UAF imaging technology open for business
Scientists at the University of Alaska Fairbanks spent much of the last seven years learning how to interpret powerful imaging technology and now they’re looking for partners to use it.
The renowned UAF Geophysical Institute has the only hyperspectral imaging sensors in the state.
“We are very fortunate to have this capability here,” said Martin Stuefer, Alaska’s state climatologist and director of the Alaska Climate Research Center.
Stuefer is particularly invested in the sensing equipment that underpins the Geophysical Institute’s hyperspectral imaging laboratory, best known as the HyLab, because he’s ostensibly given his airplane for it. The sensors take up much of the space behind the pilot’s seat in Stuefer’s Cessna 185, one of the most sought-after aircraft in the state for the versatility its size and power provide.
The hyperspectral sensors must be finely calibrated each time they are moved so that means they live in his plane, according to Stuefer.
“I’m a researcher and I’m very excited about the data. It’s a state-of-the-art technology, so I feel pretty privileged even not having the airplane for fun weekend rides,” he said. “It is pretty cool that we can provide this and demonstrate the capability. It helps my career too — no secret about it.”
As the name implies, at least a little, the hyperspectral sensors take pictures that tell stories not visible to the naked eye by capturing the subtle, identifying color wavelengths that every material or substance or object holds.
“We can sense the surface properties really in unprecedented detail,” Stuefer said.
Geophysical Institute Directory Bob McCoy noted that normal color imagery starts with the three primary colors.
“The idea with hyperspectral is instead of three you use like 1,000,” McCoy said.
A geophysicist by training with deep expertise in remote sensing, current UAF Provost Anupma Prakash applied for the original $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to purchase the hyperspectral equipment in 2014 after serving as a science advisor to NASA officials working with remote sensing technology.
“For me, the big passionate area was the mineral exploration potential of the equipment,” Prakash said in an interview.
She described the detailed wavelengths as individual “signatures” that can be identified in most anything after careful study.
“If you’re looking at a person’s signature, I can transfer a million dollars with someone’s signature because that signature identifies that person uniquely — that’s your identity. Every object on Earth has a spectral signature. An infected birch leaf has a different spectral signature than a healthy birch leaf. If there’s a deep-seated mineral, it leaches metals out to the soil and you can map it,” Prakash said, alluding to just a couple of the uses for the HyLab’s equipment. “We interpret the subsurface based on what we see on the surface.”
Stuefer is naturally eager to talk about the applications for climate-related monitoring, such as cataloging areas with large amounts of wildfire fuel, different aspects of glacial melt or various ocean conditions, but he also emphasized that the “noninvasive” aspect of the imaging technology should allow for less costly — to the environment and on the balance sheet — mineral exploration.
“There are some areas (in the Alaska Range) where people have gone in with large machines and didn’t find anything and destroyed a lot of the surface. If they would have had our technology I think there would have been a lot less damage,” Stuefer said.
Officials at the University of Washington are using their own hyperspectral sensors to collect large-scale agricultural research.
Data is collected by flying prescribed linear patterns at altitudes usually between 7,500 and 8,500 feet, he said, adding that the higher the flight the larger the ground segment the sensors can capture and hyperspectral imaging is best suited for landscape-level analysis.
“I fly high because I do not need centimeter-scale; I need meter-scale on the ground resolution segment,” Stuefer said.
It has taken UAF researchers years to become true experts in taking, and importantly examining, the hyperspectral images because it simply has taken that long to learn how to analyze the airborne data and classify many of the on-the-ground materials observed.
McCoy said Geophysical Institute officials now want to partner with private industry to really put the HyLab technology to work and they’re open to ideas.
“We’re not about making money. We’re about doing research and finding new technologies,” McCoy said. “What we’d like to do is show something really works well and see industry go out and do it themselves. That’s kind of what we’re all about.”
UAF also offers a free course for how to interpret the hyperspectral images for anyone using data from them, according to Prakash.
“I’m very happy that we have faculty and students and post-docs taking it forward,” Prakash said.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].