GIS Lab Puts the Earth at Your Fingertips
Look up as you step into the GIS Research Lab at Morgan State University, and you'll notice a specialized skylight in the ceiling with a distributor in it, which allows GPS signals from satellites to be sent throughout the lab.
GIS stands for Geographic Information System, and it's a key part of geospatial technology (GST). In the lab, satellite images, which are collected information about the surface of the earth with an amazing degree of clarity, can be viewed on a large screen that is essentially a virtual globe with the ability to rotate, and even go back in time, to examine, for example, weather patterns.
"We can get a position on earth with an accuracy of 8 inches," says Dr. Frederick Wilson, director of the lab and a research scientist and lecturer in civil engineering at Morgan. "Most of the time we use NASA satellites, but there are French, Russian and Indian ones as well."
The lab also has a handheld differential GPS, which scientists and engineers - and graduate students - can use outside to get signals from orbiting satellites.
"We used to buy Landsat images, but now we can get them for free," Dr. Wilson says, adding that expensive software is required to process the images. Students at Morgan learn how to use the software. One advantage they enjoy is that today, huge images can be easily stored on a memory stick, instead of the reels of fragile tape used earlier.
GIS and remote sensing have numerous practical applications. For example, by examining images of leaves in a vineyard remotely, the winemakers can tell if the irrigation, humidity and temperature are right to produce an excellent crop of grapes. Forest cover, fresh water supply, fisheries and, of course, climate change are just a few of the elements that can be monitored and measured around the world. Prospecting, defense and law enforcement - especially at night - make use of the images.
"We can tell when you've removed a tree," Dr. Wilson says. "We can tell whether you're going to have a bumper crop of coffee, which will affect prices, and the stock exchange uses this information."
Next door, another lab features a gigantic stack of multiple monitors that allows students to visualize their data in a bigger format, and a 46-inch wide printer to print the images. Dr. Wilson notes that industry uses the lab, too.
A floor below, the Geospatial Research Lab for undergraduate students, designed by Dr. Wilson, seats 20 students and allows them to work with high-resolution monitors and lightning fast processors. It features a digitizer that lets students convert analog materials, such as old maps and blueprints, into digital formats.
The Maryland State Highway Administration recently sponsored research done at Morgan that used satellite imagery to evaluate storm water sites in Maryland remotely. Actual visits confirmed what the GST revealed, a process known as ground-truthing. The research is available at: http://www.roads.maryland.gov/OPR_Research/MD-16-SHA-MSU-4-3_Highway-Runoff-Stormwater-Management_Final%20Report.pdf.
"Morgan has one of the best labs in the country," Dr. Wilson says. "We want to make sure we train students because that's the future."