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Wisconsin companies find remote sensing solutions with Affiliated Research Center

A fog of deadly sarin gas floats from a canister as a terrorist runs through a crowd on Greenwich Avenue in New York City. After receiving a 911 call, authorities contact Risk Management Planning (RMP) in Wisconsin. RMP dials into meteorological towers mounted on emergency response vehicles in New York and collects real-time weather data. The weather data is combined with other data sources and three-dimensional models created from remotely sensed images. A projection of the toxic plume's path is sent to street-level personnel to coordinate evacuation and emergency response. Under optimum conditions, RMP can deliver a report to the scene five minutes from the time of the first 911 call.

RMP specializes in data synthesis and graphic representation of toxic and hazardous chemical releases. The company has already applied a system in response to chemical releases in rural Wisconsin and Montana. But the dynamics of an urban environment, such as in the fictional scenario above, are more complex than most rural situations.

RMP is working with the UW's Environmental Remote Sensing Center (ERSC) through the NASA-supported Affiliated Research Center (ARC) program to develop options for an urban topographic data base. Using lessons from past projects and work on photogrammetric software systems (i.e., Prof. Frank L. Scarpace's "Softcopy"), 3-D city models are built from aerial photos (at the scale of future high-resolution satellite systems) for inclusion in RMP's software.

"The UW has done a great deal of work in creating topographical models from imagery," says RMP President Paul Thomsen. "With NASA's backing, the university will be able to take it to the next level. That represents a quantum leap for what we are working toward."

The ARC program at UW is one of nine university centers in the country that provide U.S. companies the opportunity to examine remote sensing technologies. Under the direction of ERSC Director Thomas M. Lillesand (Professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering, Environmental Studies, and Forest Ecology and Management), ARC allows businesses to investigate commercial applications of airborne and satellite-based remote sensing. Lillesand says that "future commercial high-resolution imaging satellites will profoundly impact the business of science, government and commercial enterprise alike. ARC's goal is to create increased returns from this future technology for the private sector through innovation and demonstration."

A recently completed project with Orbital Technologies Corporation (ORBITEC) also involved emergency response. Headquartered in Madison, ORBITEC specializes in both advanced space and terrestrial R&D and commercial product development. ORBITEC developed the Voice Activated Poor Visibility Response System (VAPERS) as an aid to responding to aircraft fire and crash sites in all weather conditions. Using Global Positioning System technology, voice-activated command software, and a forward looking infrared display, the system helps firefighters determine the most direct route to emergency scenes, avoiding obstacles or non-trafficable terrain. It communicates vehicle positions to commanders and relays critical information to crews en route to the emergency site. Crews can access various databases and locate "hot spots" and passengers through smoke or fog.

Working with faculty and graduate students, ORBITEC developed accurate imagemaps of Madison's Truax Field and a test area at Tyndall AFB, Florida. The maps were developed from high-resolution digital orthophotography, and enhanced with vector data (including roads, airport runways, etc). The resultant image maps were used successfully in vehicle navigation demonstrations at both sites. "Our system is only as good as the map that it is referenced to," says ORBITEC Vice President Ron Teeter. "Working with ARC, we created accurate maps that effectively demonstrated our system's capabilities."

ARC Research Program Manager James Gage says it takes entrepreneurial vision to explore this kind of technology.

"It requires a certain level of belief that the technology and market will evolve and that the lessons learned from ARC are technologically sound, organizationally possible and financially profitable for that partner," says Gage. "To a company, our eight partners to date are true innovators."

One such innovator is Bruce Allison. His company, Allison Tree Care, Inc., provides consulting services to clients throughout Southern Wisconsin. Allison says a shift in attitudes toward the urban forest has increased demand for his services. Once considered only for their aesthetic value, urban trees are now recognized as an important element of a city's infrastructure. Engineers are manipulating the urban forest as an inexpensive way to improve roads, electric grids and stormwater systems.

Allison is working with the ARC program to investigate spatially based software programs and unique data sets that will help him better show his clients the benefits of street trees, residential tree cover, and green space.

With these tools, Allison says he can go into a city zoning department and clearly explain why something should be preserved or not preserved. "The important thing is to make the connection between the engineering, biological and political issues," Allison says. "Working with the ARC program has been an extremely positive experience. I have a greater understanding of this changing technology so I can better present data and make better decisions that will help my clients. The range of consulting services that I can offer has also increased, which may in the future substantially increase my business."