High Tech, High Touch

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knightJoe Knight likes to make a difference.

The Associate Professor in Forest Resources found his calling as an undergraduate at Purdue University, when he was introduced to the concept of remote sensing, which is a way to scan landscapes and gather data via satellite or aerial imaging. Through graduate school at North Carolina State University and then post-doctoral work for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, he learned how data and tools can benefit people’s lives.

“For a long time, not much changed in this field; there was remote sensing and GIS,” he says. “Then in the early 2000s, high-resolution imagery came along, then LIDAR and UAVs. Now everybody knows what satellite images are now because they see them on Google Earth, and they know what UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) are. Everything is spatially aware—it’s part of our daily lives in ways we could never have imagined 10 years ago.”

Much of his research involves wetland monitoring; Minnesota’s no-net-loss wetland law is based on an inventory that’s about 30 years old. “The state came to us and said ‘recommend the best way for us to update this inventory.’ Then U.S. Fish and Wildlife people got interested and the project broadened to habitat monitoring over a three-year project. That’s exactly what I like doing—someone needs something, and I can provide the information to them and hand it off so they have the tools they need to make decisions.”

The tools he uses can have surprising applications: Knight worked with a team trying to locate the cryptococcal fungus, which kills about 600,000 people a year in sub-Saharan Africa. Using field sampling and geospatial data, he worked with doctors and microbiologists to try to find the fungus’ ecological niche. It was “a really cool multi-faceted project. How often does someone like me get to work on something like that? It was interesting and rewarding and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”

In the classroom, keeping up on technology is a challenge; every year about a quarter of the content he teaches in an introductory class has to be revised because of technological changes. Today’s undergraduates have always had the Internet, and few of them remember a time before smart phones, he says. “That’s the same as what’s happening in remote sensing technology.”

He predicts an even more hyper-connected future, with unmanned aerial vehicles as ubiquitous as smart phones. “You’ll be able to call up an app on your smart phone, draw a square around a satellite map and send a drone to that location to gather data and bring it back to you. I have no doubt that will happen, possibly in the single digits of years away.”

But technology for the sake of technology isn’t the goal, he says. “I don’t want to be in an ivory tower. We can do useful and interesting things. Let’s say a Christmas tree farmer is wondering what’s killing his trees. We can send in a UAV and monitor for disease and pests and help figure it out. Or we can map the tree cover in a city to help identify the best day to pick up residents’ leaves in the fall. It’s about being a help to people in the community.”

- Becky Beyers