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Romanian contributions in remote sensing

on 05 November 2021

Romanian experts have been involved in research initiatives based on space remote sensing since early stages and therefore have gained a vast experience in using the most advanced techniques and technologies in this field.

Prof. Dr. Alexandru Badea, director of the Space Applications Department within the Romanian Space Agency (ROSA), presents several highlights in the evolution of remote sensing in our country. Mr Badea speaks about the role of ROSA in developing this domain, especially in narrow domains where Romania is internationally recognised for its excellence.

The Romanian competences in remote sensing are confirmed by the projects developed by ROSA in this field, both nationally and in prestigious international partnerships. How has Romania's involvement in remote sensing evolved over time?

The history of remote sensing in Romania begins with the history of civil remote sensing in the world.

In 1972, when National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) from the United States launched the first Landsat satellite. Thus, the first research topics were related to the idea of capitalising on the multispectral information collected by the satellite. Romania was then among the countries that managed to propose research topics which NASA considered relevant.

The topics proposed by our country - the study of wetlands and coastal areas - were formulated by Professor Nicolaie Ch. Oprescu. Professor Oprescu is considered the father of remote sensing in Romania, as he had a vast experience in the field of photogrammetry. For professor Oprescu, it was a natural move to get more involved in the topic, carrying out projects under the auspices of the National Commission for Science and Technology, the former Ministry of Research.

Within the ministry, a structure with the name of Romanian Commission for Space Activities was created in 1968. It financed national projects related to space, carried out research and engineering entities. Thus, the most important pole of developments in remote sensing was represented by the Faculty of Geodesy within the Technical University of Constructions, where Professor Nicolaie Ch. Oprescu was active. Other successful projects were also carried out at the Institute of Meteorology (current National Meteorological Administration), the Research and Development Institute for Land Use (ISPIF), at the Institute of Research and Designs for Water Management (ICPEGA), at the Institute of Geodesy, Photogrammetry, Cartography and Spatial Planning (IGFCOT) of the Ministry of Agriculture. At the same time, there were some economically-important developments in geology from the Institute of Geology and Geophysics (IGG). Practically, the present-day research traces back to the very beginning.

How was the field of remote sensing influenced by the changes after 1989 and what were the key moments in the evolution of remote sensing activities?

In 1980s, the investment in research and the acquisition of high-performance equipment and satellite imagery was stifled, despite the global expansion of computer science. The rebirth of remote sensing in Romania occurred in 1990, when the specialised laboratories were restored. Professionals gathered in clusters and helped us fill the technological gap in the use of remote sensing data.

These laboratories became the development axis of the field, as private sector actors could not afford to equip a remote sensing laboratory. Even at a global level, there would have been no remarkable results in space science (data mining or commercial services) had it not been for public government funding.

Today we are working with open-source data provided by the American Landsat satellites and the European Copernicus Sentinel satellites. In comparison, in the early 1990s, a Landsat image with a resolution of 30 meters and a ground footprint of 180 km x 180 km cost between 6,800 and 7,500 dollars, while a Romanian researcher earned between 50 and 90 dollars a month.

In order to afford acquiring and processing images and to generate added value, we were motivated to develop projects with international or mixed funding. During the projects, we obtained images covering the entire Romanian territory and they became the basic layer on which we base our current research.

An important step was the moving the responsibility for space research funding to the Romanian Space Agency (ROSA). Since 1995, ROSA has been a public institution financed entirely from its own revenue. ROSA was able to support the remote sensing laboratories in the country, as they were able to buy equipment and become efficient and internationally competitive.

To mitigate the risk of having the laboratories use their processing systems for research in another domain, ROSA decided to grant projects according to the laboratory’s distinct specialization. This meant, for example, that geology experts were not able to study forestry or agriculture, and vice versa. In fact, with limited human resources and funding sources, ROSA aimed to develop a coherent and complementary collaboration between these entities.

What is ROSA’s role in the management of remote sensing activities?

ROSA develops the strategy and carries out activities that stimulate the emergence of entities that are capable of providing competitive services, thus developing a structure capable of leading national research.

When ROSA decided to self-finance, this also meant that it applied for R&D grant competitions, such as those managed by the Ministry of Research and the Executive Unit for Financing Higher Education, Research, Development and Innovation (UEFISCDI) or the European Commission.

The fact that Romania has been a member state in the European Space Agency (ESA) for ten years was a significant contributing factor to our participation in large R&D projects. At the same time, it became evident that a country with Romania's limited financial resources cannot cover the full range of space research. As a result, we have chosen to focus on niches in which we can be top performers.

How competitive are the Romanian remote sensing activities in those niche areas identified by ROSA?

One example comes from the University of Agronomic Sciences and Veterinary Medicine of Bucharest, which set up a complementary ground radar system that validates data from Sentinel 1 satellites at the teaching farm Moara Domnească. This highly complex radar device is unique in Europe and is developed by the private Romanian company Terrasigna. The device is intended to monitor the evolution of crops by measuring plant height, chlorophyll levels, soil moisture and comparing and validating the records in relation to the data collected by satellite. This could be a starting point for developing high-performance and carefully calibrated sensors, to be placed on future satellites. This is just one success story about ESA-funded projects, demonstrating the feasibility of the partnership between industry and academia.

What is the impact of the  remote-sensing activities managed by ROSA in the development of national strategies, in public policy and in the development of profit-making economic activities?

By supporting the research structure in remote sensing at a national level, we consider that ROSA also fulfills its pioneering role for successful initiatives, but we must make a distinction between the development strategy of the field and the actual implementation of concepts and technologies. As a result of technological progress and wide access to data and open-source processing systems, Romania saw a flourishing of service providers, such as companies employing young software developers that develop monitoring and management systems in agriculture together with farmers. These private sector endeavours in image processing also confirm the competitiveness of Romanian R&D.

But the impact of remote sensing is much wider and has a long way to go in our country. Since 1992, together with my colleagues, we initiated the collaboration with the Romanian Center for Remote Sensing Applications in Agriculture (CRUTA), which operated within the Research and Development Institute for Land Use, in successive developments within the European program MARS (Monitoring Agriculture with Remote Sensing), launched by the European Union in 1988.

The developments made in the CRUTA laboratory are now used in the system of granting subsidies to farmers in our country, in accordance with mandatory EU regulations. Most of the CRUTA team is currently working within ROSA, continuing the collaboration with the Agency for Payments and Intervention in Agriculture (APIA), with the Ministry of Agriculture, to facilitate the implementation of technological developments — some of them quite spectacular — in the field of agriculture. More precisely, the results of our research are now used in the structure of databases and IT configurations from various government structures.

In 2007-2008 we coordinated 12 other entities in Europe, carrying out a project that generated 54 specialized data sets that are used today by the Ministry of Environment and the National Agency for Environmental Protection. Also, recently, in partnership with ANPM, WWF Romania and NINA from Norway, we completed a project to generate an expert decision-making system (DSS) for the environment, with funding from the SEE 2009-2014 programs. We always tried to act at the highest level, not always on the front stage and the benefits of our activities being indirectly reflected in the decision making process at ministerial level.

What role does ROSA play in the direction of training, improvement and specialization of the personnel working in the field of remote sensing?

ROSA believes that this needs several different approaches. For example, the above-mentioned ground-based radar from Moara Domnească initiative requires the development of sensors and specialized devices for remote sensing, and this line of development must benefit from the contribution of the private sector. Another development line is data exploitation. Here we must emphasize that the Romanian academic environment has a very valuable contribution, through the faculties that offer remote sensing courses and have dedicated computer systems that allow the specific data exploitation.

The competitiveness of the academic space is a major fact in the close correlation between the scientific and technical level and the field of applicability, but also in the differences between the levels of pedagogical approaches. This will be adjusted in time.

By the way, ROSA and USAMV (University of Agronomic Sciences and Veterinary Medicine of Bucharest) have an informal partnership through which ROSA researchers provide remote sensing training to students and the results of this collaboration are visible and internationally acknowledged. One current example is the involvement in an Erasmus + project, in which the partnership between ROSA and USAMV contributes to the development of specific educational capacities in nine universities in Tunisia. Its goal is to standardize the way Earth Observation training is conducted. USAMV is a partner in the project, as well as two other prestigious universities in the European Union: École Nationale des Sciences Géographiques (ENSG) in France and the University of Cordoba, Spain.

The Romanian Society of Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (SRFT) and we are attempting together to bring those who provide training in this field to the same table, as part of a complementary approach in remote sensing. We aim to create a space where the current context of the exploitation of satellite data is understood, emphasizing the limitations of its use.

What would be some of these limits of remote sensing?

Many users turn to drones, or unmanned aircraft, which are inexpensive to purchase. In addition to the quality and performance of the sensor, we must also consider variables that arise during the plot monitoring operation with a drone, such as changes in the elevation of the Sun during the monitoring period or air currents that may affect the accuracy of the data recorded. As opposed to this, a satellite ensures a homogeneous recording of the entire plot, since the strength of remote sensing is precisely that it covers large areas at regular intervals.

Despite the public's fascination with images having very high geometric resolution, sub-metric (even 30 cm), remote sensing applications must consider their effectiveness. A Sentinel satellite crossing an area once every week may be enough to provide a comprehensive picture in certain circumstances. We need higher resolutions in the case of disasters, so we use imaging resources, usually private, for a fee, so that images become the most objective source of information when managing a crisis. Satellite imaging has both advantages and disadvantages, so we must always know the limits.

Education and technological advancement must also be considered, which leads to further development. Today, we can carry out image acquisition, data processing, and corrective actions within less than five hours, due to satellites that are equipped with advanced processing solutions. Ten years ago, this would have taken two or three weeks after the satellite's transition.

More than the image itself, the process of correlating and validating the recorded data is essential. Twenty years ago, we were involved in a large project carried out on the experimental plots of the National Institute for Agricultural Research and Development Fundulea. SPOT satellite images were purchased for the first time throughout the phenological cycle, from the harvest to the sowing of wheat. ADAM (assimilation of spatial data in agricultural models) aimed to develop and evaluate methods for exploiting high revisitation frequency and high-resolution images in conjunction. We generated a multispectral multitemporal series by selecting images and correlating them with precise ground measurements (humidity, solar radiance, taking pictures, etc.). This developed into a scientific database that was made public after a few years, and today, what is being done worldwide in an operational way is based on this work. It was a project carried out by the French Space Agency (CNES) and ROSA in partnership with entities from Romania (Institute of Pedology, Agrochemistry and Environmental Protection CRUTA, Intergis) and from France (Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique -INRA- Avignon) and it was implemented at a time when satellite imagery was not free. Today, the ideas of that time are being put into practice worldwide.

You have been involved over time in remote sensing projects that had different applications, from the realization of the land register of protected natural areas in Romania to initiatives in precision agriculture. How do these projects relate to the principles of remote sensing and ROSA’s strategy in the field?

Professor Nicolaie Ch. Oprescu had a lecture that we, his disciples, still use today: "The concept of MULTI in remote sensing". Multispectral, multitemporal, multisource, multidisciplinary... There should be no doubt in everybody's minds that working in multidisciplinary teams is necessary to successfully exploit remote sensing data.

A good example is the project dedicated to the protection of an archeological site from Micia, Hunedoara County, by using precision agriculture developments for investigations in the area of the Roman fort.

To be able to see changes in a study site, whether it is archeology, forestry, or agricultural crops, we need a clearly defined temporal comparison element.

The involvement in the Micia project resulted from a national competition launched by the Ministry of Research, which financed the operations. As partners, we had museum units from Deva and Alba-Iulia, who contributed their expertise by explaining some implications of archeology fieldwork. Project partners are also the final beneficiaries of this remote sensing monitoring system in this case.

I worked on projects with foreign partners and the results we obtained provided the needed credibility for the continuous raising of performance standards. Based on the experience gained in the SIRIUS project funded by the European Commission, I continued in the DIANA project together with partners from Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal. It developed a system for highlighting the fraudulent use of water for irrigation. The European Water Directive prohibits the use of water from boreholes for irrigation, and the authorities are interested in monitoring who uses more water than the allocated quota. They do this to protect the aquifer resource, which is limited and has a low regeneration rate.

From the perspective of environmental protection, a nationally sensitive issue is related to illegal wood cutting. How can the remote sensing activities coordinated by ROSA contribute to controlling and reducing this phenomenon?

Remote sensing has been playing an important role in this subject for a very long time. Unfortunately, the perception reflected by the media is wrong.

We had a functional system for identifying wood cutting based on images sent by Sentinel satellites, which could be used in conjunction with other data to identify illegal wood cutting. The system was shut down at some point for reasons other than technical efficiency. Fortunately, this monitoring was resumed, and the Ministry of Environment has been working for over a year to develop a viable monitoring system, known as SUMAL (Integrated Wood Material Tracking System), which is correlated with satellite imagery.

As proof of recognition by the authorities of ROSA’s experience and knowledge of remote sensing, we should also mention that the Ministry of Environment and ROSA have a collaboration protocol that was signed last summer. The partnership aims to  clarify issues related to the illegal wood cutting from the perspective of remote sensing technologies, providing advice, solutions and analysis related to the functionality and cost optimization of the monitoring system.

What are the perspectives of the activities related to remote sensing and how is the contribution of Romanian specialists placed internationally in the field?

Romania’s status as an ESA member state in the last ten years generated significant developments in the field, which deployed the Romanian capital in this direction. The Terrasigna example is already known. In addition, C-S Romania, a Romanian company is developing a service that allows for the replacement of classic types of controls with those by remote sensing, using multitemporal series of Sentinel images, and the validation of farmers' statements without having to use an external operator.

The Sen2-Agri / Sen4CAP system is developed with ESA funding, with advice from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the European Commission's Joint Research Center, and this open-source system can be implemented in any country of the world. There are only five countries in Europe involved in the pilot project. The APIA (National Agency for Payments and Intervention in Agriculture) is currently implementing this resource, so Romania will be prepared with a turnkey system in a few years, when it will be mandatory.

Several activities are invisible to outsiders, such as the decision system we developed for the Ministry of the Environment three years ago which used data generated by ROSA ten years earlier in another PHARE-funded project.

In addition, ROSA is involved in the coordination of activities of remote sensing activities through the centers of expertise we operate, such as COSMOMAR or CEOSpaceTech, the last of which is coordinated by Professor Mihai Datcu, an expert in the field of computer science and data mining, which are both relevant for remote sensing.

The development of the centres is clearly defined, and the activities are complementary. ROSA sought to develop and promote Romanian skills in areas where human resources had potential.

Image credit: ESA-Pierre Carril