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Thomas ESCH

German Aerospace Center (DLR)


"Global Urban Monitoring Based on Radar Satellites - with Data from Space to Informed Decisions"

German Aerospace Center (DLR), Germany

The advancing global urbanization is one of the central social challenges of the coming decades. For this reason, DLR's Smart Cities and Spatial Development team has been providing innovative data and information on the status and dynamics of the built environment worldwide and for many years. In 2014, for example, the Global Urban Footprint (GUF) was finalized, the first complete global map of settlement areas with a spatial accuracy of 12 meters per pixel - a level of precision never achieved before. Using a specially developed methodology, over 20 million data sets, including 180,000 images from the German radar satellites TerraSAR-X and TanDEM-X were processed in combination with digital terrain models and voluntarily collected geographical information such as open Street Map. To date, well over 600 institutions from more than 40 countries have used our GUF data for their daily work, including the United Nations and the World Bank.

The latest milestone on the way to supporting planners and decision-makers in shaping sustainable urbanization is the World Settlement Footprint (WSF). As the successor to the GUF, the WSF initiative covers a whole range of novel information products with global coverage. These developments are based on a number of technical innovations (e.g. the use of open and free input data, combination of radar and multi-spectral information, evaluation of comprehensive time series analyses, cloud capability) as well as on the profound insights gained from the feedback and requirement profiles of the GUF user community.


Dr. Thomas Esch is leader of the team “Smart Cities and Spatial Development” and project manager at the German Aerospace Center (DLR). He received the Diploma degree in Applied Physical Geography from the University of Trier, Germany, in 2003, and the Ph.D. degree in Physical Geography and Remote Sensing from the University of Wuerzburg, Germany, in 2006. Since 2008 he is with the German Remote Sensing Data Center (DFD) of DLR’s Earth Observation Center (EOC) where he researches into remote sensing applications for urban and spatial planning, sustainable development, land management, energy efficiency and urban micro-climate. Dr. Esch has coordinated and participated in more than 20 national and international projects (i.a., Global Urban Footprint, Urban Thematic Exploitation Platform). In the Group on Earth Observation (GEO) he is Co-Lead of task GI-17 “Global Urban Observation and Information” and member of the Steering Committee of the ”Human Planet Initiative”. Dr. Esch is also assistant lecturer at the Hochschule für Technik in Stuttgart, Germany. His research activities are documented by contributions to more than 35 peer-reviewed journal publications, 25 book chapters and 170 conferences and workshops.