Airborne Remote Sensing Programs Transition to Full Operations

February 2018

Construction is now complete for the NEON Airborne Remote Sensing program. As of December 2017, all components of the program have transitioned from Construction Phase to Initial Operations.

The transition includes the completion of several components of the remote sensing program:

  • The addition of a third Airborne Observation Platform (AOP).
  • Construction of the sensor test facility and a hanger in Boulder, Colorado.
  • Completion of data infrastructure and algorithms and the release of AOP data on the NEON data portal.

The AOP, an array of sensors that can be installed in to light aircraft to collect airborne remote sensing data, are the heart of NEON’s remote sensing program. Each of the three AOPs include:

  • a hyperspectral imaging spectrometer.
  • a full waveform and discrete return LiDAR.
  • a high-resolution Red, Blue, Green (RGB) camera. 

These sensors collect a range of measurements that produce 27 unique data products, including Vegetation Leaf Area Index (LAI), total biomass, vegetation indices (NDVI, EVI), and various measures of canopy biochemistry, ecosystem structure and topography. These high-resolution data products are freely available on the NEON data portal.

Two AOPs were operational in 2017. The addition of the third AOP expands the team’s data collection capacity for both standardized NEON data collection and special projects. All three AOPs have identical spectrometer equipment. The new AOP has been equipped with a newer LiDAR system and camera. The original AOPs carry an Optec Gemini LiDAR system and Optec 60-megapixel camera, while the third AOP carries a RIEGL LMS-Q780 LiDAR and 80-megapixel camera. All three systems will produce the same data products.

In 2017, the team collected remote sensing data from 17 of the 20 NEON domains. In 2018, they will run two AOPs again, including the newest, to collect data over approximately 14 of the 20 domains. (Read more about the NEON 2018 flight plan here). This leaves excess AOP capacity to support special projects for outside groups and researchers. Researchers can request AOS flight campaigns for their own research, available on a cost-reimbursable basis, through the NEON Assignable Assets Program.

In addition to bringing the final AOP online, the team has transitioned the Sensor Test Facility in Boulder to initial operations. This is where all of the sensor systems are calibrated to national standards each year before the start of the flight season. Technicians at the test facility run the calibration tests and provide technical support for the AOPs throughout the year. Their support is critical to ensure data quality and comparability between the systems. While they were already providing these services during the construction phase, the completion of the facility means that they are now fully ready to support the ongoing needs of the AOP flight teams and the science community.

The NEON project team has also been hard at work bringing the data products online and making them available to researchers and the public. The data infrastructure and algorithms necessary to support data collection and analysis were completed in the fall of 2017. Data collected in 2017 and earlier are now available on the NEON data portal, and the team is prepared to make data from the 2018 runs available as soon as they are collected and processed.

One of the new algorithms created by the data processing team creates tiled spectrometer data products that combine data from multiple flight lines. This allows researchers to look at unified data across square kilometer tiles, including surface topography, canopy height and canopy biochemistry. The data processing team is continuing to develop new algorithms to help the research community get more value out of remote sensing data.

With the completion of all construction tasks, the NEON remote sensing team is now prepared to support a full flight schedule and produce the full range of data products. For the next two years, considered initial operations, they will continue to refine data collection and processing methods. A new Airborne Sampling Design user group, made up of researchers from across the country, will help guide these efforts.

Learn more about how to get NEON airborne data and the 2018 flight plan.

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