Revista da SBDA
Direito Aeronáutico e Direito Espacial

 barra2.jpg (1468 bytes)

Remote Sensing in Brazil

Álvaro Fabricio dos Santos


Due to its continental size, Brazil is very much concerned with remote sensing resources potentialities. National Institute for Space Research (INPE) has studied Amazon forest’s deforestation rate by remote sensing technology. Brazil considers that increasing technical assistance from developed countries is needed in order to compensate imbalance of technology’s geographical distribution. A way to implement this assistance is by updating United Nations Principles Relating to Remote Sensing of the Earth from Outer Space, the only international text on this issue. Nonetheless, private companies from developed countries currently carry out the majority of remote sensing activities. Obviously, such companies are not interested in transferring technologies to developing countries. They prefer to keep developing countries as their customers. In this context, joint ventures are made with developing countries that have space programs in a way to improve remote sensing technologies.


Remote sensing, one of the great benefits of space technology for mankind, can be defined as any space activity which uses equipment on board space vehicles to obtain information about the Earth’s environment or natural resources.

Unfortunately, there are still many obstacles to the dissemination of remote sensing technologies in developing countries. The major problem is lack of investment in research and infrastructure, which causes enormous disparities in resources. In some developing countries the majority of the population has no access to the Internet, for instance.

As a huge country, Brazil obtains many benefits from remote sensing applications, such as deforestation assessment (especially deforestation in the Amazon); control of bush fires, mining and agriculture and urban planning, among others.

INPE is Brazilian governmental entity that carries out most of remote sensing programs. Obviously, the high cost of building and maintaining a remote sensing program has been an obstacle to the spread of this technology in Brazil. Despite a large number of well-documented successful uses of remote sensing by INPE, its full potential has yet to be achieved.


In the early seventies, while National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was starting studies with sensors on satellites, INPE was also taking its first steps toward remote sensing technologies. At first, INPE undertook its remote sensing activities by borrowing aircraft from NASA but in 1971 it bought its own aircraft equipped with aerophotogrammetric instrumentation. INPE also built an earth station in Cuiabá, in the State of Mato Grosso , in the center of Brazil to track Earth Resources Technology Satellite (ERST-1), the original name of NASA Landsat Program. At that same time, a processing image system was installed in Cachoeira Paulista, in the Brazilian State of São Paulo. In 1973, despite its modest structure, INPE started operating a remote sensing system in large and small scales.1

The use of earth observation satellite data received considerable thrive in November 1978, when INPE held the First Brazilian Symposium on Remote Sensing in São José dos Campos, a meeting which subsequently became a regular event, held every two years. It was at this meeting that INPE presented the first data obtained from satellite images of Amazon deforestation.2

The USA launched a second generation of remote sensing satellites, Landsat 4 and 5, in July 1982 and March 1984, respectively. These satellites contained significantly improved technical features as compared with those launched during the previous decade. Between 1980 and 1983, INPE personnel participated in the design and development of a reception and data processing system for new satellites, subsequently installed at INPE’s laboratories in Cuiabá and Cachoeira Paulista.

In 1981, a statistical study carried out in the USA and published by countries involved in Landsat system, showed that Brazil was the third greatest user of images from this satellite, after the USA itself and Canada. In 1982, this extensive use of satellite images led INPE to develop the Interactive Image Processing System (SITIM). The design of SITIM equipment was based on the prior experience of INPE with the Image Analysis Unit (UAI), a system developed by INPE in the late seventies, and used for the interpretation of meteorological satellite images.3

French remote sensing satellite Spot was launched in January 1986 and in 1985, before its launching, INPE made preparations to receive images from this new satellite. In 1988 INPE started working with Spot data, after adapting its signal reception and image processing systems in Cuiabá and Cachoeira Paulista respectively, thus providing a new option for satellite remote sensing data end users.

Remote Sensing Applications In Brazil

Currently INPE is involved in some noteworthy earth observation programs including:

(a) Reception and dissemination of Landsat images: INPE has been continuously active in Landsat data collection and dissemination since 1974, resulting in one of the world’s largest archives of remote sensing data. Among numerous applications developed in Brazil, annual comprehensive assessment of deforestation in Amazon stands out as one of most extensive uses of Landsat data.

(b) Development of China-Brazil Earth Resources Satellite (CBERS): for environmental observation CBERS-1 satellite with a 20-meter resolution was launched in October 1999 and continues to relay photo images. CBERS-2 satellite is scheduled for launching in October 2003, with two follow-up satellites (CBERS-3 and 4) to be launched later in this decade. These will have improved spectral and spatial resolution.

(c) Reception and Dissemination of Radarsat: Brazil has been actively engaged in Radarsat program since its conception. By agreement with Canadian Center for Remote Sensing (CCRS), field research was undertaken in Brazil in 1992, enabling Brazil and Canadian researchers to explore ways of using active sensor data in a tropical environment.

(d) High-resolution images: currently high-resolution images exclusively available for military purposes have been disseminated without restrictions. Among existing commercial systems, three should be mentioned: Indian Resources Satellite (IRS), with a 4 to 5 - meter space resolution; Ikonos, with a 1 - meter space resolution; and Quick Bird, with a 61 - centimeter resolution. In Brazil it is possible to obtain images of almost all commercial systems through INPE 4  systems representatives or Internet. 5

Benefits from remote sensing are especially important in large countries such as Brazil where long-term monitoring of environmental and urban issues plays a very important role in public policy issues.

Two of Brazil’s programs with global impact follow.

Surveillance of the Amazon Rainforest

At the request of the Brazilian government, INPE has used satellite imagery to make a systematic study of Amazon deforestation since April 1989. 6

INPE’s projects related to Amazon include use of remote sensing satellite images for deforestation surveys; evaluation of environmental impact of informal mining activities, including associated unauthorized construction of small dams and landing strips; monitoring of indigenous reserves and geological studies. Satellite images have also been used by INPE in the localization of forest and bush fires and to research water cycle in tropical rainforests. Computer modeling is used to study effects of deforestation on climate. Atmospheric consequences of burning are analyzed by means of measurements both within and outside affected areas.

Since July, 7th 2003, INPE has presented in its website digitalized data on Amazon Rainforest deforestation.7 It shows deforestation place and rate with accurate data. Deforestation data in the Brazilian municipalities will be collected and a general view of Amazon Rainforest deforestation will be defined and be made available at the end of 2004.8

Other data about water cycles and mining in Brazil are also available.

Education in Remote Sensing

In an effort to disseminate some of its expertise in remote sensing, INPE held its first international course in remote sensing from August 1985 to July 1986, which was attended by technical personnel from other Latin American countries. The creation of this course had been suggested during the United Nations Conference on the Peaceful Exploitation of Space (UNISPACE 82) in Vienna. The course aimed to promote competence in remote sensing techniques among professionals from developing countries where there is a marked lack of trained personnel. The First International Course on Remote Sensing gave rise to a continuous series of annual courses for African and Latin American countries, offered by INPE with the support of the United Nations. 9

INPE has also been developing basic courses in the use of remote sensing for public and private high schools. As a result of a joint venture with the Society of Latin American Experts on Remote Sensing (SELPER), INPE has given courses and produced CD ROMs and training materials as well.

Finally, INPE maintains MsC and PhD programs in remote sensing in order to prepare specialized personnel.


According to INPE’s Director of Earth Observation, Dr. Gilberto Câmara, three major problems need to be solved in Brazil: lack of data, lack of tools, and lack of expertise.10

Lack of Data

Dr. Câmara stated that the possibility of accessing timely and appropriate spatial data is a major challenge in developing nations. Quoting his own words, "the current trend in developed nations is to consider that their countries’ taxpayers should not subsidize the use of spatial data by developing nations. Therefore, such nations are increasingly dealt with as customers of the developed countries’ commercial sector".

However, this situation, according to Dr. Câmara, "provides a singular opportunity for nations that have developed independent remote sensing programs. If programs such as IRS (India) and CBERS (China/Brazil) adopt data policies that allow unrestricted distribution of products without additional licensing costs [it would create] a major opportunity for co-operative programs in Earth Observation within the developing world".

Hence, lack of data from developed countries and its private companies could be compensated by the establishment of close cooperation among developing nations that have remote sensing programs.

Lack of Tools

Spatial data requires tools for computer analysis. These tools require technical expertise for their use, and have largely been developed by a small number of companies and institutions. Of course, companies from developed countries are not interested in sharing their knowledge, because this might put their profits in risk. They prefer to keep developing countries as their customers. There is very limited effort in developed countries to develop an open-source geographic information system and image processing software.

INPE has developed SPRING, a geographic information system and image processing software freely available on the web, coupled with extensive documentation, training material, and books.

SPRING is an example of how developing nations can help each other.

Lack of Expertise

Dr. Câmara said "traditionally, academic institutions in the developed world have provided a major basis for producing qualified personnel for using geoinformation technology in the developing world. In many cases, graduates of these institutions have initiated their own research groups in their native countries. Such an interchange is most needed and useful and it is hoped that it is maintained and enforced in the years to come. However, it must be recognized that such a mechanism can only account for a limited part of the enormous demand for expertise building on the developing world".

There has been substantial progress in all aspects of geoinformation technology in the developing world. In the words of Dr. Câmara, "by establishing joint projects, and using open source and non-restrictive copyright policies to the greatest possible extent, developing nations are in a position to establish a strong network of co-operative institutions, that would be fully capable of realizing the full potential of geoinformation technology for the improvement of mankind". By combining their expertise, developing countries can respond adequately to the challenge of disseminating remote sensing techniques in their territories, and to create professional competence in this area.

International Regulation

Remote sensing activities are currently underregulated from the international point of view. The only international text on this issue is completely outdated: Principles Relating to Remote Sensing of the Earth from Outer Space approved by the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 41/65 in 1986. This Resolution has become outmoded due to numberless technological advances in the sector over the last 16 years.

In the 42nd Session of UN/COPUOS (United Nations Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space) Legal Subcommittee, held in Vienna, 24 March to 4 April 2003, Brazil submitted a Working Paper 11  in order to show how ineffective the current regulation is. Brazil sustains that an in-depth study should be conducted in order to update Remote Sensing Principles and to analyze the feasibility of elaborating a specific Convention on Remote Sensing.

Since private companies currently carry out the majority of remote sensing activities, some of the previously mentioned Principles no longer have any practical effects. As an example, Principle XII establishes that the State under observation by remote sensing satellites has the right of access to primary data, on a non-discriminatory basis and for a reasonable price. However, this does not occur nowadays. Technological and scientific purposes of remote sensing have been forsaken to business.

Lack of regulation works in favor of private companies from developed countries but does not contribute to the dissemination of remote sensing techniques in developing countries.


There is currently a stalemate in regard to revising Remote Sensing Principles. COPUOS must approve all proposals by a unanimous vote of its members. Some developed countries represented in COPUOS have refused to approve revision proposals because such reforms could jeopardize the profits of their private companies. Thus, Brazil has been unsuccessful in its attempts to approve its proposal for promoting an in-depth study in order to update Remote Sensing Principles and to analyze feasibility of elaborating a specific Convention on Remote Sensing. Brazil needs the full support of all developing countries and enlightened developed countries to pressure recalcitrant members of COPUOS to think globally for the benefit of mankind. The benefits to mankind are far greater than the current profits of a few multinational companies.

Since legal reform may be difficult, cooperation between developing countries that carry out space programs seems the best short-term solution. CBERS – China and Brazil Earth Resources Satellites - is a successful example of this kind of cooperation. But more data and expertise could be shared through universities and space agencies. Developing countries can also do more through joint education and training projects.


1 Motta, Adauto G. - "Historical Sketch of Space Research in Brazil" – 2nd edition, Foco, Natal, page 18. [Volta]

2 De Oliveira, Fabíola – "Pathways to Space", Contexto, São Paulo, 1991, page 60. [Volta]

3 De Oliveira, Fabíola – op. cit. – page 63  [Volta].

4 See INPE’s homepage (   [Volta]

5 Mussi, Raimundo F. – "Remote Sensing and its Regulation" – Brazilian Magazine of Aerospace Law, June/2003, #86, pages 8-11. [Volta]

6 De Oliveira, Fabíola – op. cit., page 81.  [Volta]

7 See "".   [Volta]

8 INPE News, #20, May/June 2003, page 3.  [Volta]

9 De Oliveira, Fabíola – op. cit., page 72.  [Volta]

10 Câmara, Gilberto – "Frameworks for Sustainability of GIS and Earth Observation Technologies in Developing Countries", presented at the 18th International CODATA Conference, Montreal, Canada, October 2002.   [Volta]

11 "Why is an International Convention on Remote Sensing of the Earth from Outer Space necessary", written by Prof. José Monserrat Filho, Vice-President of the Brazilian Society of Aerospace Law. [Volta]

(Volta ao Sumário)

barra.gif (3737 bytes)

| Associação Brasileira de Direito Aeronáutico e Espacial |