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Retrieval of Remote Sensing Images with Pattern Spectra Descriptors

Institut de Recherche en Informatique et Systèmes Aléatoires, Université Bretagne Sud, 56000 Vannes, France
Institute of Information Technologies, Gebze Technical University, 41400 Kocaeli, Turkey
Institut de Recherche en Informatique et Systèmes Aléatoires, Université Rennes 1, 35000 Rennes, France
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
ISPRS Int. J. Geo-Inf. 2016, 5(12), 228;
Received: 5 June 2016 / Revised: 11 November 2016 / Accepted: 17 November 2016 / Published: 2 December 2016
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Mathematical Morphology in Geoinformatics)


The rapidly increasing volume of visual Earth Observation data calls for effective content based image retrieval solutions, specifically tailored for their high spatial resolution and heterogeneous content. In this paper, we address this issue with a novel local implementation of the well-known morphological descriptors called pattern spectra. They are computationally efficient histogram-like structures describing the global distribution of arbitrarily defined attributes of connected image components. Besides employing pattern spectra for the first time in this context, our main contribution lies in their dense calculation, at a local scale, thus enabling their combination with sophisticated visual vocabulary strategies. The Merced Landuse/Landcover dataset has been used for comparing the proposed strategy against alternative global and local content description methods, where the introduced approach is shown to yield promising performances.

1. Introduction

Visual Earth Observation technologies are of crucial importance to contemporary societies, as the scale of our effect on our surroundings is now greater than ever. Moreover, the rapid improvement of spatial and spectral resolutions of image acquisition devices has rendered satellite and aerial imagery an invaluable source of information with an ever-growing range of social, environmental and military applications. Consequently, this constant proliferation and increasing sophistication of remotely sensed images has created an urgent need for equally effective and efficient methods for their exploitation.
More specifically, the rapid accumulation of gigabytes worth of aerial and satellite data on a daily basis has rendered scalable, robust and automated tools, designed for their management, search, and retrieval, essential for their effective exploitation. This motivates us to focus on the retrieval of such aerial overhead images and propose a novel approach for their content based description and retrieval.
Content based image retrieval (CBIR) is typically achieved by means of computing descriptors [1,2,3,4], either globally for the whole image [5,6] or on selected [1,7,8] or predetermined parts of the image [9,10]. In case the descriptors are computed locally on patches, which produces multiple descriptors per image, they are first aggregated to produce a singular descriptor entry for each image [11,12]. Finally, the image descriptors are further used in dedicated indexing schemes [9,13,14,15] to achieve the end goal of successful retrieval.
Mathematical morphology has long enjoyed the attention of the remote sensing image analysis community, especially in terms of pixel classification with morphological profiles [16] and more recently attribute profiles [17,18,19,20], as it possesses unique tools capable of spatial-spectral content analysis. Its application to content based retrieval has, however, been surprisingly limited in this context with using mostly texture descriptors [21,22], considering it possesses many more powerful alternatives.
One such alternative are the well-known pattern spectra [23], a multiscale tool operating globally on connected image components, and producing the histogram-like distribution of one or more of their arbitrarily defined spatial and/or spectral attributes. Although pattern spectra are powerful content descriptors, up until recently one could only calculate them globally from a given image. This has changed through our extension to their underlying theory that has enabled their computation at a local level [24]. Our preliminary works with local pattern spectra have focused on their successful calculation from local salient regions [25,26].
Motivated by these results, in this paper, we present a novel content description strategy relying for the first time on the dense calculation of local pattern spectra from a regular grid, and further combine them with vectors of locally aggregated descriptors (VLAD). The resulting content description solution is tested against global pattern spectra, and alternative local strategies using the largest aerial CBIR dataset that is publicly available, namely the UC Merced Landuse/Landcover dataset, where it achieves promising performances.
The paper is organized as follows. Section 2 reviews previous work on the content based retrieval of aerial and satellite imagery and elaborates on our contributions. Next, Section 3 recalls the definition of pattern spectra, both as global and local descriptors, and also details the different attributes involved in our study. We describe the evaluation protocol used in our experiments in Section 4, while results are discussed in Section 5 before we conclude and give future research directions.

2. Previous Work

Content based image retrieval has come a long way in the last 20 years. After the initial successful feasibility tests, a lot of effort has been dedicated on bridging the “semantic gap”, i.e., the gap between lower level content descriptors and the semantics of an image, and on the implementation of further retrieval modalities (e.g., action based retrieval from video, etc.). For an in-depth study of the issues related to CBIR and a comprehensive review of the field, the reader is referred to [27].
The relatively recent advent of very large commercial databases of remotely sensed images has led the research community to adapt and further develop the existing CBIR solutions for this new context, characterized primarily by an overhead viewpoint, high spatial resolution and heterogeneous content. Consequently, a wide array of new strategies has emerged, of which an overview follows.

2.1. Related Work

A standard CBIR system is composed by at least two components: its content description or feature extraction module, which reduces the visual data into compact representations, and the similarity measure which will be used on the extracted features in order to determine the images similar to the query (cf. Figure 1).
As far as the content description of aerial and satellite images, with the end goal of retrieval, are concerned, one encounters a rich variety of feature extraction solutions. Early attempts have started with the basic statistical properties of spectral image classes [28], and quickly advanced to adapting already tested methods of color CBIR to this field, using shape [29] and especially known texture descriptors such as Gabor filters [30], morphological covariance [21], Local Binary Patterns [31] and grayscale co-occurrence matrices [32].
More recent approaches, however, in parallel to the developments in the computer vision field, have oriented themselves towards local description strategies and visual vocabularies. In this regard, GIST [33], SIFT [9,34], and MSER [35] have been thoroughly studied and SIFT has been concluded to be the best performing among them. Moreover, new and challenging datasets have been also proposed with the CBIR of geographical images in mind, with the Landcover/Landuse UC Merced dataset being the largest to date among them, possessing 21 classes and 2100 samples. As such, it has been rapidly adopted by the scientific community of both content based retrieval and scene classification for remote sensing [9,21,22,36,37,38,39,40,41,42,43,44].
As of late, further works published in this field have focused on combining both global and local descriptors [45], while others have concentrated on exploiting user feedback through active learning [46]. Finally, deep learning techniques have also been applied to the problem under consideration, mostly in the form of convolutional neural networks [44].

2.2. Our Contributions

In this paper, we explore the potential of local pattern spectra, computed with a dense strategy, for the content description of aerial images, with CBIR being the end goal. We further combine them with the vector of locally aggregated descriptors (VLAD) to form a visual vocabulary.
In more detail, pattern spectra are one of the oldest and most powerful content descriptors that are offered by mathematical morphology [23]. They were initially introduced for describing the size distribution of objects within images through histogram-like representations. In time, they have been extended [6,47] to describe not only the size, but the shape and texture distribution as well as the distributions of any arbitrarily selected attribute among connected image components. Furthermore, their efficient implementation through tree based image representations has further rendered them effective, efficient and multiscale, general purpose, holistic (i.e., global) content description tools. Hence, our first contribution to the state-of-the-art, is applying pattern spectra for the first time to the CBIR of aerial images.
Moreover, the theoretical background needed in order to compute them locally has only recently been introduced [24]. The first reported implementation of local pattern spectra has been in the context of general purpose image classification, where they have been computed from salient regions that have been detected by means of MSER [25,26]. Following the promising performances that have been obtained in that context, in this paper, for the first time, we explore calculating local pattern spectra not from salient regions, but instead from the entire input image, using not a global approach but rather a dense grid with fixed steps. This constitutes the second novelty aspect of our approach.
In addition, following the work of Ozkan et al. [9], where SIFT has been explored along with VLAD, we investigate and report the results of combining locally computed pattern spectra along with the visual vocabulary obtained through VLAD. In this regard, our work is the second time in the state-of-the-art that any morphological approach is used to form a visual vocabulary (with the first being [22]), and the first time with local pattern spectra, which constitutes the third original contribution of our work to the state-of-the-art.
The proposed approach is tested and validated with the largest publicly available dataset of its kind, and is shown to be comparable in terms of retrieval performance to the widely-used SIFT descriptors at a much shorter feature vector length.

3. Pattern Spectra

This section will first recall the principles behind pattern spectra, and then elaborate on the particularities and differences between their global and local implementation.
Pattern spectra are histogram-like structures originating from mathematical morphology, commonly used for content analysis [23], and capture information on the distribution of sizes and shapes of image components. They can be seen as estimates of probability density functions, with histograms as their basic and oldest form [48]. They can be efficiently computed using a technique known as (size or shape) granulometry [49,50] on a max-tree and min-tree hierarchy [51,52].

3.1. Min- and Max-Trees

The min- and max-trees [51,52] are hierarchical decompositions of an image, working with its level sets. In more detail, the upper level sets are defined for each gray level k of an image I. The upper level set at level k comprises all the pixels p with the gray level value f ( p ) higher than the threshold k, L k = { p I | f ( p ) k } . Each level set can contain several connected components, called also the peak components. The peak components of the upper level set L k are denoted by L k , i (where i is from some index set) and are nested for the decreasing values of k. When organized in a hierarchy, these nested components form a hierarchy called a max-tree (cf. Figure 2) which contains a node corresponding to each peak component L k , i .
The max-tree hierarchy contains bright image details and regions (local gray level maxima) in its leaves. On the contrary, for operating with dark image regions, lower level sets denoted by L k = { p I | f ( p ) k } are used, and organized in a hierarchy called a min-tree. The min-tree hierarchy can also be constructed as a max-tree of the inverted image- I , due to the duality relation between the two hierarchies. As the hierarchies themselves store the gray levels of all the components, a full image can be reconstructed directly from its min and max-trees.

3.2. Filtering and Granulometries

To characterize the regions of these hierarchies, we can assign to each node the attributes pertaining to the characteristics of that node. An attribute K ( · ) is increasing if, for two nested regions L k , i L l , j , its value is always greater for the larger region: K ( L l , j ) K ( L k , i ) . Consequently, the attribute value of a node, K ( L k , i ) , will be smaller than any of the values of its ancestors. These kinds of attributes typically describe the size of the node.
If this property does not hold, the attribute is non-increasing. Out of all the non-increasing attributes, here we are interested by the strict shape attributes, which respond only to region shape and are thus invariant to scaling, rotation, and translation [49].
We rely on the standard approach of measuring the number of pixels of a region to describe its size, which is thus represented by the corresponding area A ( L k , i ) . We tackle the shape information through two different attributes. The first attribute used is an elongation measure of the region, called the corrected noncompactness (CNC):
CNC ( L k , i ) = 2 π I ( L k , i ) A ( L k , i ) 2 + 1 6 A ( L k , i )
where I ( L k , i ) is the moment of inertia of the region here. This attribute in fact corresponds to the first moment invariant of Hu [53] corrected for its application on the discrete image space, as opposed to the continuous space [54]. It is a shape attribute commonly used in remote sensing [20]. Thus, the first term I ( L k , i ) A ( L k , i ) 2 computes the first moment invariant of Hu, while the term 1 6 A ( L k , i ) corresponds to the correction factor. This attribute takes the value of 1 for a perfectly circular (compact) object, which grows as the shape of the object approaches that of a long thin line. However, in practice, values higher than a threshold of around 50–60 tend to be discarded when working with this attribute [6,24] as the regions achieving such high noncompactness values are extremely rare ( 1 % or less of all the regions per min and max-trees corresponding to the dataset used in this paper). Other measures exist which correspond better to the elongation of the object, such as geodesic diameter [55]. However, while such attributes are needed when the region selection process depends solely on one (or several) attributes such as extraction of fingerprint structures presented in [56], the pattern spectra approach presented hereafter is more robust due to relying on multiple attribute measures from a single region to characterize it with a region descriptor. Additionally, even the efficient approximation of the geodesic diameter called barycentric diameter [56] still requires modification to the max-tree algorithm due to the max-tree being suited only for calculation of attributes which can be efficiently updated as the tree is constructed from the local maxima by an aggregation process. Thus, in the efficient implementation of filtering using the barycentric diameter, the max-tree traversal order is modified to better suit the nature of the attribute, and only partial information pertaining to the attribute is updated during the tree traversal, while the final attribute values still need to be computed by examining the pixels of each node in the traversal anew.
The second non-increasing attribute we use is Shannon entropy, defined using the frequency with which a pixel of gray level i occurs in the region L k , i , expressed by the probability p ( i , L k , i ) :
H ( L k , i ) = i gray levels p ( i , L k , i ) log 2 p ( i , L k , i )
Low attribute values of H ( · ) will be observed when the region content is homogeneous in terms of gray level distribution, while heterogeneous regions containing many different gray levels will have higher values of this attribute. However, the range of this attribute is much smaller than that of the CNC attribute, so that the attribute values of interest are between 0 and 8 [6]. Attributes assigned to nodes can also be based on more complex notions, such as texture, motion, or even similarity to predefined shapes [57]. Many other attribute examples can be found in [49,51,58].
After the tree construction phase and the attribute assignment of their nodes, we can consider nodes for further processing only if their attribute value K ( L k , i ) is above a certain threshold t. The trees are then pruned by removing all the connected components below this threshold. Processing the hierarchies in such a manner (in which the decision to preserve or reject the nodes of the hierarchy is based on their attribute values) is called filtering. For a general attribute K ( · ) and threshold t, we represent by Ψ t the filter which keeps only the nodes with K ( L k , i ) > t , and Ψ t ( I ) the image obtained by the reconstruction of the filtered tree.
When performing a single attribute filtering with an increasing attribute such as size, the resulting operation Γ t will have properties of an attribute opening (i.e., anti-extensivity, increasingness and idempotence). A size granulometry [49] is a series of such openings { Γ t i } with increasing size, t i + 1 > t i , which removes more components from the image in every step and can be seen as a set of sieves of increasing grades. After each consecutive opening, a granulometry notes the amount of detail still present in the image. When using a non-increasing, scale-invariant attribute Φ t , the resulting attribute filtering, or attribute thinning is still anti-extensive and idempotent, but no longer increasing. If the image Φ t ( I ) is reconstructed from a tree pruned by applying the subtractive rule [50], the extension of the technique to shape granulometries [50] allows noting the amount of image detail across classes based on shape or other scale-independent attribute measures of the regions. The subtractive rule used for pruning the tree is performed by removing only the components which do not satisfy the attribute, but preserving the local contrast of the kept components. When such a rule is used, Φ t ( I ) contains only the components with K ( L k , i ) > t , and, more importantly, the difference image I Φ t ( I ) contains only the components with K ( L k , i ) t .

3.3. Global Pattern Spectra

Contrary to granulometries, pattern spectra focus on the amount of detail removed between consecutive openings. The size pattern spectrum [23] is based on area openings and size granulometries, and is represented by a histogram over all the different size classes. Similarly, a shape pattern spectrum [50] is based on the shape granulometry corresponding to a histogram of component attribute distribution over a range of shape classes. Every size class (resp. shape class) in the size pattern spectrum (resp. shape pattern spectrum) is described by its Lebesgue measure corresponding to the amount of detail falling into that class. The pattern spectra can be interpreted as probability density function estimates in their simplest, histogram form, describing the probability of a component with a certain size or shape to be present in the image. In order to put the definition of the size pattern spectra from [23] into a form more suitable for grayscale images I, we define the volume of a grayscale image I as:
V ( I ) = k A ( L k ) = k i A ( L k , i )
Then, for a size granulometry { Γ t i } , we can define the size pattern spectrum { s Γ , t i } as:
s Γ , t i = V ( Γ t i 1 ( I ) ) V ( Γ t i ( I ) ) s Γ , t min = V ( I ) V ( Γ t min ( I ) )
Similarly, according to [50], for a shape granulometry { Φ t i } , the shape pattern spectrum { s Φ , t i } can be defined as:
s Φ , t i = V ( Φ t i 1 ( I ) ) V ( Φ t i ( I ) ) s Φ , t min = V ( I ) V ( Φ t min ( I ) )
Combining shape and size pattern spectra into a unique 2D histogram showing the amount of image detail across dedicated size-shape bins produces a shape-size pattern spectrum [47]. For a size granulometry { Γ t i } and shape granulometry { Φ u j } , we define the combined shape-size pattern spectrum { s Γ , Φ , t i , u j } as:
s Γ , Φ , t i , u j = V ( Γ t i 1 ( Φ u j ( I ) ) ) V ( Γ t i ( Φ u j ( I ) ) ) + V ( Γ t i ( Φ u j 1 ( I ) ) ) V ( Γ t i ( Φ u j ( I ) ) ) = V ( Γ t i 1 ( Φ u j 1 ( I ) ) ) V ( Γ t i ( Φ u j ( I ) ) ) s Γ , Φ , t min , u j = V ( Φ u j 1 ( I ) ) V ( Γ t min ( Φ u j ( I ) ) ) s Γ , Φ , t i , u min = V ( Γ t i 1 ( I ) ) V ( Γ t i ( Φ u min ( I ) ) ) s Γ , Φ , t min , u min = V ( I ) V ( Γ t min ( Φ u min ( I ) ) )
When calculated for a whole image, they can be used as translation, scale and rotation invariant image descriptors and have been successfully applied to image classification [47] and retrieval [6]. It is possible to use the combinations of attributes describing different object properties, such as orientation, color and intensity as explored in [59]. As we aim the descriptor to encode the difference between images with high and low content, we do not normalize the produced descriptors, but simply store the amount of image detail (Lebesgue measure of contributing components) as a ratio of total image size. The pattern spectra are parametrized by choosing the number of bins to be used for each attribute, as well as the maximum value of each attribute to be considered in the histogram. The bin distribution over different shape and size classes is typically logarithmic over the chosen range of attribute values. When used in this manner, we will refer to the produced global image descriptors as Global Pattern Spectra (GPS).

3.4. Local Pattern Spectra

Recently, a local extension of pattern spectra has been proposed [24,25], designed to characterize patches rather than the whole image, i.e., either specifically selected regions of interest or patches of predetermined shape and size. A local shape-size pattern spectrum is obtained by applying the series of operators { s Γ , Φ , t i , u j } to a specific connected component L k , i , or more generally a region R instead of the whole image I. They were initially introduced on maximally stable extremal regions (MSER) [7] for reasons of computational efficiency, as MSERs can be extracted from max-tree and min-tree hierarchies in a straightforward manner. Initial experimental results showed that these descriptors can achieve competitive performances in the context of grayscale image retrieval [24], motivating us to further explore Local Pattern Spectra (LPS) in the context of remote sensing along more diversified strategies.
The inevitably smaller scale of objects contained within aerial images, with respect to regular color photographs, alleviates the need for extracting regions of interest using detection steps such as MSER. This is why we have chosen to instead employ a dense regular grid strategy for computing LPS. More specifically, the LPS are computed on local rectangular patches defined on a densely sampled regular grid over the image (cf. Section 4 for the details). If all the preselected local patches are of the same (or very similar) size, the scale invariance property holds in the extension of GPS to LPS [25]. However, in order to achieve image description at multiple scales, different sizes of local patches can be selected to correspond to each scale used. Due to the logarithmic binning, a common reference scale M is used to allow for descriptor comparison in a scale-invariant manner. The local pattern spectrum { s Γ , Φ , t i , u j , M } ( R ) is then defined as:
{ s Γ , Φ , t i , u j , M } ( R ) = { s Γ , Φ , t i , u j } ( M A ( R ) R )
where a R in general denotes the scaling of the region R by a. This technique, introduced in [24], does not increase the complexity of the approach as this is achieved by simply scaling the Lebesgue measure of individual contributions during the descriptor calculation.

4. Experimental Set-Up

4.1. Dataset and Evaluation Metrics

All of our experiments have been conducted on the publicly available UC Merced Dataset [34]. It contains 2100 color R G B images organized into 21 classes (100 images per class), examples of which are shown in Figure 3. All images are of size 256 × 256 pixels at a spatial resolution of 30 cm. We have computed our descriptors first on the grayscale versions of the images, with the conversion being G r a y = 0.299 × R + 0.587 × G + 0.114 × B .
To additionally boost the performance of the LPS descriptors, we applied data augmentation techniques to the input images of the validation dataset. The best performance was achieved when all the images from the Merced dataset were rotated for 45°, an example of which is shown in Figure 4. The LPS calculation is then repeated on the augmented images and appended to the descriptors obtained for non-augmented data. It is important to note that the benefit of this approach comes from the fact that different parts of the image are used for descriptor calculation, as the descriptors themselves are scale invariant. For this reason, the GPS descriptors are not calculated on the augmented data, as rotating an image does not change its content (as measured by the GPS).
The evaluation metric chosen is average normalized modified retrieval rank (ANMRR), as it is the most commonly used metric on this dataset, thus allowing for straightforward comparison with other published results [9,21,22,34]. It is commonly used to measure the effectiveness of retrieval [60]. Given a query q or all the queries of a same class, a number K ( q ) is defined, which denotes that only the first K ( q ) returned images are considered as feasible in terms of retrieval evaluation. It is often set as twice the size of the ground truth set NG ( q ) . Assuming that the k t h ground truth image is retrieved at Rank ( k ) , a penalty function Rank * ( k ) is defined for each retrieved item:
Rank * ( k ) = Rank ( k ) , if Rank ( k ) K ( q ) 1.25 K ( q ) , if Rank ( k ) > K ( q )
From all the penalties Rank * ( k ) for each query q, the average rank (AVR) for that q is defined as:
AVR ( q ) = 1 NG ( q ) k = 1 NG ( q ) Rank * ( k )
After the intermediate step, ANMRR is directly defined as:
ANMRR = 1 NQ q = 1 N Q AVR ( q ) 0.5 ( 1 + NG ( q ) ) 1.25 K ( q ) 0.5 ( 1 + NG ( q ) )
where NQ is the number of queries. Thus, ANMRR obtains values in the range of 0 for best results, and 1 for worst results.
For the sake of completeness, we also express our results in terms of another retrieval measure, namely mean Average Precision (mAP). This measure is designed specifically to evaluate ranked retrieval results [61] and provide a single measure of quality across all recall levels of a system for a set of multiple queries. For a single query image q, if a retrieval system returns K ( q ) results, we can calculate precision and recall considering only the first m returned images in an unordered fashion. Precision at m is calculated as the ratio between the number of correct (relevant) images in the set of results and the total number of images retrieved at that point, m:
precision ( m ) = relevantRetrieved ( m ) m
while the recall at m is defined as the ratio between the number of relevant images in the set of results and the total number of relevant images for that query:
recall ( m ) = relevantRetrieved ( m ) relevantTotal
Calculating and plotting the precision and recall values for a single query in a ranked retrieval context produces a precision-recall curve. The area under this curve over all K results corresponds to AP, the Average Precision of a query, and is equivalent to averaging the precision values obtained for the set of top K retrieval results, after retrieving each new relevant result:
AP = m = 1 K precision ( m ) × Δ recall ( m ) = m = 1 K precision ( m ) × relevant ( m ) relevantTotal
where relevant ( m ) is an indicator variable with the value 1 if the m-th retrieved image is relevant. Finally, the mAP is calculated as the mean value of the Average Precision for all the queries. This method does not penalize incorrect predictions, allowing for a large number of retrieval results to be examined, while valuing the order of predictions by penalizing ranking incorrect predictions before the correct ones.

4.2. Settings of Pattern Spectra Approaches

4.2.1. Global Pattern Spectra

We chose to use the 2D GPS descriptors to obtain a baseline performance for the family of Pattern Spectra descriptors. In this baseline approach, we calculate the GPS descriptors from entire images. The bin sizes have been determined experimentally, where the bin sizes used in previous published works were used as a starting point [6]. This resulted in choosing to use 10 bins for the size (area) attribute, and six for the shape attribute. The maximal allowed area in the histogram equals the size of the image. The maxima for the shape attributes were determined experimentally to be 56 for the CNC attribute and eight for the H attribute. As we calculate the GPS from both the min-tree and the max-tree of every image, this leads to global descriptors of length 6 × 10 + 6 × 10 = 120 .
We report in Table 1 the results using the Area+CNC and Area+ H as shape attributes, and observe a further improvement when combining them into a single descriptor of length 240. Calculating GPS from each grayscale channel of the R G B images separately (i.e., marginally) has been also explored, but the results are not reported due to negligible improvements and because the approach cannot be practically implemented with multi-channel images possessing an arbitrary number of channels.

4.2.2. Local Pattern Spectra

In order to improve the baseline GPS approach, we have first focused on a single-scale, local approach. Here, the image is densely sampled and the LPS are calculated on regular rectangular image patches over a grid on the image, as shown in Figure 5a. The patch dimensions have been determined empirically to be between d = 32 and d = 128 pixels, and the dimensions of 80 × 80 pixels were determined to be optimal. Similarly, a distance of 16 pixels between patch centers has been selected for the best performance among the tested s = 8 , 16 , 32 pixels. Using eight bins for the size attribute and six for the shape, resulting in a histogram of size 8 × 6 , was found to exhibit the best performance with respect to the size of the LPS. This also agrees with our previous experiments of LPS on salient regions [24]. As we still calculate two histograms per image patch (one per tree), the final descriptor size of LPS is 8 × 6 + 8 × 6 = 96 (Table 1—dense LPS). Since all patches possess the same size (contrary to salient regions), there is no need for any additional steps to ensure the scale invariance of the descriptors.
We have further experimented with LPS by calculating it across multiple scales, using a multiscale pyramid of patches (Table 1—pyramid LPS). The patch size in the lowest scale was set to 32 × 32 pixels and the size of patch increases for each level of the pyramid ( 2 × along each dimension), as shown in Figure 5b. As the size of patches used for LPS is no longer consistent, we follow the strategy introduced in our previous work [24] to ensure scale invariance by using a common reference scale for all the patches (set to the patch size on the second scale, 64 × 64 ). The distance between the patch centers is set to 16 pixels across all scales, thus resulting in the same descriptor length of 96, but with three times more descriptors calculated per image.
We have tested both dense LPS and pyramid LPS with and without data augmentation. Moreover, for both LPS based approaches, the VLAD indexing scheme has been used to produce the final image descriptors [11] (Figure 6). As the crucial parameter of VLAD is the number of cluster centers, we report the best performance for each LPS approach assuming different numbers of cluster centers, ranging from k = 8 to k = 512 (Figure 7b). To construct the vocabulary for VLAD, we rely on another publicly available dataset, namely ImageNet’s Large Scale Visual Recognition Challenge 2010 (ILSVRC2010) Validation dataset [62]. Let us underline that this dataset does not contain any remote sensing data. The descriptors are calculated for the first 500 images of this ImageNet dataset (with the same parameters for both the dense samples and the pyramid approach, where the pyramid patch size was stopped at 256 × 256 pixels), and a random subset of these descriptors is used for each experiment. No data augmentation was performed on this dataset, as it has been used only for providing the visual words for the VLAD cluster center calculation.

5. Results and Discussion

Our overall findings are shown in Table 1. From the obtained results, we report that the GPS baseline, despite being a holistic approach, already outperforms both the previously reported global and local morphological approaches based on texture description [21,22], as well as the seminal SIFT approach based on salient keypoints [34].
More specifically, GPS have first been calculated along Area+CNC, since it is the shape attribute used most commonly for pattern spectra calculation. Then, we have additionally experimented with the Area+ H combination for GPS (suggested by [6] to be the second most effective shape attribute). The second set of pattern spectra, based on H , performs worse by itself, which can be explained by the lower discriminatory power of the H attribute, since this attribute obtains values from a smaller range than CNC. Nevertheless, the combination of the two attributes results in a performance improvement, thus showing their complementary nature. The best results obtained with GPS have reached an ANMRR of 55.7 % (or the equivalent mAP of 32.5 % ).
As far as the proposed dense LPS and VLAD based approach is concerned, we have obtained more significant improvements there. The first LPS approach (dense LPS), where the descriptors are calculated from densely and regularly sampled patches of size 80 × 80 pixels with 16 pixels between the cluster centers, produces 144 descriptors per image and achieves an ANMRR of 52.5 % (or mAP of 38 % ).
However, the LPS results are reported using only the CNC attribute, since, contrary to GPS, their combination with the other shape attribute did not result in an improvement. This can be explained by the fact that the amount of detail contained in the densely sampled patches is much smaller than in the whole image as in the case of GPS, hence resulting in fewer samples (regions) employed during histogram calculation. Moreover, the range of the H attribute is typically smaller than that of the CNC attribute; consequently, the histograms are no longer representative of the distribution of this attribute in LPS, due to the lack of sufficient sample regions. Data augmentation, on the other hand, leads to an improvement of three percentile points for both ANMRR and mAP (Figure 7a). This figure also shows the effect of the number of VLAD cluster centers on performance, where it can be observed that the best performance is achieved for a relatively low number of cluster centers. It can also be seen that the optimal number of cluster centers shifts towards greater values when data augmentation is applied, due to the greater variability expressed in the descriptors.
The last improvement on the proposed approach has been achieved through multiscale LPS calculation (pyramid LPS). This strategy results in an approximately three-fold increase in the number of descriptors, producing specifically 476 descriptors per image due to the multiple scales; while it further improves its performances by means of data augmentation as shown in Figure 7b.
Moreover, a similar trend in the number of cluster centers can also be observed between the augmented and non augmented versions of pyramid LPS, as they both achieve their optimum level for the same number of cluster centers. When compared against the single scale dense approach, the difference can be explained by the increase in the descriptor complexity as well as their number. We note that this strategy contains the GPS approach, since the final scale of the LPS pyramid are the images themselves.
Overall, the best LPS based results that have been achieved are 47.2 % ANMRR (corresponding to 43.7 % mAP), and show an improvement over all previous morphology-based approaches, as well as the seminal keypoint based SIFT approach on this dataset [34]. Furthermore, our results are comparable to the dense SIFT+VLAD approach of [9] with only a 1.2 % difference in ANMRR performance. However, let us highlight all the same that we achieve this by using shorter descriptors (of length 96 for LPS and 128 for SIFT), as well as by employing fewer descriptors ([9] reports an offset of 10 pixels and five pyramid levels, while we use a 16 pixel offset across four different scales).

6. Conclusions

In this paper, we have employed both global and local pattern spectra in the context of geographical image retrieval, and implemented pattern spectra for the first time with a dense strategy, in combination with the VLAD indexing scheme. We have evaluated the retrieval performance of the Global Pattern Spectrum as well as of its new local counterpart, and compared them to the performance of other state-of-the-art approaches. We have additionally expressed our results in terms of mAP, another commonly used measure in retrieval, allowing for easier comparison to the performance of the descriptors on different datasets. Our descriptor outperforms the seminal keypoint based SIFT approach of [34] and produces the best morphology-based results thus far, outperforming all previous morphological approaches.
When compared to the dense SIFT approach of [9], we obtain similar results using the VLAD indexing scheme, with our performance being slightly lower by 1.2 % ANMRR. However, the advantage of our descriptor is that, despite its sparser sampling, it relies on far shorter feature vectors ( 75 % length of the dense SIFT descriptors), which leads to higher retrieval speeds.
Having established a multiscale and effective LPS based content based description solution, future work will focus on exploiting the multi-variate structure of remote sensing images, which nowadays routinely reaches the level of hundreds of bands in the case of hyperspectral images.


This work was supported by the French Agence Nationale de la Recherche (ANR) under reference ANR-13-JS02-0005-01 (Asterix project) by the BAGEP Award of the Science Academy and by the Turkish TUBITAK Grant 115E857.

Author Contributions

This paper builds upon the doctoral work of Petra Bosilj, jointly supervised by Sébastien Lefèvre and Ewa Kijak. All authors contributed to the design of the method. Petra Bosilj and Erchan Aptoula conceived, designed, and performed the experiments. All authors contributed to the writing of the paper.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest. The founding sponsors had no role in the design of the study; in the collection, analyses, or interpretation of data; in the writing of the manuscript, and in the decision to publish the results.


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Figure 1. A CBIR system overview.
Figure 1. A CBIR system overview.
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Figure 2. The max-tree for the shape in (a) is displayed in (b). The regions corresponding to the nodes are displayed besides them, with the level sets indicated inside the nodes.
Figure 2. The max-tree for the shape in (a) is displayed in (b). The regions corresponding to the nodes are displayed besides them, with the level sets indicated inside the nodes.
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Figure 3. Illustration of the 21 classes from the Merced dataset.
Figure 3. Illustration of the 21 classes from the Merced dataset.
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Figure 4. Examples of applying data augmentation on the images from the Merced dataset. The first row shows the original images, while the corresponding 45° rotated images used for data augmentation are shown in the second row.
Figure 4. Examples of applying data augmentation on the images from the Merced dataset. The first row shows the original images, while the corresponding 45° rotated images used for data augmentation are shown in the second row.
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Figure 5. The illustration of how the patches cover the densely sampled image. In (a), the coverage on a single scale is shown. The patch dimensions are d × d , and the parameter s determines the offset between the centers of the patches; in (b), three final layers in a pyramid of patches covering the image are shown (no overlap between the patches is shown in this example for clarity).
Figure 5. The illustration of how the patches cover the densely sampled image. In (a), the coverage on a single scale is shown. The patch dimensions are d × d , and the parameter s determines the offset between the centers of the patches; in (b), three final layers in a pyramid of patches covering the image are shown (no overlap between the patches is shown in this example for clarity).
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Figure 6. Overview of the feature extraction flow.
Figure 6. Overview of the feature extraction flow.
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Figure 7. Experiments showing the influence of the number of VLAD cluster centers as well as using the descriptors based on augmented data. In (a), the retrieval results when calculating the LPS on a densely sampled image are shown. The results when using a pyramid of patches are shown in (b). Each data point was obtained by repeating the experiments between 10 and 20 times with different random values used to initialize the VLAD clustering. The error bars on the figures express the scatter in the results, and correspond to one standard deviation.
Figure 7. Experiments showing the influence of the number of VLAD cluster centers as well as using the descriptors based on augmented data. In (a), the retrieval results when calculating the LPS on a densely sampled image are shown. The results when using a pyramid of patches are shown in (b). Each data point was obtained by repeating the experiments between 10 and 20 times with different random values used to initialize the VLAD clustering. The error bars on the figures express the scatter in the results, and correspond to one standard deviation.
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Table 1. The retrieval performances of different local and global approaches on Merced dataset.
Table 1. The retrieval performances of different local and global approaches on Merced dataset.
SIFT (on keypoints, [34])0.601
dense SIFT [9]0.4604
(using VLAD, k = 128 )
global texture descriptors ([21])0.575
local texture descriptors [22]0.585
(Bag of Words, k = 128 )
GPS—Area + CNC 0.5790.304
GPS—Area + H 0.6700.221
GPS—both shape attributes ( CNC + H )0.5570.325
dense LPS0.5250.380
(using VLAD, k = 32 )
dense LPS-augmentation0.4940.411
(using VLAD, k = 64 )
pyramid LPS0.5100.396
(using VLAD, k = 128 )
pyramid LPS-augmentation0.4720.437
(using VLAD, k = 128 )

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Bosilj, P.; Aptoula, E.; Lefèvre, S.; Kijak, E. Retrieval of Remote Sensing Images with Pattern Spectra Descriptors. ISPRS Int. J. Geo-Inf. 2016, 5, 228.

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Bosilj P, Aptoula E, Lefèvre S, Kijak E. Retrieval of Remote Sensing Images with Pattern Spectra Descriptors. ISPRS International Journal of Geo-Information. 2016; 5(12):228.

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Bosilj, Petra, Erchan Aptoula, Sébastien Lefèvre, and Ewa Kijak. 2016. "Retrieval of Remote Sensing Images with Pattern Spectra Descriptors" ISPRS International Journal of Geo-Information 5, no. 12: 228.

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