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Malaysia and Earth Observation Systems

Remote sensing data was first used for forestry applications in the 1970s. Today the use of remote sensing imagery is widespread.

In an effort to make fully operational the utilization of remote sensing and related technologies such as geographic information systems (GIS) and satellite-based positioning in the country, a national resource and environmental management programme has been undertaken under the auspices of the Malaysia Centre for Remote Sensing (MACRES) to establish an operational remote sensing-based integrated natural resource and environmental database at the national level to support planning and decision-making. The programme encompasses three subsystems: (a) a satellite-based information extraction subsystem; (b) a spatial modelling subsystem utilizing GIS and an expert system; and (c) a decision-making subsystem. Focus is being placed on the development of technology in agriculture, forestry, geology, hydrology, environment, coastal zones, marine, topography and socio-economic applications. Among the important achievements of the programme to date are (a) the development of remote sensing and GIS applications for the monitoring of forest fires, the monitoring of water catchment areas and detection of change in forested areas; and (b) the development of a database and decision-making application tools for the system of national resource and environmental management.

South-east Asian countries are frequently affected by the smoke haze caused by forest fires and open burning of agricultural wastes. The haze episode of July-October 1997 was the worst environmental disaster recorded in recent years and resulted in considerable economic loss and as yet unquantified health repercussions on Malaysia and neighbouring countries in the region. In response to this, a total forest fire management plan was initiated utilizing the integration of remote sensing and GIS technologies to assist the Government in providing an operational system for management of forest fires. The plan consists of three components: (a) an early warning system; (b) a detection and monitoring system; and (c) measures and procedures for mitigation. The early warning system is aimed at producing maps that indicate areas that are susceptible to forest fires. The detection and monitoring component is being carried out via Earth observation satellites such as the French Système pour l'observation de la Terre (SPOT) satellites and meteorological satellites such as those of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) of the United States of America, and ground surveillance to provide the coordinating authority with near real-time information on the exact locations and extent of forest fires/open burning. The measures and procedures for mitigation are inter-agency activities implemented through a forest fire management and coordination centre to fight forest fires.

While MACRES is the leading agency for remote sensing applications, research on the subject is also carried out by universities such as Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM), Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) and Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM). Remote sensing user agencies include the Malaysia Agriculture Research and Development Institute (MARDI) and the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia (FRIM).

Research carried out at the UTM Department of Remote Sensing covers bathymetry, seabed features, vegetation index mapping, sea surface temperature, seagrass mapping, study of landslide-prone areas, oil slick studies and land use mapping.

The UPM Centre for Remote Sensing and Geographic Information Systems is conducting research programmes on a pavement management system, a road accident information system, coastal zone management, irrigation resources and environmental changes.

Remote sensing for forestry applications undertaken by FRIM include forest inventory, mapping, rehabilitation and monitoring. Microwave remote sensing is expected to improve the coverage of critical areas. At MARDI, past research included crop surveillance and a land resource inventory, while current research activities cover, among other things, spatial modelling for regional agricultural development and characterization of plant species.

Several companies offering remote sensing applications services have emerged. A ground receiving station able to receive optical and radar images is currently under construction under the coordination of MACRES.

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