Best laid plans: Prototyping NEON's airborne remote sensing technologies

August 27, 2010

It’s late in the evening and I find myself staring at a weather map of Gainesville, Florida watching green and red blobs move across the computer screen. This is an exciting and busy time for the Airborne Observation Platform (AOP) team.   We’re finishing the last of the preparations for our first "pathfinder flights," which, if the weather cooperates, will begin next week.  During those flights, we will collect airborne imagery and LiDAR measurements of Florida’s trees and other vegetation around the future NEON site at Ordway-Swisher Biological Station. The goal of the pathfinder is to collect a combined LiDAR and spectrometer dataset that has the same characteristics as the data we expect to collect every year over the NEON sites.  We’ll primarily use this dataset to drive development of the software algorithms that we’ll use to convert future data into scientific information. NEON Remote Sensing Scientist Michele Kuester and I started planning these test flights almost a year ago, starting with a request to NASA to deploy their airborne Airborne Visible InfraRed Imaging Spectrometer (AVIRIS) instrument for our spectrometer dataset. The weather needs to be reasonably clear for us to collect the airborne data and I’m starting to lose a little sleep over this. A lot of time and effort has gone into the planning and coordination of our pathfinder flights. We also need to collect LIDAR data during our pathfinder flights, so we have looked to the National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping (NCALM) at the University of Houston for help. They have been collecting high quality LiDAR altimetry data for geophysics research for several years now and operate a system very similar to the system we plan to use at NEON.   NCALM agreed to fly their system over the Florida sites at the same time that our NASA partners fly AVIRIS. To support the flights, we need people in the field to collect data on the physical characteristics of the vegetation included in the areas encompassed by the pathfinder flights to help us better understand the airborne data.  FSU Product Team Lead Becky Kao and her team agreed to help us with the field measurements; their data will be very important to us both in interpreting the airborne data but also in optimizing our approaches to collecting field data for scaling ground and remotely sensed observations of vegetation. Several folks on the AOP team will repeat some of the vegetation measurements and make careful measurements of a set of atmospheric parameters to be used to correct the airborne spectrometer data. The pathfinder flights represent a significant step toward bringing these new instrument technologies into the operational framework of the Observatory and integrating the airborne data with field-based measurements. This will be a considerable advancement in research capability for ecologists. I am sure everything will go just fine for the flights.  We have contingency plans for the things that happen that we can’t control. But my attention is drawn to a really big blob in the Atlantic named Danielle, currently heading west-northwest. That could be a real bummer for our team in Florida next week.  However, I know we’ll face this or some other sort of worry when we begin flying operationally, so this is good practice. I’ll let you know how things go in Florida.

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