Wisconsin Geospatial News

Inspired by his father, Lillesand’s interest in remote sensing began early

Editor’s note: This is the last of three interviews with retiring UW-Madison professors Frank Scarpace, Alan Vonderohe, and Tom Lillesand. All three have had a tremendous impact on geospatial technology not only in Wisconsin, but nationally and internationally as well.  Ted Koch recently spoke with Dr. Tom Lillesand, Emeritus Professor with the UW Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, and former Director of the UW Environmental Remote Sensing Center (ERSC).

Dr. Tom Lillesand

Tom, let’s begin with your educational background and the beginnings of your career. How did you become interested in the field of remote sensing, and what brought you to UW-Madison?

Let’s start at the very beginning, I grew up in Madison, and graduated from Edgewood High School. My formative years were very much influenced by the events of the decades of the 50s and 60s – the launching of the Russian Sputnik satellite in 1957, the Vietnam War, the Sterling Hall bombing on campus, and the first Earth Day in 1970.

In middle school, one day my math teacher’s husband came to our class to give a show and tell about his work with a future weather satellite. I was really intrigued in that operational weather satellites didn’t exist at the time. That math teacher’s articulate husband happened to be Vern Suomi, the father of imaging weather satellites. His show and tell had a profound influence on me about science, professors, and imaging satellites. Also, and maybe the most significant influence, came from my father. He was in charge of aerial mapping for the local U.S. Department of Agriculture office. At various times I helped locate control points on photos and then went with him into the field to mark these points on the ground. It was during those times that I came to realize that I wanted a career related to mapping and imagery.

Following high school I enrolled at UW-Madison in the mid-60s, beginning in Mechanical Engineering. I soon realized that Civil Engineering was where I wanted to be, graduating in 1969. During my undergrad years I took a number of courses related to transportation and surveying which have stayed as interests throughout my career.

Following completion of my undergrad studies I considered going to law school or to the business school. Ultimately, I was awarded a UW fellowship in business. About the same time, Prof. Jim Clapp contacted me offering a teaching assistantship in Surveying and Photogrammetry. In those days the campus allowed the transfer of fellowships between departments, so I transferred from business to surveying and photogrammetry.

After the completion of my Master’s degree, I continued on for a Ph.D. With the financial support of a NASA grant, I investigated the use of remote sensing for water resources management. During that work I became interested in scanning images digitally, and the processing of those images. At that same time, my colleague Frank Scarpace rescued an x-ray scanning device from the Medical School that was being disposed of, and we began to use it to scan airphotos. 

Following my Ph. D. studies, I accepted a teaching position at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry at Syracuse University. I stayed there from 1973 to 1978, then moving to the University of Minnesota from 1978 to 1982. In 1982, I made the decision to return to UW-Madison. The position I accepted was attached to the (then) Department of Forestry and the Institute for Environmental Studies. I returned to the UW because it was different, different in terms of quality, number of colleagues in the mapping sciences, and faculty governance. Madison just offered so many more opportunities, including returning home.

Over the past 20-plus years, how have students and the campus changed?

Technology has so dramatically changed the way we teach. When I began offering remote sensing classes it was chalk on a blackboard, now we use live Internet feeds; then we analyzed images using only pocket stereoscopes, now we use digital image processing on desktop computers. The teaching landscape has dramatically changed.

The way students learn and what they learn has changed too. Maybe it shows the era I came from, but I believe that students used to interact with one another more. Now, I think more time is spent inward with cell phones, iPods, etc.  Before the instant accessibility of information via the Internet, students spent more time in libraries, which I think provided a sense of history to students that I don’t think they develop as thoroughly today. Students today have such wide access to information, but I question how much knowledge they acquire. I equate it to the finding of key words vs. mastering and applying key concepts. Some, not all, have a feeling that there is little need to spend time learning about information that is only a Google away. They also are subjected to PowerPoint overload. Getting the most out of instructional technology is a challenge to students and teachers alike.

Tom, as you move to retirement from your long career as a professor what would you rate as your proudest achievement? 

No question, that number one is the potential positive influence I have had on others. Over the years, I have had the pleasure of advising 76 graduate students at the Master’s and Ph.D. levels, have taught thousands of students and served on hundreds of graduate student committees. I have prided myself on being a demanding mentor and a thorough researcher, traits that I believe have rubbed-off on my students. Many of them are in key positions in the geospatial field throughout the world. I could not be prouder of them.

Next to the students is the textbook I co-authored with Ralph Kiefer, and now Jonathan Chipman as well. The first edition of Remote Sensing and Image Interpretation was published in 1979. It was based primarily on notes from the first remote sensing courses I taught at Syracuse. The sixth edition will be out next year. The book has been translated into a variety of languages and has withstood the test of roughly 30 years of adoption both here in the U.S. and internationally. I feel extremely fortunate to have had some influence on how remote sensing has been taught over this course of time.

Also, of much satisfaction is the influence I hope I’ve had on the Landsat Satellite Program. I served on the Landsat Advisory Committee, and on four different occasions I had the privilege to testifying before congressional committees advocating for continued funding of the Landsat Program. I’ve also enjoyed similar advocacy for the field of remote sensing and geospatial information technology as a national officer of the American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (ASPRS).

Finally, I have been a big proponent of the Wisconsin Idea, the notion that the walls of the University extend to the borders of the state. I think the Wisconsin Idea is exemplified in many of the large initiatives I was involved in over the years, such as the land cover mapping done through the WISCLAND Initiative, the statewide lake clarity studies, the NASA sponsored ARC projects where we worked with fifteen different businesses, and the work we did to try to attract the NCGIA project to UW-Madison in the late 1980s.

What do you think the future looks like for the field of remote sensing, both here at UW and nationally?

Well, certainly from a national and even global perspective, remote sensing is still in its infancy. Worldwide, we don’t understand many of the natural processes and the effects of humankind on these processes. The use of remote sensing technologies and applications can help unlock some of that mystery. We are on the front-end of multinational cooperation in this regard. Constellations of smart mini-satellites operating in global sensor webs are already a reality. I’ve always said that the business of looking down is looking up.

Closer to home, I wish I could offer such an optimistic picture. However, the problem here is primarily budgetary. Over the past several years at the UW we have experienced staff loss affecting our capacity to apply remote sensing and photogrammetry into GIS applications. But, I should note, the campus does continue to have major faculty strength using GIS applications in Forestry, Geology and Geography.

In my opinion, the UW campus needs to reinvest in a broadly based, world-class geospatial information sciences program. We need key hires in measurement science, image processing and analysis. We need to encourage interdisciplinary research, but budget reductions make that so difficult to accomplish and sustain. As administrators face budget challenges, they understandably shrink into their shells. The lost opportunity costs of doing that are just too high in this field and on this world-class research campus. Geospatial technology is becoming increasingly central to the State’s economic and environmental well being. Collectively we can’t afford to lose our leadership in this area.

You have now completed your teaching career here at UW, what new challenges are you taking on in the future?

I hope to remain active as an emeritus faculty member and possibly as a Senior Scientist on research projects. I will continue to do consulting activities as an expert witness in court cases that involve image analysis, and I chair the Board of Trustees of the ASPRS Foundation. We are working hard to raise the funds to endow and enrich all the national scholarship and awards offered by the society. I plan to spend more time with my family, do some traveling, and spend more time fishing for muskies near our cabin in the Minocqua area.

Tom, on behalf of the Mapping Bulletin readers and myself, let me congratulate you on a successful teaching and research career, and the positive impact your work and mentoring has had on others.

Thank you Ted, I’ve had a wonderful academic career, and it’s been a pleasure to be involved with the SCO in a number of projects over the years. I want to thank you and all the other members of the UW-Madison community and beyond who have been so supportive of my activities during my tenure here.