#10 – Austin Madson

In this episode, we introduce Austin Madson, associate editor of LIDAR Magazine and co-host of the podcast. An Earth scientist by trade, Austin has research interests that intersect the hydrosphere, cryosphere, biosphere, and lithosphere. Currently a professor at the University of Wyoming School of Computing, we discuss how he became involved with geospatial technology. We also address his drone lidar venture, Mad Nadir Mapping.

Episode Transcript:

#10 – Austin Madson

June 24th, 2024

Announcer:           Welcome to the LIDAR Magazine Podcast, bringing measurement, positioning and imaging technologies to light. This event was made possible thanks to the generous support of rapidlasso, producer of the LAStools software suite.

Stewart Walker: Welcome to the LIDAR Magazine Podcast. My name is Stewart Walker, and I am the managing editor of LIDAR Magazine. As the podcast series is developed, frankly it’s become clear that I simply don’t have the bandwidth or indeed the background and expertise to host episodes with all the people that we’d like to talk to.

So LIDAR Magazine has recruited an associate editor, Austin Madson who will host some of the podcasts. Austin’s day job is Assistant Professor at the University of Wyoming’s Geographic Information Science Center in Laramie, Wyoming. The purpose of this short conversation today is to get to know us a bit better and learn what he is going to bring to the LIDAR Magazine podcasts. So Austin, welcome to LIDAR Magazine and the LIDAR Magazine Podcast. We’re delighted to have you on board. But I’m sure our listeners will want to know a little bit more about you. For example, you’re a physical geographer. You received your degrees and your postdoc at the University of California, Los Angeles, UCLA. But please tell us a little about your life before that.

Austin Madson: Yeah, of course Stewart. Thanks again for hosting this info session, and don’t sell yourself short. Of course you have a wealth of experience and expertise in the vast array of geospatial fields. So we’re happy to have you, and I’m happy to be on board. But yeah, so before UCLA I grew up in Georgia, and really my interest in hydrology and geomorphology stemmed from getting the opportunity to dink around outside when we were kids. We grew up in a pretty decent neighborhood. Everyone had a couple of acres and these longleaf pine forests in Southeast Georgia. It was pretty wet during the ‘90s.

So there were lots of springs. We had a big lake in the neighborhood. We grew up making forts, building dams, diverting water, building little boats and things to race in runoff ditches. And it was funny because I didn’t really understand why I was into these things that I’m into until later in life and how I thought back about my upbringing and really put all of these things together. I was a non-traditional student.

So most folks will get their undergraduate degree right after high school. I tried that actually. I used to not tell a lot of people this, but now I don’t care. I think it’s part of my story, and I think it’s really important. I went to a school north of Atlanta after high school and moved into the dorms. Didn’t go to class. Got a zero point zero for my first two semesters. Had a really good time, yes. Obviously wasn’t ready to focus on my studies.

So I told myself, okay well, I’ll take a break, and I moved to Savannah and worked in kitchens for a bit and made friends. Lived my life. Then started taking community college classes at that point, and that slowly kind of altered my trajectory to where I am today. I think it’s really interesting everyone’s pathways to not only to academia, but to industry. Everyone’s got their own really interesting stories. And so I like to hear about those stories.

Stewart Walker: Yes, you’ve put your finger on something there. I like to ask every podcast, how did you get where you are today? What decisions did you make, and what things happened by chance? So in your case, as I mentioned a few minutes ago, UCLA has been a major part of your life. How did you choose to study there, and what were the foci of your BSMS and PhD degrees?

Austin Madson: Yeah, so I was in Savannah, Georgia for a bit just working in kitchens and things and having a good time. Started taking community college courses, still without a thought of what I wanted to do. So just taking kind of gen ed classes. And then I moved out to LA for a woman I was seeing at the time. Transferred over to Santa Monica Community College. Started taking more classes and just applied to the whole gamut of Cal States and UCs. And thankfully UCLA accepted me. They were the best school that accepted me. I feel like I would be remiss to pass up that opportunity.

So when I was applying to all these different, you know, Cal States and UCs, I knew I was interested in some sort of kind of environmental science, earth science. But still really had no idea, right. I’m just taking gen ed classes. And ended up getting into UCLA and when you apply for these undergrad programs you have to apply for a major. So I applied for geography and environmental science. Not really knowing what that had in store for me.

And so they accepted me, and I started taking these classes in GIS and remote sensing. And what really struck the chord for me was, we had a Professor Larry Smith who’s now at Brown, who would always bring in, once a year in his intro to remote sensing course a gentleman named Tom Farr. And some of your users may know that name because Tom Farr is really instrumental at JPL and working on the SRTM, or Shuttle Radar Topography Machine in the early aughts. And he came in and showed this really kind of famous InSAR, interferometric synthetic-aperture radar based infographic of Mount Etna shrinking and swelling from the kind of underlying volcanic mechanisms.

And they were showing this at the sub-decimeter scale, getting centimeters of inflation and deflation from the underlying seismological and volcanic changes. I was just blown away that you could get centimeter scale displacement from hundreds and hundreds of kilometers in space. And at that point I told myself, okay well, I want to go and try and see if I can do some internships at JPL. And so I did that. I wanted to learn everything I can about remote sensing and data processing.

Sol I did that, and I ended up deciding to stay on at UCLA. I made a lot of good friends, was comfortable. So I decided to apply for grad school. For a bachelor’s thesis I worked on looking at groundwater level withdrawals and changes from non-drought and drought periods in the Oxnard Plain. So in Ventura County over near Ventura proper. If you’ve driven through there’s a lot of strawberry fields and flower fields and…


Stewart Walker: Yes indeed, yep.

Austin Madson: Yeah, and so I was looking at whether or not farmers were fallowing their fields based on drought conditions and groundwater levels based on withdrawals and drought conditions and things. And then for a master’s work I switched over to looking at displacement values from hydrologic loading. And I transitioned that into my PhD work too, where we looked at and modeled kind of deformation and displacements from large reservoirs. And in particular we looked at the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, or GERD in Ethiopia that’s almost complete I think at this point. Kind of a hot topic item in the region for understandable reasons.

But we modeled stress changes and displacements and things. So also worked a lot with ICESat-2 data doing large scale water level changes and the whole gamut. But that’s kind of the gist of my work at UCLA and kind of how it got me into remote sensing and things like that.

Stewart Walker: Yeah, I think we’ve both been touched by the sudden discovery that InSAR can produce these centimeter level displacement estimates from satellites that are hundreds of kilometers out. It’s magic.

Austin Madson: It’s amazing, yeah.

Stewart Walker: So after UCLA, what did you do then? Your path has taken you to the University of Wyoming.

Austin Madson: Yeah, so I finished grad school unfortunately during COVID. I’m like a lot of folks during COVID. It was kind of a bummer. So I had to defend my dissertation on Zoom and had to cancel the big family trip and everything. But all in all we were healthy, so really no complaints. So I finished my dissertation and then did a small six month postdoc with my advisor wrapping up PhD work. At that point I had already been applying to university faculty positions, and thankfully the University of Wyoming was willing to extend an offer of employment to me as an assistant professor.

And so I was accepted and moved out to the great state of Wyoming from the great state of California. And if you’ve been to both of those places they’re pretty different. Some in good ways and some in bad ways. And so moved out to Wyoming to work as an assistant professor in the Wyoming Geographic Information Science Center and now the School of Computing. And I’m just there doing research and teaching classes and advising students and trying to learn more and do more science.

Stewart Walker: Yes indeed. And now for a word from our sponsor, LAStools.

The LIDAR Magazine Podcast is brought to you by rapidlasso. Our LAStools software suite offers the fastest and most memory efficient solution for batch-scripted multi-core lidar processing. Watch as we turn billions of lidar points into useful products at blazing speeds with impossibly low memory requirements. For seamless processing of the largest datasets, we also offer our BLAST extension. Visit rapidlasso.de for details.

Stewart Walker: Austin, I understand that your initial contact with LIDAR Magazine, other than reading it of course, was the transmission of a press release for your company Mad Nadir Mapping or MNM, which was founded in 2020. You’re the sole proprietor. Please tell us more about your company, its products and where it plays in the marketplace.

Austin Madson: Yeah, so Mad Nadir Mapping is this cool spin-off and hopefully my old PhD advisor isn’t listening. But I procrastinated quite a bit during my last year to working on my dissertation to kind of mitigate some burnout, which is not too uncommon in that field. But I decided to start building my own drones and rovers and these lower cost Chinese scanners came out, the live op scanners came out at the same time. And I said, okay well, I can’t afford a LiDAR USA scanner right now. So why don’t I just build my own?

And so I started to do that, and eventually the data started looking better and better, and I started working out all the kinks and decided to commercialize it. And so formed Mad Nadir Mapping. And what we do at Mad Nadir Mapping is essentially build hardware and write software to collect and process UAS born or drone-based lidar. And so I found over the years that these lidar-based scanners are notoriously expensive, not to mention the software and the annual fees for the software I think are also notoriously expensive.

And I don’t think that should be the case. I think if people want to go out and do a lidar scan and they don’t care about getting three or four centimeters of accuracy, like you’re going to get from a VUX or some other RIEGL-based scanner, which are admittedly exceptional pieces of hardware. But also insanely expensive. Not everyone can afford that, especially when you’re thinking of folks that live in countries where they can’t charge as much as we charge in quote, unquote, the western world, like here in the US where we can charge a fair amount of fees for the work that we do.

And so there’s this kind of need I think in the market where there’s a space for these kind of entry level scanners, like your DJIL1s and L2s. But even beyond that I think that this is a form of kind of democratizing who and how people can acquire lidar data and what they can use it for and help shift this whole industry forward, right. It’s been a really fun project for me, and it really helps push my science forward. And I get to learn a lot of really cool stuff.

Stewart Walker: Okay, well, that’s certainly a very forthright point of view. I think you might be surprised at how international the customer bases are of some of the integrators. For example, YellowScan in France. I went to their user conference in Montpellier in 2022. They’ve just held their 2024 iteration of that event. They really do have systems all over the world, and similarly MicroDrones. But nevertheless, I’m not disagreeing with many of the points that you’ve just made. But the actual affordability of UAV lidar services is maybe a little broader than you think.

Austin Madson: Could be, yeah.

Stewart Walker: We’re having this conversation of course because we’re both going to host the LIDAR Magazine podcasts. In a previous podcast I mentioned a book entitled Podcast Journalism. The author is David Darling, and that book has been published by Columbia University Press. And here’s some words from the blurb for the book that’s disseminated by the publisher. “Podcasting stratospheric rise has inspired a new breed of audio reporting. Offering immersive storytelling for a binge listening audience, as well as reaching previously underserved communities. Podcasts have become journalism’s most rapidly growing digital genre. Yet many concerns have been raised about this new medium.” So what do you think Austin are the advantages of podcasts, and do you think there’s any demerits?

Austin Madson: Yeah, I don’t want to wax too poetic here. But I think access to a wealth of meaningful information inherently is great, right. So if you think about it, with today podcasts and YouTube and all of these other forms of communication and learning, if you want to think about it that way, which I often do. Because that’s how I use these tools. If you want to go in and learn something new, you can totally do that, right. If you want to dive in deep into the weeds of something you already know about, you could do that too.

So I have a good friend who’s an ER doc here who listens to podcasts at, like, 2X speed. And he chugs through an insane amount of podcasts a week. And he’s really knowledgeable and is able to gain a lot of meaningful information from that. But as we know in the last five or six or seven years, access to information also has its drawbacks, especially when you’re thinking about information that isn’t quite as factual as it should be. And some folks aren’t able to absorb it in such a way that they understand that it’s not factual.

And so I think inherently with a wealth of information, there’s going to be some good stuff out there, and there’s going to be some bad stuff out there. But I’m not in a place to tell you what’s good and what’s bad, right. So I think I will just say that the demerits are sometimes that access to information that is misleading is a detriment.

Stewart Walker: So finally would you like to say a word or two on the aspects of lidar which you find the most interesting? I think you’ve already touched on that. And also the sort of guests that you would like to bring to the LIDAR Magazine podcasts?

Austin Madson: Yeah, totally. So I’m a big kind of hydro-geomorph guy. So any use cases revolving hydrology or geomorphology and all this really interesting physical weathering processes that I’m into using lidar are really exciting for me. Obviously I’m interested in the drone lidar space because of Mad Nadir Mapping and all of the work that I’ve done there. And I guess some of the things that I’m really interested in ongoing kind of changes and things in the lidar community, it’s this kind of vast wealth of information, right.

We talked about accessibility to drone scanners. So I said more and more people are getting drone scanners. They’re – more and more data is getting collected. Obviously the USGS 3DEP program is really strong and has acquired near contiguous US data. So my point here is that there’s a massive wealth of information. And the lidar industry isn’t unique in that. So I think people understand that information is coming in everywhere, from your cell phone, anyways, the whole gamut of places.

But as we start to learn and use these new kind of AI ML tools on this vast wealth of lidar data to answer new scientific and societally relevant questions, I think is what really piques my interest, right. Large scale wild land fire fuel loading at the regional scale was unheard of before because we didn’t have regional scale lidar. But now you do, and now you could derive ladder fuels, standing deadwood. You can derive fallen deadwood. Lots of really cool applications.

Talking with folks at USGS and Alaska Department of Natural Resources and there’s almost an unlimited amount of cool things that people are doing out there. I think it’s just a function of Stewart, you and I, you know, chatting with them and getting them on board to have them tell their stories.

Stewart Walker: Your mentioning ladder fuels and regional lidar reminds of an article we published by Kass Green about consortia in California at various levels had clubbed together to get lidar flown. But I think now there’s pretty widespread 3DEP availability for California. But the point is, that regional lidar data is available. People can look at it and try to figure out what to do to ameliorate the terrifying wildfire situation. I think we should stop there Austin. Thank you very much indeed. I’ve really enjoyed the conversation. I’m very grateful that you’ve agreed to host some of the LIDAR Magazine podcasts, and I think as a result of this talk perhaps our listeners have got to know you a bit better.

Austin Madson: Yeah, thanks again for having me on Stewart, and thanks everyone listening. Hopefully you find this interesting, and we look forward to chatting again, both Stewart and I on some new fun topics. Thanks again Stewart.

Stewart Walker: Thank you. So I also want to underline our gratitude to our sponsor, the popular LAStools software suite. We hope you’ll join us for forthcoming podcasts. We’re expecting some guests whom we believe you will want to hear. Thank you for listening and good day.

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This edition of the LIDAR Magazine Podcast is brought to you by rapidlasso. Our flagship product, the LAStools software suite is a collection of highly efficient, multicore command line tools to classify, tile, convert, filter, raster, triangulate, contour, clip, and polygonize lidar data. Visit rapidlasso.de for details.