Oct 25 2011

CAO Dreaming

Breakthrough technology enables 3D mapping of rainforests, tree by tree” - the latest news from the Carnegie Airborne Observatory (CAO)- but also old news: since about 2006, the CAO has been the most powerful 3D forest scanning system ever devised, and Greg Asner has continually improved it.

The CAO was the original inspiration behind Ecosynth.  In 2006/2007, I  was on sabbatical at the Department of Global Ecology at the Carnegie Institute of Washington at Stanford, and my office was right next to Greg’s.   Though he was mostly in Hawaii getting the CAO up and running, he and his team at Stanford completely sold me on the idea that the future of ecologically relevant remote sensing was multispectral 3D scanning (or better- hyperspectral- but one must start somewhere!). 

I coveted the CAO.   I wanted so much to use it to scan my research sites in China.  Our high-resolution ecological mapping efforts there had been so difficult and the 3D approach seemed to offer the chance to overcome so many of the challenges we faced. 

Yet it still seemed impossible to make it happen- gaining permission to fly a surveillance-grade remote sensing system over China?  It would take years and tremendous logistical and political obstacles to overcome.  So I changed my thinking…

What if we could fly over landscapes with a small hobbyist-grade remote controlled aircraft with a tiny LiDAR and a camera?  Alas, no, - LiDAR systems (high grade GPS + IMU) are way too heavy, and will be for a long time.

Then I saw Photosynth, and I thought- maybe that approach to generating 3D scans from multiple photographs might allow us to scan landscapes on demand without major logistical hassles?  The answer is yes, and the result, translated into reality by Jonathan Dandois, is Ecosynth.

Can Ecosynth achieve capabilities similar to CAO?  Our ultimate goal is to find out.   And make it cheap and accessible to all- as the first “personal” remote sensing system of the Anthropocene.

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