A joint programme established by the United Nations and the
European Space Agency (ESA) to teach advanced remote-sensing
technologies is paying off for Earth observation specialists
in Chile and other Latin American countries.

The UN/ESA Course Follow-up Programme, established in 1998, is
being coordinated by the UN’s Office for Outer Space Affairs
(OOSA) in Vienna, and ESA’s ESRIN facility in Frascati, Italy.
Its aim is to provide national institutions with follow-on
support for remote sensing applications in ongoing sustainable
development activities.

In 1999, the programme started to bring together government
and university researchers from Bolivia, Argentina and Chile
with ESA specialists for a series regional seminars and
pilot projects for training in various Earth observation
technologies. Much of the training centred on interferometric
techniques for synthetic aperture radar, combining two radar
images of the same spot of the Earth taken at different times
from slightly different angles and analysing the phase

The programme finished in June, but for Carlos Pattillo, the
project leader and director of Chile’s Centre for the Study
of Remote Sensing and Geographic Information Systems (CPR&SIG),
in Santiago, the training provided by ESA Earth scientists will
have a lasting regional impact: "The countries who participated
in the programme now have in-house technology to use
interferometry as a normal technique for other national
projects. More importantly, a group of professionals in these
countries has up-to-date knowledge to teach these technologies
to others."

In Chile the training allowed the Antarctic Institute of Chile
(INACH) to start a facility for interferometry processing open
to scientists in the region who are interested in ice and
glacier studies. This takes advantage, Pattillo says, of an
agreement signed between ESA and the German Aerospace Centre
(DLR) for operations at Chile’s Bernardo O’Higgins Antarctic
Base. The base is a receiving station for data from ESA’s
ERS, the U.S. Landsat and Canada’s Radarsat programmes, and
supports German Antarctic research.

"The INACH facility is getting our permanent support to teach
scientists interested in using interferometry and to solve any
technical problems that they may encounter," Pattillo said.

University programme goes commercial

The Chilean company grew out of an academic programme at the
Catholic Pontifical University in Santiago. At the time the
UN/ESA programme was launched in Latin America, Pattillo was
helping to create an interdisciplinary programme dedicated to
the development of remote-sensing techniques and applications.

Without any computer hardware and software, private and
corporate support was solicited to get the program off the
ground in 1998. Since then, more than 30 theses have been
completed on remote sensing and GIS subjects. Five of those
were completed by students who were allowed to participate
from other universities.

The university programme also ran a series of technology-
transfer projects to help private companies and governmental
institutions implement the technologies being taught in the
classrooms. These projects were financed by interested
organization, and brought the university into closer contact
with ESA, France’s Aerospace Remote Sensing Development Group
and CNES, the French space agency.

"With their assistance and agreements of understanding and
cooperation, we developed a variety of training courses and
international seminars," Pattillo said.

The academic programme, however, hit some organisational snags.
Except for paying the salaries of two professionals, the
university did not provide any operational funding for the
remote-sensing projects; everything had to be financed by the
pilot projects, including courses and theses. The university
also decided to re-organise these types of programmes, handing
over administrative responsibilities to one of the school’s
faculties. The programme, renamed the Remote Sensing and GIS
Centre, was then hit with a 20 percent budget cut, hindering
the capability of the Centre to compete with other enterprises.

Pushed by these administrative problems, Pattillo and his
faculty decided to form a private company and formally
established CPR&SIG in January with a staff of seven full-time

Key services

The now-privatised Centre uses Earth observation imagery from a
variety of sources:

  • Landsat Thematic Mapper (TM) and Enhanced Thematic Mapper
    (ETM) images acquired by the Argentina

  • National Commission on Space Activities and Brazil’s National
    Institute for Space Research;

  • SPOT High Resolution Visible (HRV) images from France’s Spot

  • ERS-1 and -2 images from ESA’s ESRIN facility in Italy and
    the O’Higgins Antarctic Base;

  • Synthetic aperture radar imagery from Canada’s Radarsat
    International and the Canada Centre for Remote Sensing;

  • IKONOS images;
  • Aerial photography.

    The company’s main lines of imagery-based services are natural-
    resources assessment and monitoring using ortho-rectified
    satellite images, imagery that has been processed to remove
    angles and other image distortions. The company also offers
    integrated solutions combining satellite imagery and
    geographical information systems (GIS) — information derived
    from satellite images that is normalized and managed together
    with other sources of information to provide end users with a
    system that can be easily updated and controlled.

    Environmental applications for the Centre’s services include:
    forest fire detection and evaluation; analysis of soil erosion
    after forest clear cutting; studies of water sediment and
    eutrophication, the process by which nutrients dissolve in
    water and artificially stimulate plant growth; and,
    environmental baseline studies for urban planning and civil

    Recent Projects

    Among some recent work conducted by the Centre has been the
    "Environmental Facets" project, performed for Chilean
    Ministry of Public Works. According to Pattillo, it involved
    developing consistent zoning regulations in the country that
    would consider the impact of the environment on civil
    infrastructure and, conversely, the impact of a civil
    infrastructure on the local ecosystems. In this project,
    satellite images from Landsat and SPOT were used to assess
    vegetation types and the protection factor of soils in
    potential erosion problems.

    A three-year-long project has been the study of dunes over the
    coastal zone of central Chile. In this one, SPOT images was
    used to assess environmental changes, including the loss of
    vegetation and the reactivation of sand dunes, caused by
    industry and urban growth in fragile areas formed by old dunes
    plains. This project has been financed by Chile’s National
    Science Fund with the cooperation of France’s National Centre
    for Scientific Research and a research project with the
    University of Nantes. CPR&SIG is currently working on a
    follow-up program to use imagery from ESA’s ERS and Envisat
    satellites to analyse the physical characteristics of the
    dunes environments.

    Other projects include the use of Landsat images for chlorophyll
    assessment in bodies of water, pollution of coastal zones by the
    iron industry in northern Chile, Radarsat images for evaluating
    the environmental condition of rangelands in southern Chile,
    and ERS interferometry for updating maps and generating digital
    elevation models.

    What needs to be done

    Although Pattillo has no doubts about the positive impact such
    projects have had both in Chile and in other nearby countries,
    much more needs to be accomplished, he said.

    "A lot of pilot projects have been done, but there are still
    no operational projects underway due mainly to the lack of a
    critical mass of trained professionals," Pattillo explained.

    Pattillo outlined his intent to focus international
    participation on carrying out one or two operational projects,
    and in forming permanent training facilities in each Latin
    American country. He said that the Latin American Remote
    Sensing Society (SELPER), a regional association of imagery
    specialists of which ESA is a special member, has been
    promoting actively the use of satellite remote sensing with
    assistance from ESA. Pattillo, who serves as SELPER’s
    representative in Chile, noted that the association was formed
    in 1981 and currently has chapters in every Latin American

    "Through SELPER-Chile, we have encouraged Chilean professionals
    to use remote sensing and there are nearly 90 SELPER associates
    here alone that could benefit from a permanent training
    facility," Pattillo said. "Once again, ESA’s help will be
    necessary to keep focusing the activities in this direction.
    Our company will continue its training activities, but we
    think that this effort should be undertaken in a bigger scale,
    and that means at a national level with formal resources from
    the government."

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    [Image 1:
    A large part of Bolivia is the so-called Altiplano, an 800-km
    long and 130-km wide region lying between the Cordillera
    Occidental and the Cordillera Oriental. In the northern part
    of the Altiplano, where the bulk of the population and
    industry of Bolivia is found, is Lake Titicaca, the highest
    large, navigable lake in the world. Located at an altitude
    of 3804 m with a depth exceeding 300 m, the lake separates
    Bolivia from Peru. The southern part of the Altiplano plateau
    is arid with saline soils.

    Lake Poopo, the green lake, is 300 km southeast of Lake
    Titicaca and is one of many saline lakes on the region. This
    lake was dramatically polluted in February 2000 by an
    accidental 39 000-barrel oil spill. Its green colour is due
    to its shallow waters.

    Chile starts approximately at Lake Poopo’s latitude and extends
    as a narrow 200-km wide strip of land southwards, along the
    Pacific Ocean. The northern part of Chile visible in the image
    is the Atacama Desert, the world’s driest, with parts where
    rain has never been recorded and the only precipitation is in
    the form of fog. The desert, a series of salt basins that
    cannot support any vegetation, is flanked on one side by
    Pacific coastal ranges and on the other by the snow-capped
    peaks of the Andes.

    Technical Information:

    Instrument: Medium Resolution Imaging Spectrometer (MERIS)
    Date of Acquisition: 23 April 2002
    Orbit number: 00322
    Instrument features: Full resolution image (300-meter resolution)

    Credits: ESA

    [Image 2:
    A 3-D digital elevation model done with interferometric
    techniques using tandem images acquired over northern Chile
    by ERS-1 and -2. Visible is an area from Chungara Lagoon to
    El Lauca National Reserve at the south of the model.

    Credits: CPR&SIG

    [Image 3:
    This is a hybrid colour composite of Chile’s Chungara Lagoon
    area from an interferometric coherence image and Landsat
    Thematic Mapper data (bands 2 and 7). This unique ortho-
    rectified product enhances different land cover types and
    soil erosion and landslides (in cyan) in detail. It is a
    good example to show how information can be improved taken
    advantage of sensor data synergism.

    Credits: CPR&SIG

    [Image 4:
    The wide-swath image is large enough (400km wide) to show in
    a single acquisition the transition from mountains to plains
    across the entire southern Patagonia region of Argentina.
    The inaccessibility of the region, at the southern tip of
    South America, makes satellite imagery an indispensable
    mapping tool and, in an area commonly shrouded by clouds,
    radar has a distinct advantage over optical data.

    In the west, the Chilean Andes rise to 4058m (Monte San
    ValentÌn). Fjords to the southwest (namely, Canal Baker)
    allow the waters of the Pacific Ocean to penetrate into the
    very heart of the mountains.

    Further east, the Gran Altiplanicie Central extends across
    southern Argentina to the (unseen) Atlantic Ocean. Two major
    rivers, the Chico in the South and the Deseado in the north
    drain the plain and transport melt water and sediment from
    the Andes.

    The image shows how the smooth central plain is incised by
    lines of drainage and punctuated by numerous lakes, the
    largest being Lago Buenos Aires in the north.

    Increasing brightness in the east reflects transition towards
    denser vegetation as the altitude drops and conditions become
    more hospitable.

    Technical Information:

    Instrument: Advanced Synthetic Aperture Radar (ASAR)
    Mode: Wide Swath
    Acquisition date: 18 March 2002
    Orbit number: 00251
    Orbit direction: Descending
    Polarisation: VV
    Resolution: 150 metres

    Credits: ESA 2002