A big red balloon is one of the latest research tools in Radford University’s geospatial science program.
Decorated with a large white RU logo, the helium-powered aircraft is equipped with high-resolution still and video cameras as well as a thermal infrared camera. Professor of Geospatial Science Andrew Foy is using them for research on local-scale landscape phenology, or periodic plant and animal life cycles.
The purpose of studying such cycles, Foy said, is to understand how a landscape changes over time. The studies are particularly important in the Appalachians, he said, where the landscape has many topographic features, which make the region diverse in vegetation and perfect for studying different landscape patterns.
“We’re concerned about how the landscape changes over time, such as when do trees bloom and when do they brown down,” Foy said. “Perhaps we learn how much photosynthesis has gone on in the canopy and how that changes throughout each season.”
Phenology studies are typically conducted using low-resolution data from Landsat or MODIS satellites, Foy said. “Our study uses high-resolution images and is low cost and mobile,” he said. “Those things make the balloon platform a unique remote-sensing research and teaching tool.”
Jobs for the red balloon, which is about as big as a Volkswagen bus, aren’t limited to phenology studies, Foy said. If needed, the system could be used to aid law enforcement in emergency responses, such as finding missing persons.
Through the fall, Foy has been launching the big balloon near Paris Mountain in Blacksburg, snapping photos and capturing high-definition video of the area’s vegetation during the autumn foliage change.
Data collected from the cameras may be combined to calculate the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI), which reveals the health of an area’s vegetation and productivity level of the measured landscape.
Foy hopes to publish his findings in academic journals.
The professor, who jokingly refers to himself as “Balloon Boy,” controls the cameras from his base on the ground, using an application on his iPad—sometimes while munching a taco and entertaining his dog, Max.