SNRAS professor assists with Nome icebreaker mission
During the last couple of nights when SNAP Assistant Professor Keith Cunningham has received email requesting his help in the wee hours, he doesn’t just catch more zzzz’s; he jumps to his computer and gets to work.
As the Coast Guard Cutter Healy and the Russian fuel tanker following its struggle to reach Nome through the frozen Bering Sea, Cunningham is playing an exciting role, albeit one where he is huddled over his computer dressed in his pajamas.
High-resolution photographs collected from an unmanned aerial system (remote-controlled helicopter) are sent to Cunningham, who uses the information to produce 3-D mapping images that predict possible scenarios facing the Healy as it proceeds toward Nome. “The image mosaics and 3-D models of the ice are then returned to the Poker Flat team who are working there. The imagery and data are also forwarded to the U.S. Coast Guard and also to the oil spill people at the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.
“We’re on the bleeding edge,” Cunningham (pictured at left) said. “This is the first live-trail and everything we do we are learning from. It's a very different dynamic to work in, compared to a rehearsed exercise.”
Cunningham said there was a trial flight with the unmanned aerial system on Tuesday, and he and other scientists figured out how to calibrate the data collection. “Wednesday we had two very good flights and got preliminary imagery of the ice and ice pressure ridges blocking the harbor entrance,” he said. “Today (Thursday) we are doing another half-dozen fights.”
Several hundred high-resolution images collected yesterday and today will be massaged into a single, but very large and very detailed aerial image. The process is called ortho-mosaicing and Cunningham teaches this technology in his remote sensing course. The same imagery can also create (3-D) surface models and Cunningham teaches this technology at UAF.
Cunningham said he will most likely use this experience when he works with two graduate students doing independent study this spring to further research 3-D mapping. He will also be working closely with an undergraduate, David Broome, who will be creating 3-D photo-models of various buildings on campus to include in Google Earth.
While Nome is not exactly in dire straits (it has enough fuel till March) if the ship doesn’t get there soon, fuel could have to eventually be flown in. All in all, Cunningham said the reason UAF is assisting is in case of an oil spill. “Since the tanker probably won’t be able to enter the harbor, the fuel will have to be off loaded using a mile-long hose.”
Meanwhile, Cunningham is on guard for emails from the Coast Guard and is standing by to assist.