Stennis Space Center — The Institute of Technology Development (ITD) recently joined rare ranks by being inducted into the U.S. Space Technology Hall of Fame for work developing hyperspectral imaging technology.
The Space Technology Hall of Fame honors innovators who transform space-based technology into products and services that improve life on Earth. In recognizing the significance of the award, Gov. Haley Barbour said that only 52 inductees have been selected for this honor in the past 17 years.
“I want to congratulate the board of directors and the staff of ITD on this singular honor, which reflects so well on the entire state,” Barbour said. “I don’t need to tell you of my interest in bringing new industry to Mississippi. I look forward to working with you in the hope that new businesses can be established in Mississippi using the results of your good work.”
The Portable Hyperspectral Sensor array that originated at ITD, located at Stennis Space Center, was designed to help Mississippi Delta farmers use remote sensing to detect plant stress and target applications of agricultural chemicals over their crops. Hyperspectral sensors use a special camera to split a snapshot into 120 color-specific images, enabling identification of unique characteristics of crops that are invisible to the human eye.
This precision farming technology is used to help farmers detect plant stress, allowing better targeting of areas that require insecticides instead of applying insecticides to the entire crop. A hyperspectral sensor, using one of three different types of cameras designed and built by ITD, is mounted on an airplane. As the airplane flies over the field, the camera takes pictures of the crops.
Analyzing the hundreds of color-specific images collected by the sensor, a farmer can determine the areas that are infested with insects or weeds. The farmer can then apply insecticide or herbicide only to the infected areas. It can also be used to more accurately fertilize fields. A reduction in the use of fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides not only saves the farmer thousands of dollars, but is also beneficial to the environment.
The technology has far-reaching applications and can be used in a multitude of other ways including medical imaging applications, detection of food contamination and in forensics to detect chemicals, said David Lewis, vice president of ITD.
Lewis said ITD played a critical role in commercializing hyperspectral imaging by identifying key funding sources that provided the financial support for development of the hyperspectral systems.
Early on, the primary application was using the sensors on aircraft for purposes such as remote sensing for agricultural and land use planning applications. ITD programmers worked to develop applications in the laboratory for uses such as medical applications including ophthalmology and wound care.
“It became apparent we needed to somehow scan a target like a wound or eye, so former ITD researcher Chengye Nau developed the idea of focal plane scanner,” Lewis said. “The scanner has a slit that passes over the front of the lens that moves and scans the image vertically. Chengye and ITD patented that idea, and that is a critical part of the technology inducted into the Space Foundation Hall of Fame.”
In addition to medical applications, the sensors are also being used by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies for forensics. The technology can be used to detect counterfeit bills, illegal passports and other forged documents.
“The power of the sensors is that they look past the visible range of light that we see out into the near infrared and shortwave infrared,” Lewis said. “Some things that reflect in those wavelengths help identify differences between two similar looking documents.
“Basically ITD has taken sensing technology that has been used in satellite Earth observation systems, and reduced it into a more portable format so that it can be used in both airborne applications and also, equally important, it can be used in laboratory applications. That has created a kind of dual use for NASA technology both in Earth observation and laboratory applications.”
ITD president and CEO George May said medical imaging applications hold the most promise, including those that support NASA’s Vision for Space Exploration and long-term spaceflight goals. For instance, establishing the subtle difference between second- and third-degree burns can shorten the time it takes to correctly treat victims. “That’s important for NASA and its astronauts,” May said. “We know wounds don’t heal as fast in space as on Earth. The more we can do to help astronauts heal in the harsh environment of outer space, of course, the better off we’ll be.”
He added that hyperspectral sensors can help ophthalmologists study the movement of oxygen to the back of the eye, giving an accurate, noninvasive picture of an astronaut’s health. Early detection of molds and toxins growing aboard space vehicles could keep astronauts healthy in space.
“The hyperspectral technology suports NASA’s Vision for Space Exploration and long-term spaceflight goals,” May said. “The Vision calls for space shuttles to return to safe flight to complete the International Space Station, and human and robotic exploration of the solar system. This knowledge is vital to future Mars missions. When we go to Mars, we will have to grow our own food source. This technology enables early detection of stresses in plants, such as nutrient problems, so that corrective action can be taken to maintain the food supply.”
Stennis Space Center was the birthplace of the sensor.
“If it weren’t for the funding from NASA, and their believing in us, it wouldn’t have happened,” May said. “And if it weren’t for the agriculture community using and needing remote sensing technologies, it wouldn’t have happened.”
The sensor array was inducted into the Hall of Fame at an awards dinner in Colorado Springs, Colo., April 7. May, Lewis and five ITD colleagues were honored for their work to develop and commercialize the sensors: Jim Beach, Mark Lanoue, Rodney McKellip, David Smith and Chengye Mao. Also recognized was Mark Nall of Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, which funded ITD’s medical applications research for the sensors.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at email@example.com.