LiDAR Research at the Island University

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Texas A&M University–Corpus Christi (TAMU-CC), also known as the Island University, is a state university located on Ward Island in Oso Bay, Texas, and it is the only university in the nation located on its own island. While TAMU-CC is committed to becoming one of the leading centers of higher education in the Gulf of Mexico region, the University is also developing an emerging research institute (ERI) by implementing the Momentum 20/20 strategic plan.

The Geographic Information Science (GISc) and Geospatial Surveying Engineering (GSEN) programs at TAMU-CC offer Geomatics and GIS undergraduate, graduate, and post-baccalaureate degrees. The GISc undergraduate program is the only combined Geomatics and GIS focused Bachelor of Science degree in the nation that is also accredited by the Applied Science Accreditation Commission of ABET. The GSEN graduate program is a Master’s level degree that can be taken fully online or in-person providing students the option of pursuing an MS thesis or project.

The programs are closely linked with the Conrad Blucher Institute for Surveying and Science (CBI) located on campus, which provides research assistantship opportunities to students. More recently, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board approved the creation of a Ph.D. program in geospatial computing sciences at TAMU-CC, and the first doctoral students in the program will begin classes in the fall of 2015.

As TAMU-CC is taking steps forward to achieve strategic goals to become an ERI, several interesting LiDAR related research projects at TAMU-CC are being developed. We would like to introduce some of them in this article, and share exciting progress in Geomatics related research happening at the Island University.

TAMU-CC has an emerging program in unmanned aerial systems (UAS). It is home to the Lone Star UAS Center of Excellence & Innovation, and operates one of only six federally designated FAA UAS test sites in the nation. The Conrad Blucher Institute at TAMU-CC operates the Sensefly eBee (Figure 1), which is an ultra-lightweight, fixed-wing UAS. The current imaging payload consists of small-format digital cameras with 16.1 megapixel resolution operating in the visible and near-infrared portions of the spectrum. Flight operations are conducted under FAA Certificates of Authorization (COA). Research efforts with the platform include investigation of UAS-based structure-from-motion (SfM) photogrammetry.

This work is being conducted by undergraduate and graduate students in the GISc and GSEN program under the direction of Dr. Michael Starek. Investigations include assessment of SfM-derived elevation uncertainty compared to airborne and terrestrial LiDAR elevation products (Figure 2), vegetation mapping of agricultural fields, and 2D and 3D mapping of the littoral zone (Figure 3). In addition to UAS-based photogrammetry, the team is working on developing a low cost, functional UAS LiDAR system. This effort is exploring the use of the LIDAR-Lite, which is an edge emitting 905 nm single stripe laser with up to 40 m range developed by PulsedLight.

In addition to the UASbased research from Dr. Starek’s research group, a research group led by Dr. Jinha Jung is working on developing low cost and high-throughput phenotyping systems based on rotocopter UAS platforms. His research group is currently operating 1) DJI Phantom 2 Vision Plus (Figure 4) which has a gimbal mounted 14 megapixel resolution fisheye lens camera and 2) DJI Phantom 2 which has a gimbal mounted 12 megapixel resolution fisheye lens camera that covers the visible and near-infrared portions of the spectrum for NDVI measurements. These phenotyping systems will be operated on a weekly basis over farm fields planted with crops with various genotypes.

Orthophotos (RGB and Color Infra Red) and Digital Elevation Model (DEM) will be generated throughout the whole life cycle of crops using the SfM algorithms, and the results will be utilized to develop prediction models that will help smallholder farmers to make optimal decisions for managing their fields.

Dr. Jung’s group is also developing a UAS LiDAR mapping system. DJI S1000+ will be integrated with Velodyne VLP-16, gimbal mounted Sony Nex7 camera, and Applanix APX-15 GNSS-Inertial sensor. His research group is aiming to improve direct georeferencing accuracy of the UAS LiDAR system by integrating both features extracted from optical images and simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM) algorithms into the direct georeferencing process.

TAMU-CC operates a Riegl VZ-400 terrestrial LiDAR scanner with fullwaveform recording capability. Dr. Starek is leading two main research initiatives with the scanner. First, an all-terrain vehicle of the Conrad Blucher Institute is being equipped with a mobile mounting mechanism for rapid response surveying. The objective is to develop an efficient system for 3D mapping of beaches and low-lying coastal terrain that reduces data processing complexity while maintaining high spatial fidelity. Research efforts are focused on evaluating the performance of SLAM approaches using feature-based scan-toscan registration methods (e.g. iterative closest point variants) for rapid static data acquisition along beaches.

In addition, CBI has acquired a SPAN Novatel GNSS/INS to compare the performance of direct geoferenceing versus SLAM-based approaches for terrestrial LiDAR/mobile data acquisition over varying coastal terrain. The second research initiative Dr. Starek is leading with the terrestrial LiDAR scanner is the development of surveying protocols and data processing methods for exploitation of full-waveform scanning to derive high accuracy surface elevation measurements within coastal salt marshes. The objective is to densify surface elevation data and map the spatial distribution of elevation change over time (cm to sub-centimeter scale changes). This will help to better characterize sedimentation patterns and the response of various marsh regimes to impacts from sea level rise and short-term inundation. This effort is part of a larger geospatial modeling and height modernization project for the Gulf of Mexico region supported by NOAA/NGS.

Dr. Jung’s research group is utilizing airborne LiDAR data for characterizing vegetation structure. Dr. Anjin Chang, who recently started working with Dr. Jung as a postdoctoral researcher is focusing on developing a new framework to generate forest thematic maps based on individual tree attributes derived from airborne LiDAR data (Figure 5). A Tree Canopy Model (TCM) is generated from the airborne LiDAR data by subtracting Digital Terrain Model (DTM) from Digital Surface Model (DSM). Center coordinates of individual trees and their crown diameter are then identified from the TCM based on topological relationship among local maximum and minimum points. Pseudo waveforms are generated from corresponding LiDAR point clouds and structural parameters are extracted from the pseudo waveforms based on algorithms proposed by Dr. Jung in his previous studies. The forest thematic maps are then generated based on the proportion of individual trees in each stand that belonged to each attribute class.

His research group is also comparing vegetation structural parameters derived from airborne LiDAR data acquired during leaf-on and leaf-off conditions to study impact of the leaf-off condition to the resulting structural parameters derived from the LiDAR data so that we can provide some guidelines on how to best utilize leaf-off LiDAR data for vegetation structure analysis. Preliminary results were presented at the International Laser Mapping Forum 2015 held in Denver, CO, and extended experimental results are to be published in an academic journal in the near future.

Dr. Jinha Jung is an Assistant Professor of Civil Engineering with the School of Engineering and Computing Sciences at Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi. He holds a Ph.D. in Civil Engineering from the Purdue University and was formerly a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the Purdue University.
Dr. Michael J. Starek is an Assistant Professor of Geospatial Surveying Engineering and Geographic Information Science with the School of Engineering and Computing Sciences at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi (TAMU-CC). He is also an affiliate faculty member with the Coastal and Marine System Science and Geospatial Computing Sciences doctoral programs.
Dr. Anjin Chang is a Post-doctoral Research Associate of Civil Engineering of with the School of Engineering and Computing Sciences at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi (TAMU-CC). He holds a Ph.D. in Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering from the Seoul National University in South Korea.

A 2.683Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine complete with images is available by clicking HERE

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