Avon's Applied Ecological Services adds high-resolution aircraft imaging

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Neil Johnson
April 6, 2014

TOWN OF AVON—When ecologist Steven Apfelbaum started Applied Ecological Services from a dream to rekindle native grasses in his own backyard, he had no way of knowing he'd one day be able to view vast landscapes with camera images that would make NASA jealous.

Back then, in 1978—and even now, if you ask some town of Avon residents—Apfelbaum's upstart ecological restoration and planning service was known as the “weed farm.”

Applied Ecological has come a long way, branching out to six states and leaving a footprint of ecological restoration projects on four continents. The company was founded as a native seed planting nursery in Avon Bottoms aimed at inventorying, re-growing and regenerating more than 650 native grasses and plant species in challenged landscapes across North America.

Those grassroots, both literally and figuratively, remain at the core of work at Applied Ecological. But the company is making bigger leaps in the future. It's taking to the sky.

In the last two years, Applied Ecological has made forays into a new kind of ecological study: aerial imagery. Apfelbaum's company has ideas about how to use it that could cast ripples in ecological management and planning not only internationally but also locally.

Applied Ecological uses Cessna aircraft equipped with sets of high-resolution, multispectral imaging cameras. The cameras, which are new technology rooted in military use, grab tiny, nearly infrared images of broad landscapes–swaths of wetlands or grasslands or large lakes–or smaller areas, such as a set of crop fields or a treeline along a stretch of river.

The company then uses computer programs to assemble the tiny snapshots into a mosaic that can be used to analyze vegetation and habitat, monitor the progress of restoration programs or identify trends when there are problems such as invasive plants or ground contamination.

The key is the resolution. Apfelbaum explained it this way:

“Typical NASA cameras might take a picture zeroing in on 30 meters, a third of a football field,” Apfelbaum said.

He set a business card on a conference table and pointed to it.

“What we're doing now with imaging can zero in on that. Literally. Two inches by two inches. On the ground,” he said.

Jason Carlson, a Janesville resident who works in geographic imaging in Applied Ecological's aerial imagery division, says technology the company uses is the first approved civilian imaging system to harness multispectral imaging in such a way.

In eco-speak, Carlson says, the imaging gives Applied ecological “an innovative path to apply the sciences of hydrology and vegetation to inform data acquisition for land management” seasonally and over longer time spans.

What's that?

“It's a snapshot in time,” he said.

Picture small things on the ground, such as the leaves of the invasive common buckthorn plant, an ecological scourge of southern Wisconsin.

“As soon as those buckthorn leaves turn green, you could image them and begin mapping them. For a land manager, you'd be able to make a very precise measurement, then map it quickly. That's just one plant type.”

Among other major uses, the technology can measure and map soil carbon levels. Ask any farmer or gardener: Carbon in soil is good for growing anything with roots and leaves. Anything with roots and leaves returns carbon dioxide to the air. Good, too. Too little carbon: Not so great.

Here are other potential uses of Applied Ecological's aerial imagery, the company says:

-- Inventorying annual and seasonal growth patterns of invasive plants.

-- Measuring crop yields.

-- Mapping the migration of nitrates and other agricultural runoff and analyzing its seasonal impact as it migrates across watersheds, including algae blooms.

-- Surveying the impact of river flooding and ice damage over time.

-- Chronicling the degree of and spread of damage that emerald ash borer beetles are causing to urban ash tree canopies over time.

-- Identifying peaks in concentrations of plant-based allergens.

What about flyover images used to gauge leaf-color changes in for Wisconsin's autumn tourism season? The state's tourism department now relies on ground-level spotters, people looking at the trees and calling in reports on the changing colors.

That one was a news reporter's idea and maybe a bit of a stretch, but it gives an idea of the endless potential uses for such imagery. And the example sheds light on what could make Applied Ecological's technology appealing to land managers, farmers and even city parks officials.

It's faster, less expensive and as in-focus as analysis by a person working on the ground. In ecological restoration and land management, on-the-ground data-collection is how much work is done.

Also, land mangers spotting ecological trends on the ground don't see in near-infrared color bands, which Applied Ecological's airplane cameras do. That's important, Carlson explained, because chlorophyll, the green stuff of all plant growth, is highly responsive to near-infrared color bands. Which means the cameras can see it in ranges that the naked eye cannot.

What's really, really green with chlorophyll? Algae. And what blooms, sometimes in a big, problematic way in the summer across much of Rock County's rivers, streams and lakes? Algae.

Some of the techniques, tools and even philosophies that Applied Ecological uses are time-tested and can't be updated.

For instance, Applied Ecological still uses vintage seed-drying and separating equipment from the World War II era. Workers still sort and inventory seeds by hand. The company likes it when passersby stop along the roadside near their acres of prairie grass plantings in Avon Bottoms to spot migratory birds they won't find anywhere else but in real, honest-to-goodness native grasslands.

Which, by contrast, makes an airplane camera that can spot a lost dollar bill in a field of ragweed seem an anachronism.

Company spokesman Jack Broughton talked about how Applied Ecological still seeks to stick to what its goal always has been, which is helping to bring ecosystems back to their former glory: the new start.

“Our newer focuses aren't as inspiring to walk in and look at. You go into a room, and it's a guy on a computer, working on mapping.” Broughton said. “But we've always been about regeneration, new starts, and this is one of those.”

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