Rochester’s Remote Sensing History

Kodak’s long-secret intelligence legacy carries on at Harris Corp.


Not many people—particularly younger generations of geospatial intelligence professionals—are familiar with remote sensing’s roots in Rochester, N.Y.

Dr. Bob Fiete, chief technologist and fellow with Harris Corporation’s Space and Intelligence Systems business, recently gave a presentation on the city’s remote sensing history to students at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), and shared his research with trajectory.

One of the first aerial night photographs, captured by George W. Goddard over Rochester, N.Y., in 1925. Courtesy of Defense Visual Information Center.

Few people also realize the legacy of Harris’ space business is traced to Kodak—a longtime Rochester institution. Fiete just celebrated his 30th anniversary at Harris, but began his career with Kodak’s Remote Sensing Systems Group, which today is part of Harris Corporation.

Fiete began gathering information on the city’s remote sensing past shortly after the Harris acquisition, with the goal to introduce new colleagues who were experts in communications systems to the world and history of imaging systems.

Kodak first revolutionized reconnaissance with its invention of roll film in 1884. Eliminating the need for heavy, glass plates allowed for the development of smaller, lighter cameras. This in turned allowed military operators to transition from taking cameras up in hot air balloons to sending them up on kites—with explosives to trigger the shutter. The first cameras were fastened to rockets as early as 1897, and in 1904 the gyroscopically stabilized camera, which is still used today in some satellites, was invented to reduce motion blurring.

Kodak’s K-1 camera, designed for use in WWI. Courtesy of Defense Visual Information Center.

1909 marked the first documented aerial photograph from an airplane, taken by Wilbur Wright, but the first use of airborne surveillance and reconnaissance occurred during World War I, when Kodak K-1 cameras were attached to the side of planes to map trench networks. During World War II, Kodak miniaturized the F24, built by Fairchild, to create the K-24 camera.

In 1957, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik during the Cold War, the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) began to ask, “If we put a camera on a satellite how are we going to get the film back to Earth?” The CIA took on this challenge in 1960 with CORONA, the nation’s first photo reconnaissance satellite. CORONA was equipped with a film bucket that would return the film to Earth for capture via plane. Later CORONA satellites had two film buckets, with the first bucket recovery typically occurring within the first week from launch, and the second bucket recovered the following week before the satellite was decommissioned.

Imagery analysts gave first assessments of CORONA’s film as it was developed at Kodak’s Hawkeye facility—known as “Bridgehead” in the IC for its location adjacent to a bridge over the Genesee River—which became the first imaging ground station for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). It wasn’t until the existence of Bridgehead and several NRO programs were declassified in 2011 that many Kodak employees could finally tell their family and friends they’d actually been working on intelligence programs all those years.

In the early 1960s, Kodak developed a satellite camera system for the SAMOS program that would develop the film onboard, then scan the images for electronic transmission back to Earth in order to get them in front of analyst’s eyes sooner. The program was short-lived because the system proved inadequate for reconnaissance, but the technology turned out to be just what NASA sought for its Lunar Orbiter camera in order to image the lunar landing sites for the Apollo program.

When NRO launched the GAMBIT 1 and 3 satellites in 1963 and 1966, respectively, Kodak for the first time supplied not just the film, but also the satellite’s cameras. While GAMBIT provided focused imagery at a higher resolution, the HEXAGON satellite was launched in 1971—using Kodak film but not a Kodak camera—to cover wider areas at lower resolution. Together, the satellites “became America’s eyes in space,” according to the NRO.

From 1965 to 1969, the U.S. pursued development of the DORIAN Manned Orbiting Laboratory—which aimed to place a manned surveillance satellite in orbit. Though the program was canceled in 1969 before a manned vehicle was ever launched, its spending totaled $1.56 billion. Having been tasked to build the DORIAN camera, the program resulted in a large optics manufacturing capability for Kodak, which would later enable the company to develop commercial satellite cameras as Harris still does today.

After President Clinton approved the sale of 1-meter resolution commercial satellite imagery in 1994, Lockheed Martin contracted Kodak to build the camera for the IKONOS satellite. In 1999, IKONOS produced the first commercial, high-resolution, color digital images from space. Since then, the commercial remote sensing industry has grown exponentially, with companies now permitted to sell imagery at 0.25-meter resolution. Harris imaging systems, building upon the Kodak legacy, now fly on most large commercial satellites, including all of DigitalGlobe’s WorldView systems and the first GOES-R advanced weather satellite launched by NASA and NOAA in 2016. The company is moving into the small satellite arena as well.

According to Fiete, Rochester is experiencing an imaging science renaissance, and Harris is fortunate to partner with the city’s many universities, including the Center for Imaging Science at RIT and the Institute of Optics as well as the Goergen Institute for Data Sciences at the University of Rochester.

Harris is currently pursuing research and development efforts such as how to build better space optics—or how to make camera systems lighter while maintaining high image quality. The company is also interested in accelerating development, as it typically takes three years from start to launch to construct an imaging system.

Another key initiative for the company is image chain modeling that allows a computer to simulate the process that creates the image—in other words, allows Harris to see the images a camera would take and understand their quality before the camera is even built.

Looking forward, Harris aims to build data analytics directly into its platforms, according to Fiete.

“The key today is people don’t just want a camera that provides an image,” he concluded. “They want a camera that gives them the necessary data for making informed decisions.”

Featured image: Kodak’s Hawkeye facility, which was known as “Bridgehead” in classified circles. Photo Credit: R.D. Sherwood and J. Sherwood

Posted in: got geoint?   Tagged in: Innovation, Intelligence, Remote Sensing

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