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2: Principles of Remote Sensing

2. 2.1

PRINCIPLES OF REMOTE SENSING Is remote sensing a science or a technology?

The simple answer is both science and technology. Understanding remote sensing science is important if you are to interpret and benefit from the data that are recorded and delivered by the technology. Limitations to the technology, however, mean that we users cannot access all of the data that would, theoretically, provide us with ideal solutions. This section introduces sources of electromagnetic radiation and the next section explains the theory of how electromagnetic radiation interacts with Earth surface phenomena. Ultimately these interactions determine the signal recorded by a sensor. Section 4 will introduce you to the range of platforms and sensor configurations that have been launched and highlight some of the technical constraints on data acquisition and processing. Taken together these sections can be referred to as the remote sensing system (Figure 2.1).


Electromagnetic radiation

What is electromagnetic radiation (EMR)? What are its properties? Where does it come from? The first question is simple to answer: electromagnetic radiation is a form of energy. Remote sensing is concerned with the measurement and interpretation of EMR values. The other two questions require a bit more explanation.

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Figure 2.1: The source-target-sensor remote sensing system


Properties of electromagnetic radiation

Electromagnetic radiation (EMR) travels in the form of waves, and those EMR waves reflected by or emitted or backscattered from objects give us information about the objects themselves. It is fortunate for us that objects interact differently with EMR. As we will see later these interactions determine the level of energy recorded by a sensor. Let us start by exploring some of the properties of EMR. Plane waves are the forms of EMR wave energy in free space. If we want to be technical, then plane waves are characterised as having a constant phase over a plane perpendicular to the direction in which the wave is travelling. Plane waves may be described by wavelength (), amplitude (A) and phase (L) (Figure 2.2). Remote sensing is usually most concerned with wavelength.

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Figure 2.2: Wavelength, amplitude and phase of plane waves

Figure 2.3: The electromagnetic spectrum

Plane waves all travel at the velocity of light c, which is approximately 300 million metres per second (ms -1), and have wavelengths which range from 3 x10-9 m (gamma rays) through visible light (0.4-0.7 x 10-6m), to very long radio waves of 3 x106 m wavelength (Figure 2.3). As their velocity is constant then the frequency of plane waves is inversely proportional to their wavelength - that is, as the wavelength becomes shorter then more waves pass a point in a given time period so the measured frequency is greater. Visible and infrared remote sensing normally only use wavelength to denote the range of plane waves, but work in microwave remote sensing commonly employs both wavelength and frequency. Table 2.1 gives the wavelengths and, where appropriate, frequencies commonly found in remote sensing Note that the most commonly used units for optical remote sensing are micrometres (10-6m). You may also find reference to nanometers -9 (10 ). Converting between the two scales is straightforward. A wavelength of 0.4 micrometers is equivalent to 400 nanometers, such that the visible
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part of the EM spectrum is between 400 nm 700 nm. Optical remote sensing is a term used to describe remote sensing at visible and near infrared wavelengths; radar remote sensing operates at microwave frequencies.
Table 2.1: Wavelengths and frequencies used in satellite remote sensing EM region Ultra violet Visible Near infrared Very near infrared Shortwave infrared Middle infrared Thermal infrared Microwave X-band C-band L-band Wavelength <0.4m 0.4 - 0.7 m 0.7 - 1.5 m 0.7 - 1.5 m 1.5 - 2.5 m 2.5 - 8.0 m 8.0 - 14 m 10 - 300 mm 24 - 38 mm 38 - 75 mm 150 - 300 mm Frequency 1 - 12.5 GHz 8 - 12.5 GHz 4 - 8 GHz 1 - 2 GHz

note: 1 m = 10-6 m (1 micrometre = one millionth of a metre) 1 m = 1000 nm (1 micrometre = one thousand nanometres)


Sources of electromagnetic radiation

All bodies with temperatures above absolute zero (0K or -273oC) emit EM radiation. The temperature of the object determines the wavelength of maximum EM energy emission according to Wiens Displacement Law: max = a / T (Equation 2.1)

where max is the wavelength of maximum energy emission, T is the temperature of the object (deg K), and a is a constant (2898 m K). By using Wiens Law the temperature of an object can be measured remotely by observing its spectrum and identifying the wavelength of maximum energy emission (max). The hotter the body then the shorter the wavelength of maximum energy emission. For example, the max of an incandescent lamp with a filament at a temperature of 3000 K is about 1.0 m (very near infrared), while the max of the Sun with a surface temperature of c.6000 K is approximately 0.55 m (visible). max Lamp = 2898/3000 max Sun = 2898/6000 Wiens Displacement Law describes the relationship between temperature and the wavelength of maximum energy emission. However, it is apparent
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that objects emit energy over a spectrum of wavelengths. For example, the Sun emits maximum energy at visible wavelengths but it also emits thermal energy. If the source object is a perfectly emitting surface then we can apply another equation from physics to calculate the energy emitted at any wavelength. This equation is known as Planck's Radiation Law.
Figure 2.4: Wiens Displacement law: the relationship between the temperature of an object and the wavelength of maximum electromagnetic energy emission.

Continuous Self Assessed Exercise 2.1 (time: 30 minutes) Calculate the wavelength of: - the maximum energy emission for the Earth which has a surface temperature of approximately 288K - lava erupting from a volcano at 1100K Which of the following wavelengths would you use to measure the brightness temperature of sea surfaces? a) visible, b) short wave infrared, or c) thermal infrared? Answers to this exercise can be found in the 'Exercise Answers' section in the Contents menu.

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2.4.1 Blackbody radiation A blackbody is not necessarily black but an object whose emissivity () is 1: that is, it has perfect emittance and emits all the energy it absorbs. The Earth and the Sun are blackbodies. For a blackbody the emission of EM radiation at a wavelength is defined by Plancks Radiation Law:

E = 2hc2 / 5 * 1/e hc/kT -1

where, E h k c T = = = = = =

(Equation 2.2)

radiant energy (in Wm-2 A-1) Plancks constant (6.266 x 10-34 Js) Boltzmanns constant (1.38 x 10-23 JK1) velocity of light (3 x 108 ms-1) wavelength of energy () absolute temperature of the blackbody (deg K)

Equation 2.2 is written for one wavelength . It can be integrated for all wavelengths to give the total power radiated per unit area of a blackbody (E): E = 25k4 / 15c 2h3 * T4 (Equation 2.3)

in Wm-2. The first component of the right hand side of the equation consists entirely of constants (, k, c, h), so the equation can be simplified to: E = T4 (Equation 2.4)

which is the Stefan-Boltzmann Law and is the Stefan-Boltzmann constant (5.67 x 10-8 Wm-2K-4 ). However, Equation 2.4 should be written in full as: E = T4 (Equation 2.5)

to include the emissivity . A measurement of E will therefore give a measurement of a combination of T and . When a blackbody is being measured then = 1 so can be disregarded, but in most cases (for example, cirrus clouds) is less than 1 so its effects must be known before T can be calculated. Emissivities for typical objects at 300 K range from 0.90 for sandy soil, 0.95 for wet loamy soil, 0.98 for water and 0.99 for vegetation with a closed canopy (Curran, 1985). From Figure 2.5 it is clear that hotter bodies emit more energy and at a shorter wavelength than do cooler bodies.
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Figure 2.5: Spectral distribution of energy radiated from blackbodies at various temperatures (E ). Note: the total radiant exitance is given by the area under a spectral radiant exitance curve (E)

Source: modified from Lillesand and Kiefer (1994).

Does all this sound terribly complicated to you? No need to panic, youre not alone if it does. Very few end-users have the necessary background in physics to fully understand the importance of these equations at the first time of asking. For most purposes you can summarise these equations by saying that:

waves with a short wavelength have a high frequency waves with a short wavelength have high energy objects with a temperature above absolute zero radiate a spectrum of waves objects with a high temperature radiate more waves with a short wavelength total emitted energy increases exponentially with temperature

Two things which may help you to remember these principles are:
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when out walking it takes a lot more effort to climb up and down a series of short, steep hills than to wander over gently undulating terrain (waves with a high frequency/short wavelength have high energy). human eyesight has, not surprisingly, evolved to use energy radiated by the hottest and hence most powerful source of EM energy in our part of the universe, namely the Sun. It follows that the Sun must have peak emittance at short visible wavelengths (0.4m - 0.7m). The limitations of human eyesight are most obvious at night when the main source of visible light is unavailable. Other animals have developed different sensors for seeing e.g. bats use a sonic system.


Although most remote sensing systems rely on solar energy illuminating the Earths surface we should remember that that energy has first to travel from the Sun to the Earth surface and will be affected by the atmosphere it passes through. 2.4.2 Absorption of radiation by the atmosphere The simple geometry of a satellite remote sensing system (Figure 2.1) shows the relative positions of a source of radiation (the Sun), a target (the Earths surface) and a sensor on board a satellite. The space between these components is occupied by free space and the Earths atmosphere, and it is the latter which interferes with radiation as it passes from the Sun to the Earth and the Earth to the satellite sensor. The Earths atmosphere absorbs radiation at a wide range of wavelengths because of the large number of gases present in the atmosphere (Table 2.2).
Table 2.2: Absorption characteristics of major atmospheric gases Atmospheric gas Oxygen and ozone oxygen atoms and molecules ozone Carbon dioxide Chemical composition O, O2 O3 CO2 Wavelength of absorption

Water vapour

H2 O

< 0.1 m 0.1 - 0.3 m and 0.32 - 0.36 m strong absorption at 15 m, weaker absorption at 2.5 m and 4.5 m strong absorption at 6 m, some absorption at 0.6 - 2.0 m and 3.0 m.

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Gases absorb radiation at specific wavelengths which modifies the characteristics of incoming solar radiation and radiation reflected from targets towards satellite sensors. Not surprisingly, remote sensing missions avoid these absorption areas and exploit those wavelengths which have high transmission through the atmosphere. Figure 2.6 shows that the visible/near infrared, middle infrared and thermal infrared regions all feature windows of high transmission in a spectrum which in other parts shows high absorption of radiation.
Figure 2.6: Atmospheric windows for remote sensing

The Ozone hole Whilst on the subject of atmospheric absorption I hope that you dont mind if I indulge myself with a little bit of topical science, namely the discovery of the ozone hole by satellite remote sensing (Figure 2.7 illustrates the growth of the ozone hole 1979-1985). It is widely known that stratospheric ozone depletion due to human activities has resulted in an increase of ultraviolet radiation on the Earth's surface. Ozone depletion has been monitored by the Total Ozone Mapping Satellite (TOMS) mission based on the observation that less radiation at very short ultraviolet wavelengths (0.1 m 0.3 m) was being absorbed by the atmosphere, most significantly over the arctic regions. Ozone absorbs UV radiation and so less absorption means that more UV radiation is transmitted through to the Earths surface. This is leading to increasing concern about the possibility of skin cancers for people exposed to these higher doses. To find out more about UV radiation and how it affects life on Earth visit the Earth Observatory web site :
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2 : Principles of Remote Sensing The article describes some effects on human health, aquatic ecosystems, agricultural plants and other living things, and explains how much ultraviolet radiation we are currently getting and how we measure it.
Figure 2.7: the growth of the Antarctic ozone hole

2.4.3 Active and passive remote sensing So far in this unit we have only identified the Sun as a source of EMR for remote sensing. The term active remote sensing relates to the use of an artificial source of EMR emitted by the sensor to illuminate the target. The sensor then records the reflected energy as it has been altered by the target. The sonic system of the bat is an example of active remote sensing since the bat is both the source of and sensor for the signal. Most active systems for remote sensing are radar systems which operate at microwave wavelengths. Campbell called this the third model of remote sensing. The first model involves the measurement of reflected solar radiation whilst the second model relies on measuring thermal energy emitted from the Earths surface. Atmospheric windows determine that successful Earth observation by passive remote sensing is only possible at particular wavelengths within visible, near-, middle- and thermal infrared regions of the EM spectrum. In this unit you will study passive remote sensing systems at visible and near infrared wavelengths. What you now need to understand is how different targets interact with EMR at these wavelengths so that we can determine

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which properties of the Earths surface can be measured by remote sensing studies.
Continuous Self Assessed Exercise 2.2 a) Take another look at Figure 2.1, the remote sensing system. The diagram only represents passive models of remote sensing. Draw a diagram to represent an active remote sensing system. Label your diagram with the source of radiation. b) Redraw Figure 2.1 to distinguish between the two passive models of remote sensing. Label your diagram with sources of radiation (and their wavelengths of maximum emittance) and wavelengths of high transmittance through the atmospheric (atmospheric windows). Answers can be found in the 'Exercise Answers' section of the Contents menu.

2.5. Energy interaction with targets

Where EM energy is incident upon any object there are three fundamental energy interactions that are possible. Various fractions of the incident energy are reflected, absorbed and/or transmitted (Figure 2.8). Applying the principle of conservation of energy we can state the interrelationship between these interactions as EI = ER + EA + ET where EI denotes the incident energy, ER denotes the reflected energy, EA denotes the absorbed energy and ET denotes the transmitted energy, with all energy components being a function of wavelength.

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Figure 2.8: Interaction of electromagnetic energy with a target

Three points concerning this relationship should be noted: First, the proportions of energy reflected, absorbed and transmitted will vary for different targets depending on their material type and condition. These differences permit us to distinguish between objects in an image; bright objects, such as sand, have higher reflectance than dull objects, such as tarmac. Second, the proportion of reflected, absorbed and transmitted energy for a target will vary with wavelength. For example, an object with high absorption at green and red wavelengths and high reflectance at `blue wavelengths will appear with a blue colour to the human eye (Figure 2.9a). Green objects such as grass have higher reflectance at green wavelengths than at blue or red wavelengths (Figure 2.9b). Finally, let us consider the relative reflectance from a yellow object. Yellow is the product of EM energy at red and green wavelengths, hence a yellow object will have high reflectance at these wavelengths and relatively high absorption at blue wavelengths (Figure 2.9c). This is the principle of multispectral reflectance. Figure 2.10 illustrates combinations of primary (visible) wavelengths.

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Figure 2.9: Relative proportions of blue, green and red EMR to produce (a) blue, (b) green and (c) yellow

Figure 2.10: Primary colours and their combinations

Third, all remote sensing systems measure the fraction of reflected energy for specific illumination and view angles. The full term for a measurement at a specified geometry is the bidirectional reflectance, such that the set of measurements at all geometries describes the bidirectional reflectance distribution function (BRDF). However, in this unit we will use the term reflectance for simplicity and, unless otherwise stated, we will assume sensor viewing a target at nadir.

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Continuous Self Assessed Exercise 2.3 (time: 25 minutes) Tick the box that best describes the appearance of the sea when viewed from an aircraft? (Hue) Blue (Intensity) Bright Dark



Use the same approach to describe other common objects such as that fashionable lime shirt wo rn by your colleague opposite or the (not so) gorgeous brown curtains at your grandmas house. Explain the appearance of each object in terms of the amount of energy absorbed and reflected at blue, green and red wavelengths. Use the same approach to explain the appearance of concrete, grass and trees found on the aerial photograph of Buckingham Palace, London (Figure 2.11). Answers can be found in the 'Exercise Answers' section in the Contents menu.

Figure 2.11: Colour aerial photograph of Buckingham Palace, London

Before getting too carried away with the amazing powers of human eyesight you should remember that your vision is restricted to the visible part of the spectrum. You are unable to exploit differences in the reflectance of targets at other wavelengths such as infrared or ultraviolet.
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However, the principle of conservation of energy applies at all wavelengths and therefore by building instruments that record the level of reflected radiation we are able to exploit the information content across the entire EM spectrum. In the next section you will investigate the reflectance, absorption and transmittance properties of soil, water and vegetated surfaces at visible and near-infrared wavelengths. Before reading the next section lets have a quick preview of the differences in reflectance that you might expect to find in Earth observation data.
Practical Exercise 2.1 (time: 45 minutes)
Idrisi for Windows v2 Idrisi 32 Displaying visible and In this exercise you will display near infrared Earth and interpret single band Earth observation data observation images. Displaying visible and near infrared Earth observation data


What you have learnt in this section

remote sensing measures electromagnetic radiation all objects are sources of electromagnetic radiation the Sun is the most powerful source for Earth observation at visible wavelengths Earth surfaces radiate energy at thermal wavelengths electromagnetic energy is reflected, absorbed or transmitted when it interacts with a target Earth observation is restricted to three spectral windows due to absorption by atmospheric gases

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