Professor’s Landscape Research Goes Up, Up and Away
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.
The system’s GPS plugs into the cameras and connects to a wireless router sitting atop the balloon, which normally hovers about 500 feet above the ground.
“The system beams down all the data, photos and videos through radio antennas to my iPad,” Foy said. “I have full control of everything. The technology is amazing.”
For the phenology study, Foy said, he flies the balloon, usually only half-filled with helium, for several hours on most days after teaching classes and for longer periods on weekends. He reels it in and stakes it to the ground when he leaves the research site. “I get scared and pull it down when I’m not using it,” he admitted. “I don’t want people using it for target practice.”
When the balloon is not in use, the professor keeps it locked down in a fenced area.
Foy, in his third year of teaching at RU, plans to use the balloon for class projects and already has used it to “find Waldo” on campus during Radford University’s Governor’s School this past summer.
He and a group of helpers strategically planted printouts of life-size “Where’s Waldo?” figures across campus, then assigned kids in the Governor’s School to find the hidden figures using images taken from the balloon. “They found nearly all of them,” Foy said proudly.
The professor, who along with Geospatial Science Chair Bernd Kuennecke received funding through a university multidisciplinary grant to purchase the balloon, is scheduling a launch on campus in the spring for his introduction to GIS and cartography classes, assigning his students special projects benefiting the university.
Foy said he hopes to launch on campus at night and using the system’s thermal camera, “locate all the outside lights on campus and determine where there is plenty and where there is not enough,” he said.
Another possible use of the thermal camera is “shooting rooftops of campus buildings to determine if buildings are leaking a lot of energy. There are so many things we can do with this technology.”
“It’s a great educational tool, and I hope it can also be used to benefit our community,” Foy said. “And, for the students and me, it’s a lot of fun to work with.”