A special relationship has always existed between GIS and remote sensing, and it goes back to the very beginning of our modern information technology. In the 1960s and 1970s, computer systems for GIS were big, expensive, and very slow mainframes using punched cards, but nearly all the foundation data layers in these early systems came either directly or indirectly from imagery. Right from the start, GIS and remote sensing were complementary, like two sides of the same coin. They were coevolving together.
In 1972, a revolution happened with the launch of Landsat—the first commercial earth observation imaging satellite. It continuously orbited the earth and captured a new image of the same spot about every 16 days. Because it was so high up, it gave us an entirely different picture of our planet and its patterns. It provided not only a new view; it gave us a new vision of the possibility of what GIS could become. And it started a revolution in commercial earth observation that continues today and is exploding now with hundreds—and soon thousands—of smaller satellites, microsatellites, video cameras from space, high-altitude drones, and more.
So where are GIS and remote sensing—these two close allies for more than 50 years—going next?
For one thing, there’s a big emphasis now on simplicity and speed. It’s clear that the future belongs to the simple and quick. We’re seeing that modern technology is harnessing this amazing array of globally distributed sensors into what is popularly referred to as the Internet of Things, a vast collection of dynamic, live information streams that are feeding into and becoming the heart of web GIS. Plus, this network operates in real time, giving us access to what we might call the “Internet of All My Things”—and all on our own devices through a new geoinformation model.
Although the technology powering this concept is advanced, we comprehend it in practice because we understand pictures. Einstein famously said, “If I can’t see it, I can’t understand it.” We know something when we can see it.
And now, all of these rapidly changing developments combining imagery and spatial analyses are opening up new chapters in the history of GIS, as society is awakening to the power of geography and the intuitive understanding that imagery helps us “see” in all its forms.
We like to say that the map of the future is an intelligent image.