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Home arrow Archives   The American Surveyor     

ASPRS 75th Anniversary Print E-mail
Written by Marc Cheves, LS   
Wednesday, 08 July 2009

A 1.876Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

Without a doubt, photogrammetry has been an essential part of the mapping and land development process. Without it, the completion of our national topographic quadrangles would have been impossible. And I'm sure most of our surveyor readers have interacted with photogrammetrists as part of their job. In celebration of the 75th anniversary of the American Society for Photogrammetry & Remote Sensing (ASPRS) we recently visited ASPRS headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland to chat with ASPRS Executive Director Jim Plasker.

ASPRS is located on a beautiful 39-acre campus, along with several other environmental resource organizations, including the Society of American Foresters. Also located on the property is a summer house that once belonged to Gilbert Grosvenor, the founder of the National Geographic Society. To this day, a great-great grandson of Alexander Graham Bell still lives adjacent to the property. ASPRS owns its own office condo and until the recent economic downturn, was involved in the potential sale of the entire property for use as the flagship campus of an international education organization. ASPRS likely would have stood to profit greatly had the property been sold.

During our meeting we sat at the same table the American Society of Photogrammetry's (ASP) founders sat at on July 29, 1934 when the organization was created. At the time, the International Society of Photogrammetry (ISP) was 25 years old, having been founded in 1910 by Eduard Dolezal of Austria. In the early 1990s, both organizations added remote sensing to their purview and are now known as ISPRS and ASPRS. ISPRS will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2010. The ASP founders recognized the need for an American organization to set standards, investigate technology, and provide information exchange, and so, in 1935, the society's first annual meeting was held in the District of Columbia. Plasker commented that as the founders worked through the ISP statutes as a framework for the ASP Bylaws, the statutes had to be translated from French or German.

The Dye is Cast
Plasker, who will celebrate his 60th birthday in 2010, has had an interesting career. Born in Salem, Oregon, he graduated from Oregon State University with a degree in civil engineering. At the time he envisioned a career in sanitary engineering, that is, until an Introduction to Surveying and Photogrammetry class changed the course of his plans. One of his first projects in college involving positioning and measurement used dye to track pollution dispersal from paper mills into the ocean. At first, the dye dispersal was tracked with triangulation, but soon switched to the use of a Kelsh stereo plotter and 9x9 photos. Later, as a graduate student working on a master's degree in engineering surveys, he was mentored by the legendary Bob Schultz.

From Oregon, Plasker moved to the USGS mapping facility in Denver. When he arrived, the agency was in the process of switching from field engineers who were responsible for mapping to cartographers. His field experience would play a valuable part in his upcoming 27 years with USGS. While in Denver, for example, Plasker worked on the 1:24,000 scale quad mapping program and participated in the first fully analytical aero-triangulation for a project in New Mexico. Photo points were used as control, and Plasker recalled explaining to the office folks how one side of a bush could be one to two feet different in elevation than the other side due to the effects of blowing sand. In the mid-1980s, Plasker accepted a management position and moved to the USGS headquarters in Reston, Virginia. It was a time when the agency was switching from paper maps to digital products, and Plasker worked closely with his colleagues in USDA and the USGS office in Menlo Park, California on the development of the digital orthophoto program. He smiled as he recalled senior managers inside USGS skeptically asking, "Who in their right mind would ever need a digital orthophoto?" Now those same images are ubiquitous throughout the community, and formed the core depository to facilitate the Google Earth phenomenon. As a senior executive he moved from the mapping division to the geology division, where he remained until his retirement from USGS in 1998.

In 1996, Plasker had served as the president of ACSM. His time as president provided valuable experience in associations and association management. By late 1997, ASPRS was struggling financially and had stagnated as an organization. After his retirement from USGS, the course of his future plans changed again. He was preparing to work with his brother in Seattle when colleagues began encouraging him to apply for the job as ASPRS executive director. Plans for Seattle were set aside, and on March 31, 1998 he took the helm at ASPRS. Many years of management experience had well prepared him for the job as executive director, but Plasker also credits others who were instrumental in turning ASPRS around. Plasker explained that the highly-capable leadership within ASPRS comes from the commercial sector, the government sector, and the academic sector, but that no one officer possesses knowledge about all three sectors. To that end, he credits Roger Crystal, Tom Lillesand and Mike Renslow with providing "a perfect storm" of capability and foresight in the 1997­1998 time period that helped right the ASPRS ship.

Traditionally, ASPRS and ACSM had always held joint meetings, but beginning with the Tampa show in 1998, ASPRS held its first standalone conference. The conference made money, and indeed was the beginning of the road back to financial surety for the organization. When I asked Plasker to respond to allegations that ASPRS has blocked conference cooperation between ASPRS and ACSM, he responded by saying that this is not true, but rather, ASPRS has been focusing on doing what is right for its members and ensuring that the organization is sound financially. He also pointed out that ASPRS and ACSM cooperated on a fall conference in 2000, a joint annual conference in 2002, and they are planning a joint fall conference in 2010, all since the "formal" separation.

Will the National Map become a reality? Plasker expressed doubts. Currently, large scale mapping is generally handled on a state and local basis with little cooperation between entities. But with the advent of highly-accurate orthophotos, there is no reason why mapping activities can't seamlessly ignore political boundaries. Plasker discussed the critical decision made by the USGS in the early 1990s to get out of the national mapping business, and scoffed at the Federal Geographic Data Committee's (FGDC) contention at the time to "let the cloud do the mapping," (the `cloud' being comprised of mapping partners and other entities with mapping data).

Some have suggested that the military's National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) could take over the responsibility. Plasker concurred that when compared to USGS, NGA has five to ten times the overall budget and 50 to 100 times the mapping budget, but that the NGA mission is largely externally focused, and that even the Census Bureau (another likely candidate) has to confront an enormous amount of politics. He's doubtful that there will be a viable national mapping program, but rather that mapping will be transferred to the creators of digital orthos and those providing geospatial products and services. Currently, Imagery for the Nation (IFTN), under the auspices of the USDA and the Department of the Interior, is still on the table, but even it is being held back by procurement-related issues. Part of the problem is due to the fact that orthos have become a commodity, and some even propose that, if properly set up, digital orthos can be created on a production line with little professional input. Complicating matters is the definition of what constitutes a geospatial product versus what are considered professional services. Several organizations, including ASPRS, ACSM and MAPPS, have invested an enormous amount of time in trying to define the latter, but what constitutes geospatial products has yet to be defined.

We spent a lot of time discussing what I call "blue sky stuff," or the future. Plasker believes the most promising area is in active sensors and hyperspectral imaging. Active sensors include a new term, lidargrammetry, including a technology in which "bursts" of ranging signals are emitted, rather than one pulse-one return, as well as improved radar imaging. He compared current passive methods to a camera image that simply gathers photons. Hyperspectral data is gathered from hundreds of spectral bands, as compared to multispectral data which is gathered from tens of bands. Hyperspectral is being extensively used for mineralogy (e.g., searching for oil and gas) and agriculture. The real benefit of hyperspectral is that no beforehand knowledge is needed of what is being searched for, but rather, because all bands are covered, the results can be analyzed during processing. An example would be determining not only that a grape crop is in a dataset, but also what variety of grapes it contains.

Plasker added that a lot of work in these areas is being done by our government and is classified, but cautioned against the belief held by some politicians that the "U.S. has all the brains." Many other countries are actively involved in remote sensing, and even though current U.S. policy cramps the GeoEye satellite resolution down to 0.5 meters, active efforts are being made for 0.25-meter resolution satellites. Plasker believes that artificial restraints will result in the U.S. losing its technological edge. I believe this is true for GNSS as well.

The improved ability to fuse data is resulting in huge datasets, which only a computer can process. This "black box" capability is good because it enables us to do more, but humans are still needed to oversee many of the processes. Addressing the use of ever-increasing computing power, Plasker laughed as he recalled the words of Rupe Southard, one of his most important USGS mentors: "Just as you see the light at the end of the tunnel, they send out for more pipe!" According to Plasker, the biggest area of growth for the industry will lie in our ability to bring time into the equation, for example, for change detection. By being able to track changes over time, we can see the effects for such things as climate change.

Plasker is most proud of the reinvigoration of the ASPRS Foundation. Started by ASP in 1979, the Foundation had languished under the previous administration, but today provides for numerous annual awards and scholarships. Each year since 2005, ASPRS has provided matching funds to support continued emphasis on full endowment. Even with the current economic downturn and resultant investment losses, the endowment is funded at a 78 percent level, and Plasker is sure that when the economy picks up, 100 percent will be achieved. Today, the Foundation is funded at the $550,000 level.

At the end of 2008, ASPRS membership has declined slightly, representing the first loss since the lowest levels in 2003. Even so, the number of members today is where it was in 2000. ASPRS is confident that the economic stimulus will trickle down and result in more members. Encouragingly, student membership is surging and accounts for nearly two-thirds of the growth in members since 2003. ASPRS also has a student travel grant program to encourage and allow future professionals to attend the annual conferences. Most recently, ASPRS has instituted a reduced dues fee structure for those members who have been laid off.

ASPRS is known on an international basis for its publications. The Manual of Photogrammetry is still a best seller among the 6,500 ASPRS members spread across 86 countries. Its peer-reviewed Journal of Photogrammetric Engineering & Remote Sensing (PE&RS) has recently added general interest articles to make it more appealing to the non-academic crowd. Even more recently, ASPRS released the new Manual of GIS. This unique manual will help reinforce the society's position with the GIS community. ASPRS is also hard at work on updates of its other seminal publication, The Manual of Remote Sensing. Another member benefit is being provided by making all the issues of The Journal since 1934 (forerunner to PE&RS) available online.

ASPRS is also active in moderate resolution imaging, licensure, certification, disaster response and industry forecasts. For licensure and certification, the organization has been heavily involved in the creation of the Model Law for Surveying. Its "long-term strategy remains to encourage all states licensing photogrammetrists to utilize the NCEES resources and eliminate state-by-state examination." ASPRS recently helped author legislation that will create the National Land Imaging Program. The current economy will make passage tough, but it remains a priority goal of ASPRS. According to Plasker, "ASPRS continues to support the concept of IFTN, and during 2008 supported Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC) efforts to define potential commercial capacity as well as capacity-limiting barriers to full implementation of the program."

On the education front, ASPRS supports an NSF-funded project addressing Integrated Geospatial Education and Technology Training (iGETT). This program is designed to expand educational instruction in geography and geographic information systems, primarily within community colleges, to specifically include relevant remote sensing subject matter. Finally, ASPRS has supported the establishment of a National Geospatial Technology Center (now the GeoTech Center) at Delmar College in Corpus Christi, Texas.

In cooperation with The Pennsylvania State University and PBS, ASPRS is hard at work on a fabulous video series titled The Geospatial Revolution. We got to see the trailer and I must say we were very impressed. The $500K project is being envisioned as a 90-minute program, perhaps divided into chapters. National Geographic has expressed interest on the education and outreach end. Based on what we saw, the video will have wide impact in attracting young people into the industry.

Plasker told us that his ultimate goal as executive director is to leave the organization in better shape than when he took over, and recognizes that his job is to "execute the strategy and program as laid out by the Board." Besides being a nice guy, Plasker is very humble, and credits the ASPRS staff, Board, Executive Committee and membership with the success of the organization. But as anyone who's ever been in management knows, somebody has to pull the train, and under his watch, the organization has thrived. Its conferences continue to be successful, both financially and professionally. It's known all over the world for its standards-setting activities.

By any estimate, Plasker and ASPRS have been wildly successful. Close to bankruptcy in the 1990s, the organization is fulfilling the vision its founders had in 1934. I wonder what the group of 12 men, sitting around a conference table in 1934, would think about ASPRS today? We extend our sincere congratulations to ASPRS on this memorable 75th anniversary, and commend all who have contributed to its progress.

Marc Cheves is Editor of the magazine.

Industry Highlights


Many factors and developing technologies influenced the formation of the original society. The development of early aerial photography by the French, the ability to capture the infrared spectrum on film and the development of radar, all influenced how we view and use remote sensing and geospatial data today.

• Multiplex and Kelsh plotters came into wide usage, making photogrammetric mapping practical.  • The RC5 Automatic Aerial Camera and the ST1 and ST2 Mirror Stereoscopes go into production. 
• B-29 Bomber aircraft were used in Aerial Photography Missions (1942) 
• Manual of Photogrammetry: Preliminary Edition was produced by the American Society of Photogrammetry under Louis Woodward and published in 1944

• U.S. Commercial aerial photography firms more than double (from 12 to 33) during the 16 year time span from 1940 to 1956• The Soviet Union launches Sputnik. First artificial satellite to orbit Earth
• First U-2 reconnaissance flights over the Soviet Union
• President Eisenhower approves a CIA program to develop reconnaissance satellites which evolves into the Corona Program

• National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) established
• NASA spacecraft Ranger 9, equipped to convert its signals into a form suitable for showing on domestic television, brings images of the Moon into ordinary homes before crash-landing.
• The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the Department of Interior jointly announce plans for Earth Resources Observation Satellites (EROS)
• The Landsat program (originally named Earth Resources Technology Satellites--ERTS) was officially initiated in 1967. This program marked a shift from exploration of the moon toward applied remote sensing and earth resources monitoring.
• The first multispectral photography from space is captured on the Apollo 9 mission. The mission includes an experiment in which four coaxially mounted cameras were used to simulate multi-band imagery.

• GNSS introduced, first with Transit and Timation, then with System 621B
• NAVSTAR introduced in 1973. Full-scale development of GPS began in 1979
• LANDSAT began being used for Agriculture, Forestry and Range Resources; Land Use and Mapping; Geology; Hydrology; Coastal Resources; and Environmental Monitoring
• SeaSat launched for ocean monitoring in 1978. The system included Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR)

• Introduction of forward motion compensation to airborne camera sensors which greatly neutralize the impacts of the forward motion of the aircraft during exposure time
• Launch of Space Shuttle Imaging Radar
• Launch of Landsat 4 carrying both a Multispectral Scanner instrument and a Thematic Mapper instrument which has both higher spatial and spectral resolution
• The Reagan administration attempts to "commercialize" non-military space remote sensing by contracting with EOSAT (a partnership between Hughes and RCA) to operate the Landsat program sensors under a 10-year contract
• The Soviet Union entered the world arena with an Earth-observing satellite program available on the open market
• Kodak invents the first mega-pixel CCD sensor
• The French launch SPOT 1 (Satellite Probatoire d'Observation de la Terre) satellite system, which is a CCD-based push broom scanner
• First digital orthophotos produced by USGS in cooperation with USDA

• Positive Systems and Emerge introduce some of the first CCD based digital airborne camera systems. While the Positive Systems system has more spectral resolution, the Emerge system is easier to register to the ground.
• The automated classification of multispectral imagery starts to be adopted for non-military applications
• The Russians begin to market the sale of imagery from their reconnaissance missions
• Passage of the Land Remote Sensing Act which brings the Landsat program back into the government under the direction of NASA and DoD 
• GPS constellation completed with the successful launch of the 24th satellite in 1993
• Applanix introduces POS--AV in 1994 an inertial measurement unit (IMU) for airborne remote sensing allowing for the precise measurement of the orientation of the imaging system during each exposure. This enables users to automatically terrain correct and georeference airborne imagery
• First flight of the Predator RQ1A in 1994, an unmanned surveillance aircraft used in military applications. The major benefit of the Predator platform is that it allows for airborne reconnaissance without exposing pilots or other personnel to anti-aircraft attack
• The Canadians launch Radarsat 1, a radar system with a primary purpose of monitoring sea ice
• President Clinton establishes the Federal Geographic Data Committee 
• MapQuest is launched as the first online mapping service
• President Clinton declassifies imagery collected under the Corona missions
• Launch of Landsat 7, the most recent system in the highly successful Landsat Program. It includes all the traditional Landsat bands as well as a 15 meter panchromatic band
• Space Imaging's IKONOS 2 (now called simply IKONOS) launch succeeds and imagery from IKONOS becomes the highest resolution (1-meter panchromatic and 4-meter multispectral) imagery available to the public from space

• Shuttle SRTM mission results in the collection of 47.6 million square miles of topographical and image data
• Both Leica and Zeiss introduce digital airborne cameras.
• CIA Director George Tenet boosts the commercial space remote sensing industry by stating in a memo, "It is the policy of the Intelligence Community to use U.S. commercial space imagery to the greatest extent possible. Therefore, I (direct) that U.S. commercial satellite imagery be the primary source of data used for government mapping (while classified reconnaissance satellites) will only be tasked under exceptional circumstances."
• Google releases the first version of Google Maps and later release Google Earth
• President Bush also states his support for the commercial space remote sensing industry by stipulating in the U.S. Commercial Remote Sensing Space Policy that federal agencies use commercial imagery to the highest extent possible. The goal of the policy is "maintaining the nation's leadership in remote sensing space activities, and by sustaining and enhancing the U.S. remote sensing industry capabilities."
• Commercial imaging satellites with half-meter ground resolution are flown by Space Imaging (now GeoEye) and Digital Globe.
• RapidEye constellation of five "small" satellites carrying five band (blue high-resolution multispectral sensors is successfully launched 
• President Obama approves a plan for the government to acquire two intelligence satellites and "expand the commercial agreements with GeoEye and DigitalGlobe"

A 1.876Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

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