William A. Fisher, 61, a pioneer in the use of satellites to study the earth during a career at the U.S. Geological Survey of more than 35 years, drowned Tuesday in a swimming accident at his home at Lake of the Woods near Locust Grove, Va.

Mr. Fisher joined the Survey in 1942 as a photogeologist. His speciality was interpreting geological features from aerial photographs. He retired in 1979. By then, he was credited with having demonstrated the value of using remote sensing devices on satellites in studying a wide range of natural and human resources on earth.

Largely through Mr. Fisher's efforts, the Department of Interior established its Earth Resources Observation Systems (EROS) program in 1966.

With the cooperation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the first Earth Resources Technology Satellite (ERTS) was launched in 1972. The system is now called LANDSAT. Mr. Fischer helped coordinate national and international programs aimed at learning more about natural resources, environmental changes and other phenomena from information collected by satellites.

During the late 1950s and early 1960s, Mr. Fisher used infrared and other scanning devices to map areas of subsurface heat in Hawaiian volcanoes. Early in his career, while head of the Survey's photogeology section, he directed the mapping of petroleum reserves in Alaska and suspected uranium-bearing areas in the western United States.

Mr. Fisher was born in Mount Olive, Ill. He earned a degree in geology from McKendree College and did graduate work at the University of Illinois. During World War II, he was a photointerpretation officer with the Navy in the Pacific.

Mr. Fisher's honors included the Col. Claude Birdseye Award from the Amercian Society of Photogrammetry, the Meritorious and Distinguished Service awards from the Interior Department, the William T. Pecora Award, given jointly by Inerior and NASA for "outstanding contributions of individuals or groups toward the understanding of the earth and its atmosphere by means of remote sensing," and NASA's Medal of Exceptional Scientific Achievement.

He was the author or coauthor of more than 60 reports or maps. He was a past-president and honorary member of the American Society of Photogrammetry and a member of the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Remote Sensing of the Enviroment. He also was a member of the Cosmos Club.

Mr. Fisher's survivors include his wife, Blanche, of the Lake of the Woods; two children, Judy White of Fairfax, and Jeff, of Falls Church, and four grandchildren.

The family suggests that expressions of sympathy be in the form of contributions to the Lake of the Woods Fire and Rescue Squad, Locust Grove, Va. 22508.