Involvement with satellite will help study water pollution

James Goodman

Staff writer

John Schott will be at the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California next month for the launch of a satellite, Landsat 8, that has ties to Rochester Institute of Technology in important ways.

As a professor of imaging science at RIT, Schott heads a team at the college that has fine-tuned the sensors — criti­cal for data collection — on this satellite, which is part of the longest standing pro­gram for observing the earth’s surface from the sky.

The high-tech bird’s eye view the sat­ellite will provide every 16 days, when its orbit passes over the Rochester area, should give Schott’s team data about pol­lution in the region’s waters, more sweeping in reach than ground samples.

“So it’s this big picture look — and a big picture look every 16 days,” said Schott, 61, who hopes to chart water pol­lution trends — including algae forma­tion and runoff — for Lake Ontario, the Genesee River and six ponds.

Perhaps more than anyone else at RIT, Schott has moved the college into the high-tech world of imaging science — away from recording images on film to using sensors and computers that can collect data not recorded on film.

“He is certainly the grandfather of the program,” said Stefi Baum, who is director of RIT’s Chester F. Carlson Cen­ter for Imaging Science, established in 1985.

Imaging science — the study of how images are analyzed — has been around since the the first days of pho­tography.

Baum tells how imaging science has become a fun­damental part of almost ev­erything that society does and is made possible by the effectiveness of a broad ar­ray of energies, optics and detectors.

“Humans under­stand best by seeing and modern imag­ing devices al­low humans to see things they could never see be­fore as they were un­available to the hu­man eye,” Baum said.

Schott’s skills

With a specialty in remote sensing, Schott joined the RIT faculty in 1980 as a member of the Department of Photo­graphic Science. At the time, most of the imaging science was done by recording images on film. Schott, who has an undergradu­ate degree in physics from Cani­sius College and a master’s and doctorate from the State Univer­sity of New York College of Envi­ronmental Science and Forestry at Syracuse, came to RIT after working in remote sensing for eight years at Calspan, a Buffalo-based firm specializing in aero­space research.

“I brought an electro-optical scanner with me from Calspan and started doing research and push­ing the department — helping it transi­tion from film to where we are
today,” said Schott, who subsequently wrote a textbook, Remote Sensing: The Image Chain Approach .

Remote Sensing, which entails taking images from satellites and airplanes, offers a much broader set of capabilities to gather information from high in the sky using sensors and computers.

In 1981, Schott secured one of its first major federal research grants — for about $250,000 from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to work on an earlier Landsat satellite program.

Schott realized from the start that to make the transition to the computer age, imaging science had to bring together experts with backgrounds in such fields as computer science, engineering, physics and math. “He was one of the original people to view imaging science as an end-to-end discipline,” said David W. Messinger, an associate research professor at the center.

The center has a staff of 89 — including 47 faculty — and spent $6.6 million in research dollars last school year. Twenty of the faculty have their primary appointments in RIT departments outside imaging science. The center has 45 undergraduates majoring in imaging science, and 108 graduate students. Schott established the Digital Imaging and Remote Sensing Laboratory and played a key role in designing a computer program that creates simulations of what might be expected from imaging science devices being developed, such as the sensors used in the Landsat satellites. RIT’s imaging science program found itself in the midst of a controversy two decades ago that raised questions of academic freedom and oversight. The tools that RIT has developed for imaging science have been of considerable interest to U.S. intelligence agencies.

A 1991 Democrat and Chronicle look at the Central Intelligence Agency’s ties with RIT prompted the establishment of a review panel to look into this relationship.

The senior fact-finder for the panel said: “What we found in the imaging science Ph.D. program certainly constitutes undue influence, although we didn’t use that term.” In the two decades since then, a series of checks has been put in place, including a review committee that looks at exceptions sought to RIT’s standard contract with funding sources. The standard contract does not allow classified research, which requires a security clearance, to be done on campus and prohibits imposing restrictions on publication.

The research dollars that the center receives come from a wide range of government agencies, from the National Science Foundation to the National Reconnaissance Office of the Defense Department, as well as from private companies, such as Lockheed Martin and Corning Inc. A high-resolution airborne imaging system developed by the center has been used to map out damage from the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and from Hurricane Irene in 2011. Baum said that there has been “absolutely zero” influence by any government agency or contractor during her tenure.

RIT, Schott said, is in the business of making tools for imaging science, not deciding how those tools are used. “Nobody sends us a bunch of pictures and says, ‘Can you find the tanks?’ We build tools that find tanks. The same tools find pollutants,” Schott said.

Landsat’s tools

The Landsat satellite program. which dates to 1972, is the longest satellite program taking images of the land and water. NASA partners with the U.S. Geological Survey for this initiative.

Sensors aboard the satellites will collect light reflected from the earth’s surface and feed that information into detectors that convert the light energy into digital numbers for different wavelengths. The numbers correspond to the brightness of the image recorded by the sensors.

“Film only responds to a very narrow region of the light spectrum. Electro- optical sensors can record data over a much wider region of the spectrum,” Schott noted about the great capabilities of high-tech imaging science.

With a $750,000 grant from NASA, Schott has helped fine-tune the sensors for the Landsat 8, slated to be launched on Feb. 11. “We have been simulating what Landsat 8 is going to see for the past four years — showing the NASA folks that this is what you are going to get,” said Schott. The Landsat 7 satellite, which was launched in 1999, continues to provide satellite images about pollution in local water when it passes the Rochester area, but while the data collected can tell about how clean the water is, the data collected can’t tell what’s causing the pollution.

That should change with Landsat 8.

Added to the blue wavelength is an ultrablue one, which gives Schott the capability to obtain greater details about water pollution. Algae concentration and sediment in the water will reflect more light than clean water — and register high numbers in the measurements on these wavelengths.

Images from the satellite could be compromised by cloud cover but Schott said that over time a solid record of data will be collected. Although Schott is retiring from his teaching after the spring quarter, he will continue on the faculty in a research capacity.

The new capabilities, Schott said, should allow his RIT team to map out pollution trends and, for example, better predict when and where algae blooms might form.

“With the new tools, we can see much more stuff than we could see at all, and much more precisely,” Schott said.

JGOODMAN Twitter.com/Goodman_DandChttp://rochesterdemocrat.ny.newsmemory.com/?token=e9ef8efc5fb93a494aaa0e9c0b4caf12&cnum=2232170&fod=1111111STD&selDate=20130105&
See IMAGING, Page 14A

The red areas indicate degrees of vegetation in this infrared Landsat 7 image of the Rochester-area shoreline. RIT professor John Schott, below, will be in California next month for the launch of its successor, Landsat 8. LANDSAT IMAGERY COURTESY OF USGS/NASA LANDSAT

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