Doing Good

Celebrating Valerie Thomas: A Multispectral Innovator & 3D Imaging Pioneer

February 18, 2021

At DroneDeploy, we’re continually inspired by unprecedented, experimental trailblazers in the GIS space. This Black History Month, we’re spotlighting Valerie Thomas: a multispectral innovator and 3D imaging pioneer whose illusion transmitter revolutionized the way we create, see, and utilize 3D images.

A portrait of Valerie Thomas.

Growing up in 1940s Maryland, Valerie’s interest in math and sciences began at an early age when she discovered “The Boys’ First Book on Electronics.” Inspired by her father’s interest in mechanics, she envisioned working alongside and assisting him with various house projects. Instead, he enrolled her in an all-girls school that stressed traditional gender roles and career options, and deemphasized math and science.

Perpetually fascinated by new technologies, Valerie was a natural student and accelerated in what little advanced mathematics coursework was available to her. Unfortunately, though, she had little support from those around her and continuously met challenges and roadblocks in pursuit of higher education. Nevertheless, Valerie persevered, excelling in school and earning a physics degree from Morgan State University. Her resilience and fortitude ultimately landed her a job as a mathematical data analyst for NASA.


There, she honed her skills in developing image-processing systems for Landsat, NASA’s first satellite to take real-time multispectral images from space, for resource management applications. As the longest continuously running record of satellite imagery, the Landsat project is still providing decision-makers with free data on climate change, weather events, and natural resources. A revolutionary feat in 1972, this data led to heading even more projects, including a joint effort with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which used satellite imagery to predict wheat yields.

After attending a scientific seminar in 1976, Valerie began experimenting with 3D imagery on her own, with the goal of video and television enhancements. Just four years later, she created the illusion transmitter - a powerful tool that uses two concave mirrors and rays of light to produce optical illusions. Working similarly to a holographic production, this is an expensive and time-consuming process, which eventually led to her decision to sell the technology to NASA, which ensured more frequent commercial use. This invention and subsequent business decisions influenced relevant health and entertainment applications that we still use today, including developing 3D films.

Although retired, 78-year-old Valerie Thomas remains a highly-decorated leader in her field and an inspiration to those facing insurmountable odds. Her determination and ingenuity are why we have such detailed topographic data today, and her work is reflective in the 3D models we create at DroneDeploy. It’s impossible to predict, but we’re confident our industry would not be what it is today without Valerie Thomas, and the persistent pioneers of math, science, and technology owe Thomas a debt of gratitude. It’s an honor to salute Ms. Thomas during this Black History Month for her ingenuity, persistence, tenacity, and downright brilliance.

If you’re interested in learning more about drone technology, download our free State of the Drone Industry 2021 report.

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