Origin stories are popular in comic books to help readers understand the circumstances that led to the transformation of ordinary folks into superheroes. For a company, they can be useful for our clients to understand our roots and trajectory. Our company’s superpowers—expertise in aerial imaging over remote and rugged landscapes—were a result of an urgent need to develop an innovative solution.
In the mid 2000s, conservationists on Kaua’i were in the midst of a war on weeds which were threatening native forest ecosystems. The main adversary in this battle was Cyathea cooperi, a large and fast growing tree fern originally from Australia that aggressively outcompetes native plants and even displaces native ferns such as hapu’u (Cibotium dicksonianceae). Because of the extremely remote and rugged terrain, helicopters were the main tool for surveillance. Yet the infestation was happening at such a large scale and rapid pace, so the need was born for a safer and more cost-effective method to detect and measure the progress of these ecosystem invaders.
By 2007, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) of Kaua'i began an R&D project to test new technologies against the Australian Tree Fern (ATF) invasion. This involved a 2-pronged strategy: ultra-high resolution aerial imagery for detection and mapping, followed by high-precision aerial herbicide application for eliminating ATF individuals without harming adjacent vegetation. Our founders Stephen Ambagis and Dana Slaymaker were tasked with determining the image resolution requirements for detecting ATF and developing a system to achieve this consistently and reliably.
In 2008, Stephen and Dana successfully developed an operational system to collect and process ortho-rectified imagery at 2cm ground sampling distance (GSD), which was used to map 20,000 acres in Wainiha and Lumahai Valleys, the front line of the ATF advance. This Cessna-based mapping system served as reconnaissance to plan the helicopter-based herbicide treatments as well as an evaluation tool to monitor the progress and assess the efficacy of TNC’s eradication efforts. Our eyes in the sky gave the weed warriors the ability to quickly search through vast landscapes via desktop GIS, resulting in tremendous savings of time, effort and money for fieldwork.
Over the next 4 years, we continued to develop our mapping system to improve ATF detection at 1cm GSD, the finest resolution of remote sensing data available throughout the state. Achieving such ultra-high resolution allows us to deliver a GIS-ready product that does not require high levels of technical expertise for image interpretation. In 2014, this was tested in Tomnod’s Hawai'i Challenge. This crowdsourcing campaign recruited citizen scientists to identify and tag invasive weeds by analyzing our aerial imagery through Tomnod's web browser platform. Over the summer of 2014, there were over 2.7 million page views and 10,638 participants, who helped map more than 11,000 ATF and 500 African tulip trees.
Of course, the power of our aerial imagery isn’t limited to vegetation mapping, yet the technical challenges we’ve surmounted to develop mapping systems for remote and rugged landscapes are the roots of our aerial imaging expertise. From these humble origins, we have used these powers to help solve a wide variety of resource management issues across Hawaii, in other parts of the US and even internationally, and we are continually looking for new ways to apply and improve our technology.