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Global Groundbreaking Discoveries

UH Center uses laser mapping around the world to produce valuable research data.

By Jeannie Kever

Image derived from airborne LiDAR data obtained in December 2014 outside McMurdo Station, Antarctica.

Antarctica? Check. Honduras? Guatemala? Mexico?

Check, check, check.

Juan Carlos Fernandez Diaz, a researcher with the National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping, has been a traveling man this year, as he and his colleagues deploy the center’s specialized skills for projects around the globe.

Juan Carlos Fernandez Diaz
Senior researcher at NCALM, Juan Carlos Fernandez Diaz, in Honduras.

Being on technology’s cutting edge offers an exciting window into scientific exploration. It also means always keeping your passport handy.

The center, known as NCALM and based at the University of Houston, uses laser mapping, satellite data analysis and other technologies to produce high-quality scientific data in a sprawling array of fields — archeology, homeland security, environmental studies, natural disaster surveillance and more.

Ramesh Shrestha, center director and principle investigator (PI), says NCALM is driven by a three-pronged mantra: Provide the best possible research data to scientists, advance the technology for laser mapping and train graduate students to use laser mapping and other technologies.

It has made strides on all three since he and Bill Carter, chief research scientist and co-PI, brought the center from the University of Florida to UH in 2010, where it is operated jointly with the University of California at Berkeley. The Texas Commission on Higher Education approved an interdisciplinary Ph.D. program in April, more than two years after approving a master’s degree in geosensing systems engineering and sciences.

But most people outside academia know NCALM for its role in Honduras, where researchers mapped and identified previously undocumented settlements from an ancient — and so far, unnamed — civilization.

NCALM first mapped the area in 2012, using light detection and radar (LiDAR) technology from a small airplane sweeping over the rainforest.

The findings triggered talk that researchers had found the legendary White City, or Ciudad Blanca. But Fernandez, a native of Honduras, said they found evidence of two cities and several smaller settlements, indicating not the mythological city but instead supporting evidence of an ancient civilization, one not previously registered with the Honduran government’s database of cultural patrimony.

More To Discover In Honduras

Fernandez returned to Honduras this year, along with a crew of archaeologists, an anthropologist, Honduran military forces and a documentary film crew. A reporter and photographer from National Geographic accompanied them, and the resulting coverage went viral.

Fernandez said there is still much to learn.

“We don’t know who they were or how they lived, what foods they produced and consumed, or how they died,” he said of the original inhabitants. “One of the nice things about being on the cutting edge of science and technology is more questions than answers.”

For all the buzz about Honduras, it is just one of NCALM’s recent high-profile projects.

Smart Phones, Earthquakes And Floods

Craig Glennie, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering and a co-PI at NCALM, was involved in research using smartphones to create a low-cost earthquake early warning system.

The project, which also involved scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey and several other universities, is aimed at high-risk regions where more detailed but far more expensive conventional warning systems aren’t available.

Hyongki Lee, a NCALM researcher and assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, worked with collaborators to develop software that can translate satellite data into maps and descriptions of river levels throughout South Asia.

He will train people in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Bhutan and Nepal — countries that rely upon water supplies from seasonal rains and monsoon floods — to better predict flooding in an effort to reduce deaths and other damage.

Two other recent projects, like the work in Honduras, relied upon the center’s LiDAR expertise.

LiDAR works like this: Thousands of short laser pulses travel from a specially equipped airplane to the ground and back; the distance is determined by the time between transmission and detection of the reflected signal. That information, along with details about the plane’s movement and location, are combined to produce detailed three-dimensional topographical maps.

The newest version sends 900,000 bursts of laser pulses to the ground every second. State-of-the-art was just 3,000 per second when Shrestha and Carter first used the technology nearly 20 years ago.

“We’ve been pushing from the very beginning to have as high a pulse rate as possible,” said Shrestha, Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen Distinguished Professor of civil and environmental engineering.

Mapping Antarctica

In Antarctica, Fernandez and NCALM researchers Darren Hauser and Abhinav Singhania mapped the McMurdo Dry Valleys — one of the few regions of Antarctica not shrouded in ice, crucial because LiDAR can penetrate water but not ice, fog, soil or other obstacles — in order to determine if increased Antarctic temperatures have caused the underlying ice trapped in the permafrost to melt, and how that has contributed to changes in Dry Valleys topography.

The data still are being analyzed, but the work offered its own lessons.

The region was the largest NCALM has mapped with LiDAR — 5,000 square kilometers, or about 1,930 square miles. Weather conditions were harsh. The new system, with its 900,000 pulses per second capability, had just arrived, leaving little time to test it. It worked well in the harsh environment, cutting mapping time by more than half. As backup, the crew also took an older system, which emits 100,000 pulses per second, and used it as well.

The Antarctica mapping was funded by the National Science Foundation, which also provides operational support to NCALM, most recently with a $3.18 million, five-year grant in 2013. NSF-funded investigators receive a price break on NCALM services, but the center also serves other customers, including scientists, governments and commercial enterprises.

Work to map Mayan ruins in El Ceibal, Guatemala, for example, was funded by the Japanese government; the crew also mapped the Teotihuacan site in Mexico.

The center continues to expand.

The graduate program, using faculty from the Cullen College of Engineering and the College of Natural Science and Mathematics, has 36 students; leaders hope it will reach 50 within a few years, as additional faculty is hired.

Now that the center is settled in an airy space at the Energy Research Park with room for a future lab, Shrestha wants to move beyond simply consulting on new LiDAR technology.

“We want to build equipment ourselves,” he said. “We have the people, the talent to really put UH’s stamp on what we need.”

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