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Program benefits UW-Madison researchers, NASA, industry

A NASA research aircraft crisscrossed parts of Madison and Dane County Sept. 26, gathering scientific data for uses ranging from precision farming to watershed management to land use planning.

The sleek Learjet, dispatched from the John C. Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, used an ATLAS sensor to record about 680 digital images from 4,800 feet. ATLAS, short for Airborne Terrestrial Applications Sensor, was deployed as part of a cooperative effort between the nation's space agency and the UW-Madison's Environmental Remote Sensing Center (ERSC), directed by Professor Thomas M. Lillesand of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

A high-end digital camera, ATLAS captures a wide variety of infrared and thermal as well as visual data in 15 distinct channels of the electromagnetic spectrum. Such data, interpreted by scientists and computers, can yield valuable information to businesses, resource managers and policy makers, explains Lillesand. The recent NASA mission made ATLAS data on the Madison area available for the first time.


UW-Madison students inspect a NASA Learjet equipped with an ATLAS sensor. (large image)

The mission also provided students from Professor Frank L. Scarpace's "Advanced Remote Sensing Instrumentation" course with an opportunity to get a close-up look at the technology they're studying. Class members gathered on the tarmac at Wisconsin Aviation, Inc., a civilian air service, where they talked with NASA crew members and inspected the aircraft and its high-tech sensor.

The Madison flyover was arranged through NASA's Visiting Investigator Program (VIP), which couples commercial firms with university researchers to explore applications of geospatial information technologies.

Since last October, the ERSC has undertaken VIP projects with several Wisconsin businesses, including Madison-based companies Wisconsin Power & Light and ORBITEC. The UW-Madison research center, part of the Institute for Environmental Studies, was one of only four nationwide chosen last fall to participate in the new NASA-supported program.

Geospatial information technologies combine data from aircraft and satellites with sophisticated analysis techniques to yield information that is typically more difficult, time-consuming, or expensive to obtain by other means. Potential applications include business and facility siting, forest management, agribusiness, insurance, communications, infrastructure design, facilities management, environmental assessment, and land use planning.

"Using these technologies may help business create operational efficiencies and new product lines that enable them to out-compete others nationally and internationally," says Lillesand.