, Department of National Development (1960) National  Report on Photogrammetry in Australia Annex B, Canberra.


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