'Hyperspectral Remote Sensor' senses disasters from space

An image from the orbiting Hyperspectral Remote Sensor (HRS)

Combining sophisticated sensors in orbit with sensors on the ground and in the air has led researchers at Tel Aviv University (TAU) to create a “Hyperspectral Remote Sensor” (HRS) that can give advance warnings about water contamination after a forest fire, alert authorities of a pollution spill long before a red flag is raised on Earth, or inform the population where a monsoon will strike.

The HRS simultaneously acquires hundreds of optical images, each from a different frequency, that enable a “spectral assessment” from distances high in the air via airplanes and in orbit using satellites. This raw data is then processed to yield sophisticated thematic maps. “Soil maps” allow water bodies and sediment runoff, small soil patches in forests after a fire, or contaminants surrounding a factory to be literally “seen” from space.

Prof Eyal Ben-Dor of TAU's Department of Geography describes his team’s HRS technology as a combination of physical, chemical and optical disciplines.

“When a devastating forest fire hits the Hollywood Hills, for example, we can see from space how the mineralogy of the soil has changed,” he explains. “Because of these changes, the next rainstorm may wash out all the buildings or leach contaminants into the soil. With our new tool, we can advise on how to contain the pollutants after the fire, and warn if there is a risk for landslides.”

Contractors, farmers or vintners interested in making major land purchase deals or managing existing ones could also benefit by soil maps generated by the HRS technology. The maps could provide detailed information indicating where water runoff should be directed and what minerals may be lacking in a given parcel of land.

Another application proposed by Prof Ben-Dor is the monitoring of gas stations. He says that about 90 percent of all gas stations leak contaminants into the soil and that his HRS technology could monitor them and identify problem areas.

“Our space sensors combined with ground measurements and GPS data will be able to detect and map hydrocarbon contamination in real time. Within a year, we’ll be able to identify these problematic areas far more quickly than with traditional methods,” he says.

Details on the new applications of the HRS technology developed at TAU were presented in Soil Science Society of America Journals, Soil Science Journal and the International Journal of Remote Sensing.

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