October 21, 2020

PART 3 – A larger context: establishing the applied remote sensing cluster

by Prof. Stefan Dech

We were hardly used to our new roles when new structural adversities threatened. The Executive Board established a structure commission spanning individual institutes and physical locations to evaluate the two fields “earth observation” and “communication/navigation”. The chairman was Prof. Philipp Hartl, a cunning old fox and recognized expert in space matters from their beginning. We as a young leadership team were surrounded by experienced directors who were up to every trick: Ulrich Schumann, Wolfgang Keydel, Franz Lanzl, Gerhard Neukum, and Hans-Peter Röser, to name just a few of them. We had just managed to steer DFD into calmer waters, consolidate it, and develop it further. That task alone was already enormous.

But that had nothing to do with it; it was clear to us that we had to be proactive and come up with our own proposal if we wanted to avoid having a decision made over our heads. No matter from what angle we looked at the problem, DFD was already too large to be able to maintain its existing structural composition and would have to be modified again. Only a willingness to sacrifice our own newly-organised institute, with all the consequences, for the sake of a new, even better structure would give our proposal the necessary credibility and acceptance.

I remember well my discussions with Richard Bamler. We knew that we had to come up with something that pointed the way ahead, something new. We finally came up with a plan and moulded it into a concept that we sent to Mr Kröll with a covering letter. Our suggestion was that the research carried out at the Institute of Optoelectronics (Prof. Lanzl was about to retire) and the associated methodological topics at DFD be combined in a new institute, strengthened by a branch entity working on marine remote sensing in Berlin-Adlershof: the Remote Sensing Technology Institute (IMF) was conceptually born. DFD was to concentrate in the future on the payload ground segment and on applied research. Two working groups from the Institute of Optoelectronics (hyperspectral remote sensing) and high-frequency technology (SAR applications) would augment research at DFD. We decided to give up ionosphere research in Neustrelitz to a new Institute of Communications and Navigation (a reorientation of the previous Institute of Satellite Electronics), so that in future there would be three DLR entities based in Neustrelitz: branch offices of DFD and IMF, and the new IKN . We also saw that as good opportunity to further develop that DLR location. Our suggestion thus affected five existing institutes at three locations and meant the creation of a new institute. One institute was to be closed down.

The two applied earth observation institutes, IMF and DFD, were to be led as a dispersed cluster working at four DLR locations (Oberpfaffenhofen, Neustrelitz, Berlin-Adlershof, and Cologne-Porz), resembling a large institute with a shared, centralised department superstructure handling matters common to all the cluster entities (a unique constellation for DLR ) like strategy, resources and public relations. It was a rather daring proposal that was rejected by many a DLR “oldtimer” with comments like “It’ll never work!” Nevertheless, the Structure Commission and the Executive Board fully endorsed our suggestion in autumn 1999 and despite some defensive manoeuvres the Applied Remote Sensing Cluster (C-AF) was established on January 1, 2000 and began operations. Richard Bamler was appointed head of IMF with me as his deputy, and I was appointed head of an again reorganized DFD with Richard Bamler as my deputy. We had joint, all-day monthly meetings with all the department heads, and coordinated our running of the cluster, which had grown to some 350 employees, in the manner that had become customary with us.

First meeting of the Custer AF management team on January 7, 2000.
From left to right: Gunter Schreier, head of the central function Business Development and Marketing; Dr Michael Bittner, DFD head of Climate and Atmosphere Products; Hans Voß, assistant to the head of IMF; Dr Richard Bamler, head of IMF; Dr Harald Mehl, DFD head of Environment and Geoinformation; Dr Stefan Dech, head of DFD; Dr Peter Haschberger, IMF head of Experimental Methodologies; Dr Kurt Schmidt, DFD head of Information Technology; Susan Giegerich, assistant to the head of DFD; Dr Klaus Reiniger, DFD head of the International Ground Segment; Dr Robert Backhaus, DFD head of Working Groups, Cologne-Porz; Jörg Gredel, head of the central function Strategic Planning and Resources; Dr Dieter Bettac, DFD head of the National Ground Segment, Neustrelitz; Dr Tom Rother, IMF head of Atmosphere Processes; Prof. Manfred Schroeder, IMF head of Algorithms and Methodologies; Dr Andreas Neumann, IMF head of Optical Marine Remote Sensing.

Further development of the AF Cluster

In the first year or two we really did not always have an easy time of it. The cultures and approaches of the newly compiled management team and of our departments had developed differently historically. That did not turn out to be a disadvantage in the medium term. A pronounced spirit of solidarity in Cluster AF soon came into being and we learned from each other. This was encouraged by monthly meetings and annual three-day strategy retreats that brought us closer together. Already in the third year I experienced Cluster-AF at our retreat at Irsee Monastery as a close-knit community. The whole team was on a first-name basis from then on. We were able to further develop competence in our fields of specialization and also put ourselves on a firm economic foundation.

At the Cluster AF strategy retreat in 2003 in Grainau.
Clockwise from top left: Kurt Schmidt, Manfred Schroeder, Thomas Trautmann (Tom Rother’s successor), Gunter Schreier (lecturing), Susan Giegerich, Michael Bittner, Holger Maass (Dieter Bettac‘s successor), Robert Meisner, Klaus Reiniger, Hans-Henning Voß

In order to accomplish this, some difficult decisions again had to be made. For reasons of expense and efficiency I finally had to make up my mind – also after intensive consultation with Prof. Bachem – to again give up the “small” DFD branches in Cologne-Porz and Berlin-Adlershof. All the affected staff were however offered good positions to continue working with us either in Oberpfaffenhofen, Neustrelitz, or at my DLR cooperation chair of remote sensing at Würzburg University, which had been established in 2001. Most of them remained at DLR, others made impressive careers in Europe, like Dr Peter Bauer at ECMWF or Dr Bianca Hörsch at ESA.

After the two institutes were established as Cluster AF, applications for the positions of directors were also finally solicited, together with positions at Munich Technical University (for IMF) and Würzburg University (for DFD), following the usual, open university selection process. Richard Bamler and I successfully applied for both and in 2003 and 2001, respectively, were formally appointed directors of our DLR institutes and at the same time professors at the two universities, which both had arrangements for such cooperation appointments. This cooperation with the universities meant that the further development that had been initiated in the fields of specialization at DFD and IMF could yet again be significantly strengthened. Prof. Manfred Schroeder (IMF) and Dr Klaus-Dieter Reiniger (DFD) became our deputies.

After the first few years, my cooperation chair in Würzburg that had been established in 2001 focused on the fields of land surface dynamics, terrestrial ecosystems, agrohydrology and biodiversity. I had decided to use the funds available for appointments, which had been made available by Prof. Bachem for this cooperation, as DLR positions assigned to Würzburg. They were the first nucleus of our group now working at the university and averaging 20-30 people.

My first two DFD staff delegated to the Würzburg group:
Dr. Thilo Wehrmann (front) and Dr. Christopher Conrad (now a University professor in Halle), 2003

Collaboration was greatly intensified with our DFD “Environment and Geoinformation” department (which had evolved from what was formerly “Remote Sensing Applications” and later renamed “Environment and Security”). Dr Michael Schmidt took over as my local deputy in Würzburg and further developed the field of remote sensing and biodiversity research.

At this time at DFD we began to increasingly turn our attention from methodological investigation of the applications potential of remote sensing to analysing in a geosciences context and developing new product lines.

In parallel we began a collaboration with Augsburg University in the area of atmosphere remote sensing for which Michael Bittner successfully applied, and which thereafter strengthened our research through the interplay of his DFD department and Augsburg University. In addition, we put effort into developing a concept that would be viable in the long term for using Schneefernerhaus on Mount Zugspitze and that is today’s Environmental Research Station (UFS) under the aegis of the Bavarian Ministry of the Environment.

Schneefernerhaus Environmental Research Station

This successfully functioning concept of a virtual institute was developed in close coordination with the first Consortium Board spokesman, Prof. Siegfried Specht. Since 2008 Michael Bittner has been spokesman of the UFS Science Team in addition to leading his DFD department, and I represent DLR on the UFS Consortium Board. For both of us these positions are fulfilling as well as always gratifying responsibilities.

In addition to environmental and, increasingly, climate topics, we also recognized the importance of “civil security” issues already at the beginning of the 2000s. This was furthered by successful joint-project applications for BMBF funding to work on topics like out-of-control coal fires in China (ChiCo) or ecosystem research in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta (WISDOM). We saw the enormous potential of remote sensing for pre-emptive, management, and remediation activities associated with natural disasters. Suitable in-house expertise was accordingly assembled, the first standard data products were defined, workshops were organised together with users from the relevant public agencies, and data products useful for national-level disaster management were provided (such as for the flooding of the Elbe river in 2002 und 2006). On April 1, 2004 we founded a Center for Satellite Based Crisis Information (ZKI) in a quite unspectacular way by activating a first formal website at Harald Mehl’s suggestion. Not even DLR was really aware of it in the beginning. We wanted to first gain a reputation by achievement and not because of any premature praise or announcements.

Then came December 25, 2004. After an overwhelming magnitude 9.1 submarine earthquake with an epicentre ca. 85 km northwest of Sumatra, a devastating tsunami was generated that caused an estimated 250,000 human lives and wrecked large parts of the bordering Pacific Ocean coasts. ZKI immediately got to work and generated maps based on historic and up-to-date satellite data that documented the extent of damage. This material was an important help for local THW  and Red Cross workers at the disaster locations – and since the images we provided had not escaped the attention of politicians either, ZKI became known first of all in Germany and later worldwide.

Launching in 2005 in the office of the German federal chancellor the establishent of a German-Indonesian Tsunami Early Warning System.
Federal Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and Minister Edelgard Bulmahn during a presentation by Prof. Emmermann (GFZ) and Prof. Herzog (IFM-Geomar). Information in ZKI maps undergirded the proposal.

Just a short time later the executive boards of some of the Helmholtz Centres launched a GFZ led initiative that proposed German assistance consisting of the establishment of a tsunami early warning system. By 2011 a total exceeding 60 million euro had been made available for a new project – financed by BMBF. DFD was also involved from the beginning through ZKI, but our contribution prioritised the development of an early warning data centre in Jakarta as well as a near-real-time decision support system (DSS). The GITEWS project began in 2005 and over the following seven years demanded a great deal from all participants. But in the end we were able to successfully build up new geoinformation competence and in 2011, jointly with GFZ and its project leader Dr Jörn Lauterjung, hand over to Indonesia a fully functional and highly innovative early warning system.

It set standards at the time and for good reason differed in many respects from the US American systems approach. A reduced version of our DSS could be employed a few years later also in Chile for its military hydrographic service (SHOA), which much later was also an important basis for a new BMBF research project on “risk cascades” in the Andes region (RIESGOS). We wanted to use what we had learned also for other projects and topics, so after the tsunami GITEWS  project we started our own programmatic development initiative that put us in a position to very quickly configure thematically-specific geoinformation clients and use them in new projects. The UKIS  project (Environmental and Crisis Information Systems) was born, and continues to evolve

GITEWS – Handing over to Indonesia the German-Indonesian Tsunami Early Warning System in 2011 in Jakarta

In parallel we could utilize ZKI step by step also for Europe’s Copernicus services and to meet national needs. One highlight was the signing of a contract between the Federal Ministry of the Interior (represented by State Secretary Cornelia Rogall-Grothe) and the chairman of the DLR Executive Board (Prof. Jan Wörner) in 2013 to provide ZKI services to federal authorities (ZKI-DE). Shortly before, we played a large role in ensuring that DLR joined the International Charter Space and Major Disasters, and ZKI has since that time responsibility for operative tasks relating to the employment of German satellites on behalf of DLR in its role as “Space Agency”.

Starting in 2021, the well-tested operative functions of ZKI-DE will be transferred to BKG, which we regard as a sign of the great success of our efforts. Proof has been forthcoming that remote sensing is indispensable in the governmental operative area. In two EU projects in the early 2010s we likewise had a leading role in helping to set up Europe‘s Copernicus emergency service for disaster management, which has time and again proven its worth.

The number and expansion of topics and projects also gave us new opportunities in 2009 to spin-off from the “Environment and Security” department two new departments that set their own priorities: “Land Surface Dynamics” (DFD-LAX, led by Prof. Claudia Künzer) and “Georisks and Civil Security” (DFD-GZS, led by Prof. Günter Strunz).

In the payload ground segment area the move into the new Cluster AF structures could be carried out rapidly and without problem. The specialist and personal communication links to SAR and atmosphere spectrometer processor developments continued, with the difference that our processor development colleagues were now part of IMF. Our knowledge was enhanced by the enormous competence in stereo-optical and hyperspectral remote sensing at IMF provided by Prof. Manfred Schroeder, Prof. Peter Reinartz and others from the former Institute of Optoelectronics, and by Dr Andreas Neumann from the marine remote sensing group in Berlin. A first milestone and acid test for Clusters AF was our first formal review in 2006, which brought us certification of outstanding work of international quality.

My little visualisation group of the 1990er evolved into a separate specialist department, “Science Communication and Visualisation”, that has for some time been active beyond the borders of EOC. When Cluster AF was established it was intended to make its services one of the EOC central functions, but solely for administrative reasons we had to refrain from doing that and made it instead a DFD department, led by Dr Robert Meisner. Since 2008 he has been responsible at ESA for public relations in Frascati relating to earth observation. His successor at DFD was a younger colleague, Nils Sparwasser. The department is today an efficient and professional interdisciplinary team of experts creating exceptional science visualisations, animations, and lately also project and feature documentations in a film format for exhibitions. We also one operate one of the largest DFD websites. With this department we could considerably expand the visibility of remote sensing in the public arena. My former group had already cooperated in the early years with ZDF and Dieter Walch, and our products could be seen on the ZDF weather map during evening news presentations. We have for several years now been cooperating with ARD and Sven Plöger and his team, and since then our visualizations - and features if required - have been enriching ARD weather presentations on television.

Sven Plöger with a DFD data product during a weather forecast

Our cooperation with publishing houses also turned out to be especially fruitful. Extremely successful cooperation with the publishing pair Gert Frederking and Monika Thaler led to three books with large-format illustrations that appeared internationally in several languages: Kunstwerk Erde (2001), Mountains from Space (2005) and Globaler Wandel (2008). We had planned our latest project – this time with Piper Verlag – again together with that great narrator of Alpine history, Reinhold Messner, to appear on the 10th anniversary of Mountains from Space in 2015. But that project, Unseen Extremes: Mapping the World’s Greatest Mountains, was so complex to produce that it appeared only in 2016. It showed mountains that epitomized the history of Alpinism together with spectacular images employing innovative 3D processing of data from US American and French satellites. I especially remember that the first results of this data processing approach assisted Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner in her sixth attempt to reach the summit of K2 in 2011. That made her the first woman in the world to climb all 14 of the eight-thousand-meter-high peaks without additional oxygen.

Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner and Ralf Dujmovits on a visit to Cluster AF in 2011 shortly before their departure for K2,
together with Pablo d’Angelo, Tanja Kraus, Hartmut Friedl, Stefan Dech and Peter Reinartz
Unseen Extremes: Mapping the World’s Greatest Mountains and other DFD books with large-format illustrations


Prof. Dr. Stefan Dech

Direktor DFD
Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt (DLR)
Earth Observation Center (EOC)
Deutsches Fernerkundungsdatenzentrum (DFD)
Oberpfaffenhofen, 82234 Weßling
Tel: +49 8153 28-2885