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K-State Today

May 24, 2011

From all angles: Special camera, aviation collaboration allow for unprecedented mapping of Kansas River

Submitted by Julie Fosberg

The Kansas River has countless habitats within its banks, but examining them has been problematic because of the river's size, which stretches 170 miles from Geary County to Wyandotte County.

The river's size is no longer a hindrance. Thanks to a special camera and a collaboration by several Kansas State University departments on the Manhattan and Salina campuses, researchers are getting a clearer image of the river's habitats than ever before.

Melinda Daniels, associate professor of geography, was awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation in August 2009 to conduct habitat assessments on the Kansas River. Daniels also received two grants from the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks in December 2009 for similar projects on the river: researching the effects of sand dredging and researching the effects on fish habitats by Lawrence's Bowersock Dam.

But Daniels faced some limitations with the projects.

"One of the hardest things to do is get a holistic picture of what's going on," she said. "You can't get out on the ground and measure every point on the river."

That changed with a camera and a plane.

The camera -- a high spatial resolution multispectral digital imaging camera system -- came from Kevin Price, K-State professor of agronomy and geography and director of the Ecological and Agricultural Spatial Analysis Laboratory. Price's laboratory specializes in agricultural and natural resources monitoring and analysis using geographic information systems and analysis of remotely sensed data. For his projects, Price has frequently collaborated with the department of aviation at K-State Salina.

"Some of the things I need for doing my research and collecting these types of data are a dependable source for a pilot and a plane and an aviation organization that is willing to put a hole in the bottom of its plane," Price said.

Both were available at K-State Salina, where low rates for the pilot and the plane have helped his research. As each student in the professional pilot major is required to fly a minimum of 205 hours before graduation, student pilots are available.

The aviation department helped Price by allowing a 5-inch hole in the bottom of one plane that is accessible through its floor. Price's camera, built inside a case, is mounted inside the plane and over the hole. The camera collects data in separate bands or wavelengths that can be analyzed using multispectral analysis methods similar to those used for using satellite imagery. This is an important alternative to a typical camera, where colors are merged into a single color layer.

"The low costs allow more opportunities for collecting research data because it's not breaking my budget to fly that plane," Price said.

The overflight, during which the photographing of the Kansas River took place, was in the fall. Kyle Simpson, senior in professional pilot and student flight instructor, Mulvane, was the plane's pilot. The flight path followed the Kansas River entirely and took the same route on the return trip. Price's camera collected 996 multispectral images that are currently being mosaicked together and analyzed.

Light reflectance on the river is being analyzed to determine the river's depth. Completion of this analysis will allow for a topographic map of the river to be created. The map will be especially beneficial for Daniels' project measuring the effects of Lawrence's Bowersock Dam on sediment presence in the river. Daniels is the project's co-principal investigator along with principal investigator Keith Gido, associate professor of biology. The remote sensing work will also assist with Gido and Daniels' other Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks grant to examine the effects of sand dredging on fish habitats in the river.

A new technique used during research has the potential to make significant contributions to remote sensing.

"If we develop a good mathematical relationship between the light reflectance and depth, that's going to be a big contribution," Daniels said. "I think that's where it will go from there, using the same data set but conducting different analyses."

Meanwhile, the collaboration with K-State Salina remains strong.

"They have been extremely helpful," Price said. "I could not ask for better cooperation."