Public Release: 

Beyond archeology: NCALM pursues new technology, new projects

Lidar mapping has also yielded other Earth science discoveries

University of Houston

The National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping is best-known for its headline-grabbing work in archeology - the 2016 discovery of previously unknown ruins of a complex Maya settlement in the Guatemalan jungles, undocumented settlements from an ancient civilization in Honduras uncovered in 2012, and detailed mapping of more than a dozen other settlements in Mexico and Central America.

But center researchers also use another measure of success.

"The archeology work is significant, and it gets a lot of attention," said Craig Glennie, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Houston, where the center is based, and principle investigator on a $3.26 million, five-year operational grant from the National Science Foundation. "But the center has produced important science from our work with earthquakes, landslides, wildfires and other efforts to map terrain and how it evolves over time."

Researchers mapped lava flow from Kilauea in Hawaii this summer. Locally, they have flown over Buffalo Bayou to help delineate the damage caused by Hurricane Harvey. Their work has had practical significance, including assessing the risk of earthquakes and landslides.

Much of the center's best-known work involves the use of lidar technology - which works by shooting hundreds of thousands of laser bursts per second at the ground and using information gathered to create detailed topographical maps - although they also use a number of other techniques.

More than 530 scientific papers have been published in peer-reviewed journals using data gathered by the center, known as NCALM. The papers have been cited about 8,000 times, according to Web of Science.

Most of the data is made publicly available through OpenTopography; datasets involving the San Andreas and San Jacinto Faults have proved the most popular, downloaded almost 4,000 times.

Now 15 years old, NCALM has been based at UH since 2010, operated jointly with the University of California at Berkeley. Researchers use laser mapping, satellite data analysis and other technologies to produce high-quality scientific data in a variety of fields, including archeology, homeland security, environmental studies and natural disaster surveillance. To date, NCALM has provided research-quality lidar data for:

  • 169 projects from 85 principal investigators at 61 universities

  • The projects covered work in 24 states and eight foreign countries

The center also offers seed grants to fund projects submitted by graduate students from around the nation; 121 have been funded in the past 15 years, and Glennie said the latest NSF funding will allow NCALM to continue the grants.

Center director Ramesh Shrestha, professor of civil and environmental engineering, said the center has three mandates: provide high-quality research data to scientists, advance the technology for laser mapping and train graduate students to use the technologies. Master's and Ph.D. programs in geosensing systems engineering and sciences were started in 2013 and 2015, respectively.

The center also has played a key role in advancing the technology, he said, most recently through work with the Army Corps of Engineers Cold Regions Research and Engineering Lab to develop a portable high-resolution helicopter mounted lidar system.

"Flying a helicopter that can be rented near the location is less expensive than using the airplane equipped with NCALM's multi-wavelength lidar system," Shrestha said. "That will allow researchers to collect data for smaller and more remote projects that previously weren't cost-effective."


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