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UC Berkeley Press Release

Robert Colwell, professor emeritus of forestry and remote sensing pioneer, dies at 87

– Robert N. Colwell, professor emeritus of forestry at the University of California, Berkeley, a 1983 winner of the Berkeley Citation, and a pioneer in the field of remote sensing, died on April 14. He was 87.

Over the course of more than half a century, Colwell developed a reputation as one of the world's most respected leaders in remote sensing, a field he stewarded from the interpretation of aerial photographs to the advanced acquisition and analysis of many types of geospatial data. His career included nearly 40 years of teaching and research at UC Berkeley, a distinguished record of military service, and prominent roles both in private industry and as a consultant for many U.S. and international agencies.

Robert Colwell with aerial photo
Robert Colwell was a pioneer in the acquisition and interpretation of aerial photographs.

A native of Star, Idaho, Colwell entered UC Berkeley as a 16-year-old freshman, earned a B.S. in forestry in 1938, and a Ph.D. in plant physiology from UC Davis in 1942. Shortly thereafter, he was commissioned in the U.S. Naval Reserve, where he was an air combat intelligence officer for the invasion and capture of Guadalcanal; then chief instructor of the Navy's Photo Intelligence School in Washington, D.C., and finally, chief of photo intelligence for the planning and execution of the Okinawa Campaign. At the end of the war, Colwell was placed in charge of the Navy's training programs in photo interpretation and photogrammetry.

While he continued in the Naval Reserve after the war, in 1947 Colwell was appointed to the faculty of UC Berkeley's School of Forestry, where his focus on photographic interpretation later evolved into a program in remote sensing. His accomplishments included development of aerial photography methods to identify tropical vegetation, determine water depth, and measure the prevalence of diseases in agricultural crops.

From the 1960s on, Colwell pioneered new methods of satellite photography and reconnaissance. He intuitively grasped that new fluorescent and radiographic techniques would forever change human ability to observe and map the Earth.

"Just as our musical appreciation is increased greatly when more than one or two octaves are exploited," Colwell wrote in a 1961 American Scientist article, "so also is our appreciation of the physical universe, through multiband spectral reconnaissance, which already can exploit more than forty 'octaves.' "

Colwell was a voracious writer, authoring more than 400 scientific and professional articles and editing the two definitive references in his field: "The Manual of Photographic Interpretation" (1960) and "The Manual of Remote Sensing, Second Edition" (1983).

Colwell was a catalyst for the development of remote-sensing techniques during his service as associate director of the UC Berkeley's Space Sciences Laboratory from 1969 to 1983. In addition, in 1969 he played a key role at the NASA-USDA Forestry Remote Sensing Lab, where he led Apollo IX "Special Experiment No. 065," a multi-band photographic experiment that was among the highlights of his research career. He went on to play an instrumental role in the launch of LANDSAT 1, which almost immediately revolutionized the fields of cartography, forestry, geology and land use.

Despite his other obligations, Colwell continued to serve in the Naval Reserve, working in photographic intelligence during the Korean and Vietnam wars and on other special assignments over the years. In 1974, he was promoted to rear admiral and became the first director of the Naval Reserve Intelligence Program, a position he held until 1977. Among Colwell's military awards were the Bronze Star, the Navy Commendation Medal, and two Presidential Unit Citations. In 1972, he received the Congressional Commendation Award, and in 1977, he was awarded the Legion of Merit by President Jimmy Carter.

In the private sector, Colwell's research in multi-spectral analysis provided a key asset in the early days of Earth Satellite Corporation, where he had a lead role in mapping for the first time 6 million square acres of the Amazon Basin. "Many people were talking about these new technologies," said Robert Porter, founder and former chairman of the company, "but Bob concentrated on getting out there and doing it."

During the first part of his career, Colwell served as director of UC Berkeley's Forestry Summer Camp and was known as "Bullet Bob" for his habit of leading full-speed student hikes, a style of leadership that spanned his career. "Bob set a rigorous pace for everyone, but he didn't leave people behind. If you were a part of his team, you were inspired to keep up," said Robin Welch, a 1949 summer camp student of Colwell's who went on to become a colleague and lifelong friend.

Later in Colwell's career, that same ceaseless energy allowed him to balance the many facets of his career with the needs of his students. "Bob would often take a red-eye to D.C., work for a full day for NASA, the Forest Service, or the CIA, and then fly back that night to meet with his 8 a.m. class," said Welch.

Colwell was widely known among UC Berkeley students for his commitment to teaching. "He really looked after his people and was concerned about their welfare," said UC Berkeley Professor Dennis Teeguarden, once a student of Colwell's and later chair of the forestry department. "Bob was a true mentor in all respects."

Colwell retired from the university in 1983, but continued his work on the board of directors of EarthSat Corporation and as a private consultant.

In June 1986, Colwell headed the U.S. delegation for a Vatican study, "Uses of Photo Interpretation and Remote Sensing to Help People in Developing Countries." This culminated in an audience with Pope John Paul II. The study recommendations were adopted by the Vatican and by the General Assembly of the United Nations.

In his private life, Colwell was an active member of the Presbyterian Church and an avid trout fisherman.

Colwell married Betty Louise Larson in April 1942. Their marriage lasted 57 years, until Betty's death in 2000. He is survived by their four children, Arthur Colwell of Lakeport, Calif., John Colwell of Ann Arbor, Mich., Nancy Colwell Coronado of Benicia, Calif., and Robert Colwell, Jr. of Vienna, Va.; and seven grandchildren.

Donations can be made in Colwell's memory to the Deacon Fund or the Building Fund at Walnut Creek Presbyterian Church, 1801 Lacassie Ave., Walnut Creek, CA 94596.