Top Stories
Top Stories
Top news stories from Sensors & Systems online magazine.
Observing Earth Today and Tomorrow: A National Plan

Humans have been observing Earth for a very long time simply because the conditions of the Earth are basic to our survival and our prosperity. Even the most ancient written records are filled with accounts of great floods, famines, and earthquakes. When to plant and when to harvest, how to use precious water resources most effectively, and ways to avoid natural disasters are all age-old challenges that have encouraged Earth observation from the beginning of civilization.

Observing Earth became more systematic as society became more complex. Long-term observations of Earth’s tides, weather averages, and prevailing winds enabled local sailing conditions to be forecast with increased confidence. Observations of stream water flow were ­­— and still are — crucial to farmers and communities who depend on irrigated crops. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the world’s leading nations sent out extended expeditions in the name of science to observe the oceans, lands, plants, and animals of Earth’s most remote regions. Cook, Humboldt, and Darwin are famous names from this period of Earth observation.

The modern concept of Earth observation is the gathering of detailed information about the planet’s physical, chemical and biological systems by networks of in situ (“in place”) instruments on the ground (e.g. streamgages, seismometers, meteorological stations) and remote sensing technologies positioned in air or space (commonly, photography, radar, or lidar in aircraft; electromagnetic sensors in satellites).

Optimizing resources for Earth observation

Fundamental knowledge of the land and its resources is a basic need for effective government and a productive economy in any nation. More than 30 countries now have Earth observing satellites, reflecting a wide range of national priorities around the world for environmental monitoring and economic growth.

In the United States, the federal government invests about $3.5 billion annually in civil Earth observations and data across multiple agencies, while leveraging related investments that are also made by state, local and tribal governments, academia, and industry. The U.S. government is the largest provider of environmental and Earth-system data in the world. The U.S. Geological Survey, a bureau of the Department of the Interior, is a major contributor to this mission.

The information derived from Earth observations supplies the foundation for scientific advances in many fields and enables numerous federal agencies and partners to carry out their missions. Federal investments in various aspects of Earth observation are conservatively estimated to add $30 billion to the U.S. economy each year by providing Americans with critical knowledge about natural resources, climate and weather, disaster events, land-use change, ecosystem health, ocean trends, and many other phenomena.

Since Earth observation is provided through public funding, the data are made open to the public as much as possible to advance human knowledge and enable private industry to provide value-added commercial services.

As the Nation’s Earth observation capacity has grown, so has the complexity and challenge of assuring its most effective use. In 2010, Congress charged the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) with establishing a mechanism to ensure greater coordination among the 11 departments and agencies of the federal government that are funded to conduct Earth observation programs.

In response, OSTP recently released a National Plan for Civil Earth Observations that aims to maximize the value of Earth observation data collected by federal agencies. The Plan is a blueprint for future federal investments and strategic partnerships in Earth observing systems. It lays out federal priorities and supporting actions to manage Earth observation systems through periodic assessments, interagency planning, and international collaboration.

USGS in the National Plan

The plan includes a list of 145 high-impact Earth observation systems. The top 15 systems form a select top tier and are ranked in order of importance, according to carefully identified priorities. USGS systems make up three of the top 15.

First on the prioritized list is the Global Position System (GPS). In second place is the national weather radar network, Next Generation Weather Radar (NEXRAD). The USGS-related programs that follow are Landsat (ranked 3rd), airborne lidar mapping (8th), and the USGS streamgage network (13th).


Landsat is a joint effort of USGS and NASA that spans four decades. First launched in 1972, the Landsat series of Earth observing satellites has produced the longest, continuous record of Earth’s land surface as seen from space. NASA launched the latest Landsat mission, Landsat 8, in February 2013. Landsat 8 works in tandem with the older Landsat 7 to provide data every eight days for any spot on the Earth’s land masses, supporting water managers, agricultural commodities markets, and scientists around the globe.

Airborne lidar mapping

The primary goal of the 3D Elevation Program (widely known as 3DEP) partnership led by the USGS is to systematically collect 3D elevation data nationwide using lidar, a remote sensing detection system that works on the principle of radar but uses light from a laser. The enhanced accuracy of the data will help communities cope with natural hazards and disasters (e.g. floods, landslides), support infrastructure, promote agricultural success, strengthen environmental decision-making, and bolster national security.

USGS Streamgage Network

USGS, the largest provider of water information in the world, works in partnership with more than 850 federal, state, tribal, and local agencies to collect streamflow information at more than 8,000 streamgages nationwide. Streamgages, like bridges and dams, are a crucial part of the Nation’s water infrastructure. Reliable streamflow information serves many purposes including drinking water management, irrigation withdrawals, hydroelectric power production, scientific investigation, and, particularly, flood warnings and forecasts.

Other USGS Earth observation networks

Among the 16 important USGS programs listed in tier 2 are the Advanced National Seismic System; the Global Seismic Network; the National Phenology Network; Unmanned Aircraft Systems; USGS Geomagnetic Observatories; and USGS National Groundwater Stations.Earth observation tomorrow

As the world’s population surpasses seven billion people, the influence of human society on the planet is increasing. In fact, scientists often say that the present geologic epoch is the Anthropocene, the age in which humanity has begun to have a significant impact on the planet. Observing the Earth in all its complexity with greater precision and insight than ever before will help us better understand how human activities are affecting vital Earth systems.

A 2007 National Academy of Sciences vision statement speaks to the potential of sustained Earth observation: “Understanding the complex, changing planet on which we live, how it supports life, and how human activities affect its ability to do so in the future is one of the greatest intellectual challenges facing humanity. It is also one of the most important challenges for society as it seeks to achieve prosperity, health, and sustainability.”

Learn more

National Plan for Civil Earth Observations

Group on Earth Observations

TouchShare Develops a Geospatial Collaboration and Visualization App for the Microsoft Windows Store

TouchShare (formerly known as TouchTable, Inc.), the leader in next-generation geospatial collaboration solutions, announces the beta release of TouchShare Win 8 during the Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference and Esri User Conference. TouchShare Win 8 incorporates Microsoft’s sleek Windows 8 design language with TouchShare’s patent-pending collaboration technology. The result, a highly interactive app that empowers decision makers, knowledge experts and in-field users to engage in a synchronized discussion – adding insight, contributing data, and altering a shared view in real-time.

USGS to Host Congressional Briefing: Safer Communities, Stronger Economies - in 3D

Outdated and inconsistent elevation data cost lives and hinder prosperity across our Nation. Current and accurate 3D elevation data are essential to help communities cope with natural hazards, support infrastructure, ensure agricultural success, strengthen environmental decision making and bolster national security. Flood and landslide maps are just a few of the hundreds of applications benefiting from enhanced lidar data.  A coordinated effort among Federal, State, local government and the private sector could meet our country’s needs for high-quality, 3D elevation data in just 8 years. Come learn how the USGS and its partners are working to assemble and apply better data to keep citizens safe and help America thrive.

ARENA Funds CSIRO to Map Wave Energy Potential in Australia

The Australian Renewable Energy Agency today announced $1.3 million funding for CSIRO to undertake an innovative wave resource mapping and modelling project.

HERE is the Official Map of Red Bull

HERE, a Nokia company, has been named the Official Map of Red Bull. The Red Bull Media House will now use HERE maps across all of its digital channels as part of the inspiring content it delivers to millions around the world.

Farmer Heroes Manage Nutrients On Farm

Nutrient pollution caused by high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus originates from many sources including, but not limited to, fertilizers and manure from agriculture and soil erosion.

SeaBotix AUV Completes Underwater Exercise

The SeaBotix vLBV300 ROV participated in a MCM test exercise with two small combat rubber raiding craft (CRRC) comprising of the vLBV and an AUV, were launched from a C-130 Aircraft using a parachute to the ocean off Southern California held by Explosive Ordnance Disposal Training and Evaluation Unit One  in San Diego. US Navy EOD technicians followed the exercise as the test was taking place.

Terrago Brings Mobile Note Sharing and Collaboration to the Edge of the Enterprise

IDC predicts that by 2015, 37% of the workforce — approximately 1.3 billion workers — will be considered mobile. To help organizations truly harness the mobile workforce, unprecedented availability of geographic data, rise of cloud-based services and explosive growth of location-enabled devices, TerraGo, a pioneer of geospatial collaboration software, introduces TerraGo Edge, an open collaboration solution for mobile workflows that immediately syncs field data with headquarters and other mobile workers.

Lockheed Martin Selected for U.S. Air Force's Satellite Hosted Payload Initiative

Lockheed Martin [NYSE: LMT] has been competitively selected for the U.S. Air Force’s Hosted Payload Solutions (HoPS) initiative, which is aimed at integrating some government payloads – electronics and sensors packages designed for specific missions – on commercial satellites. Hosted payloads share satellite launch, propulsion, power and other services, as well as some of their costs.

Fugro Launches Seastar XP2

Fugro Satellite Positioning released its Seastar XP2 PPP GNSS augmentation service on July 1, 2014, which provides increased redundancy for mission-critical offshore GNSS position and navigation applications.

ING Robotic Aviation Works to Develop Small Robotic Aircraft Systems

ING Robotic Aviation is partnering with ASG Mapping to rigorously assess and develop the application of small robotic aircraft systems for gathering high quality, positionally accurate, and interoperable geospatial data.

Woolpert to Provide Aerial Photography and Mapping Services for West Virginia

Woolpert, a national geospatial, infrastructure management and design firm headquartered in Dayton, announced that it has been awarded a one-year contract with the West Virginia Department of Transportation, Division of Highways to provide on-call aerial photography and mapping services to support the design of roadway and bridge projects. The agreement, valued at up to $750,000 in the first year, may be extended for an additional one-year term.

Harnessing Observations and Data About our Earth

The White House Office of Science & Technology Policy (OSTP) released a National Plan for Civil Earth Observations that aims to maximize the value of observations collected by Federal agencies of the Earth’s land surfaces, oceans, and atmosphere. The Plan is a blueprint for future Federal investments in and strategic partnerships to advance Earth observing systems that help protect life and property, stimulate economic growth, maintain homeland security, and advance scientific research and public understanding. 

URISA Recommends the Addition of Addresses as a Framework Data Theme

The URISA Board of Directors recently recommended that the Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC) add addresses as an eighth framework data theme to the National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI), and, in support of that, incorporate the FGDC address data standard into the Geographic Information Framework Data Content Standard. In addition, URISA recommends that the FGDC specify procedures for adding other new data themes to the NSDI, and proposes criteria to assure that new data themes will be significant, well-defined, and consistent with other NSDI data themes.

OGC Calls for Public Comment on Candidate Standard for Encoding Coverages in JPEG2000

The Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC®) membership seeks public comment on the candidate OGC GML Application Schema - Coverages – JPEG2000 Coverage Encoding Extension (abbreviated as “GMLCOV for JPEG2000”). This candidate standard can be downloaded from

Professional Services Team Helps Free Enterprises from Proprietary Geospatial Solutions

Boundless, the leading provider of open source geospatial software and services, is pleased to announced a new professional services offering. The Migration Assessment professional services package is designed to help companies make the transition to open source solutions.

SSTL Wins Best Aerospace and Defence Company at the Made in the UK Awards

Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL) has won the Best Aerospace and Defence company award at Insider’s first ever Made in the UK National finals, held in Liverpool yesterday as part of the International Festival for Business 2014.

Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) and Wiley Partner to Launch New Open Access Journal

John Wiley and Sons Inc. and the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) announced today the launch of the Society’s first fully open access journal: Geo: Geography and Environment. Geo positions the RGS-IBG and Wiley as world leaders in the publication of geographical research. Geo will begin accepting submissions from July 24th.

1Spatial Awarded Major UK Ministry Of Defence Aeronautical Contract

1Spatial plc, the spatial big data company, has been awarded a significant long-term contract by the Ministry of Defence (MOD) on behalf of the No1 Aeronautical Information Documents Unit ("AIDU").

Esri and European Schoolnet Partner to Deliver Geographic Education Internationally

School systems across Europe will soon have access to the world's leading online mapping software for delivering better geographic education to the classroom. Esri has signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with European Schoolnet, an organization that works with multiple ministries of education to bring innovation to teaching and learning throughout Europe.

Bluesky Tree Map Helps Identify Diseases in UK Trees

Bluesky, creator of the first ever National Tree Map, is working with researchers at the University of Leicester to investigate the use of airborne mapping systems to identify diseases in trees. The health of UK forestry has been in the news for many years with Sudden Oak Death, Dutch Elm and more recently Ash Die Back and Red Band Needle Drop all generating headlines. Funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and supported by Forest Research, the study will investigate the use of aerial photography, thermal imaging and airborne laser mapping systems to improve the identification of diseases, determine the accuracy of identification and inform responses to disease outbreaks.

Sensors Help Track the Breakup of Arctic Summer Sea Ice

As sea ice begins to melt back toward its late September minimum, it is being watched as never before. Scientists have put sensors on and under ice in the Beaufort Sea for an unprecedented campaign to monitor the summer melt.

NASA Kicks Off Field Campaign to Probe Ocean Ecology, Carbon Cycle

NASA embarks this week on a coordinated ship and aircraft observation campaign off the Atlantic coast of the United States, an effort to advance space-based capabilities for monitoring microscopic plants that form the base of the marine food chain.

Doubling Radar Vision of Earth

Following a contract signed with Arianespace today, the second Sentinel-1 satellite is now set to join its identical twin sister in orbit in early 2016, optimising the mission’s global coverage to manage the environment and improve everyday lives.

Ten-Year Endeavor: NASA's Aura Tracks Pollutants

NASA's Aura satellite, celebrating its 10th anniversary on July 15, has provided vital data about the cause, concentrations and impact of major air pollutants. With instruments providing key measurements of various gases - including two built and managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory: the Tropospheric Emission Spectrometer (TES) and Microwave Limb Sounder (MLS) -- Aura gives a comprehensive view of one of the most important parts of Earth -- the atmosphere.

Phoenix Aerial Systems Proudly Announces a New Class of LiDAR Mapping Technology

Phoenix Aerial Systems, a leading manufacturer of LiDAR mobile mapping systems, announced today the launch of the world’s first survey-grade LiDAR system for small-unmanned aircraft. The innovative system called the “Phoenix AL2” was designed to meet the needs of an emerging UAV surveying market in terms of precision, cross-platform flexibility and weight optimization.

Land and Water Conservation Fund a Powerful Economic Engine

The activities of the Department of the Interior contributed $360 billion to the U.S. economy in 2013, supporting more than two million jobs across the country, says Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell.

Rolta's Wholly Owned Subsidiary, Rolta Americas LLC, Raises USD 300 Million

Rolta India Limited ("Rolta") today announced the successful pricing of 8.875% Senior Notes (the "Notes") in the international markets, aggregating to USD 300 million by its wholly owned subsidiary, Rolta Americas LLC. This offering was oversubscribed by more than 8 times with Order Book of over USD 2.4 billion with demand from a high quality investor base (over 200 accounts globally), split among asset managers (79%), banks (12%), and others (9%). The offering was well-subscribed across geographies, with Asia contributing to 47% of the demand, US contributing to 35% of the demand and European investors accounted for 18% of demand.

UrtheCast and NanoRacks To Install Earth Observation Cameras On NASA Segment Of Space Station

UrtheCast Corp. announced that pursuant to its agreement with NanoRacks, LLC it plans to dramatically expand its Earth Observation data stream by operating state-of-the-art sensors on the NASA segment of the International Space Station (ISS).

Japan's Rising-2 Earth Observation Microsatellite Captures First Imagery

Microsatellite Rising-2 has succeeded in capturing high precision images of the earth's surface. Using a High Precision Telescope (HPT), it has successfully taken color images at a spatial resolution of 5m, the highest in the world among 50kg-class satellites.