Researchers in the Southern Hemisphere Innovate Using LiDAR and Hyper-Spectral Scanners to Document and Help Restore Burn Areas

High Resolution Data Informs Government and Farmers on
Regrowth Following Devastating Fires in Australia
September 2020

English Summary: Airborne Research Australia (ARA), under the scientific leadership of Dr. Jorg Hacker, is committed to providing the Australian government – as well as affected farmers and firefighters – with a publicly available collection of data from the areas around Adelaide and on Kangaroo Island destroyed by the forest fires of December 2019 and January 2020. The well-founded scientific data, which are recorded with a RIEGL LMS-Q680i-S Airborne Laser Scanner and continuously updated by repeated flights, provide information about the extent of the destruction. But they also show where and how nature is recovering from the catastrophe. This enables those responsible for restoring habitats and economic zones to make their decisions more easily and on a scientific basis.

Deutsche Einführung:

Innovativer Einsatz von LiDAR- und Hyperspektral-Scannern im Katastrophenschutz

Erfolgreiches Forschungsprojekt als Basis für eine frei zugängliche Datenbank mit Airborne Vermessungsdaten zu den verheerenden Buschbränden in Australien

Deutsche Zusammenfassung: Airborne Research Australia (ARA) unter der wissenschaftlichen Leitung von Dr. Jorg Hacker hat es sich zur Aufgabe gemacht, für die australische Regierung – aber auch für betroffene Landwirte und Feuerwehren – eine öffentlich zugängliche Sammlung an Daten der durch die Waldbrände im Dezember 2019 und Jänner 2020 zerstörten Gebiete rund um Adelaide und auf Kangaroo Island zur Verfügung zu stellen. Die fundierten wissenschaftlichen Daten, die u.a. mit einem RIEGL LMS-Q680i-S Airborne Laser Scanner aufgenommen und durch wiederkehrende Befliegungen laufend aktualisiert werden, geben Aufschluss über das Ausmaß der Zerstörung. Sie zeigen aber auch, wo und wie sich die Natur von der Katastrophe erholt. So können Verantwortliche für die Wiederherstellung von Lebensräumen und wirtschaftlichen Nutzzonen ihre Entscheidungen einfacher und auf wissenschaftlicher Basis treffen.

As in many other states of Australia, in December 2019 and January 2020, the people of South Australia experienced a cluster of devastating fires. In the areas around Adelaide and on Kangaroo Island (see map), multiple fires burnt in excess of 278,000 hectares. There was substantial loss of wildlife and their natural habitats in several national parks and reserves, as well as privately owned eucalyptus and pine tree plantations, more than 1000 homes and buildings, hundreds of vehicles, and three human fatalities.

Some of the affected areas in the Adelaide Hills had been badly burned only five years ago. Scientists at Adelaide-based Airborne Research Australia (ARA) informally monitored these fires and the regrowth of the vegetation. They made their own observations about how the fire spread, and noted how quickly some of the badly burned and seemingly dead habitat began to
grow back. It was a cruel twist of fate that this second insult of major fires occurred in places that had only just managed to recover.

Recognizing the Need for Better Data
Observing the 2015 fires, the ARA researchers realized that there was a clear need for government agencies, land owners and even the general public to gain a better understanding of the bushfire phenomenon. More precise data gathered scientifically over time could be helpful if it
could be readily available to those who could use it.

As the fire raged on in January 2020, ARA developed a plan to methodically document and study the burned areas using a variety of sensors, and to share the high resolution datasets at no cost to anyone – public or
private. The data would be easily accessed in a web-based and uncomplicated format that allowed for interpretation, even by a layperson. Their idea was genius in its simplicity. They would fly one of their research motorgliders over the damaged areas and collect data simultaneously with their RIEGL LiDAR airborne scanner (RIEGL model LMS-Q680i-S, circa 2014) and their spectral scanners and cameras. The exact same sites would be re-flown in an identical manner at regular intervals. The data would be collected by a two-person crew: a scientist/pilot and a mission specialist operating the instrumentation. Proper documentation and rigorous standards would be applied. ARA presented the idea to long-time benefactors, Simon and Anna Hackett of the Hackett Foundation of Adelaide, who generously agreed to contribute funds to the one-year-plus research project.

ARA made its first flight as soon as the fires were extinguished and the
smoke had cleared. Jorg Hacker, ARA founder and chief scientist, piloted the
flight and began the work of collecting high resolution airborne LiDAR,
hyper-spectral and RGB camera imagery of the damaged areas.

ARA Chief Scientist Jorg Hacker, assisted on the flights by his wife Shakti
Chakravarty, used a variety of sensors mounted onto one of ARA’s Diamond
Aircraft ECO-Dimona motorized gliders that is capable of quickly mobilizing
for missions up to eight hours in flight time. Photo courtesy of ARA.

Shakti Chakravarty (Mrs. Hacker) was enlisted to join on the flight and
assisted with equipment operations in the small cockpit of ARA’ s
motorized Diamond Glider. Shakti has been joining Jorg on research
flights for years and they have made a great team. There are many things to
consider when collecting the data and a pilot needs someone in the cockpit who can be relied upon to assist in logging data, setting up equipment, and changing settings “on the fly” so to speak.

Subsequently, ARA has been scanning the same fire-affected areas every few months and is able to compare and observe regrowth over time. ARA hopes that they will be able to continue these mapping flights over the same
fire-affected areas periodically for months and possibly years, depending on how long it takes nature to fully recover. The only obstacle will be sufficient funding.

The goal of the initial scan was to document the extent of the damage geographically and in severity, to observe what could possibly be
saved. Photo courtesy of ARA.

As was the plan all along, this valuable information will continue to be made available to the region’s government agencies responsible for publicly managed habitats, land managers, agricultural businesses and the general public. The datasets provide higher resolution and quality than ever before due to the way the motorglider can fly low and slow, and its very comprehensive set of sensors.

Data from the survey is available via a download request form on the ARA website. Typical users of the information are government agencies, fire
recovery action groups, land managers, affected parties, and even the general public to use it for assessing the fire damage and regrowth, and to
plan further restoration activities.

ARA’s Bushfire Recovery Project Workflow
ARA’s secret is to use the most suitable airborne platform – one that is fuel efficient and capable of being airborne for many hours, while flying at slow speed and safely at low altitude. This is paired with the well considered combination of sensor technologies operated by an experienced crew that understands the weather and the landscape, the limits of their tools, and the end goals of the mission. Consistency matters, and having a small dedicated crew with equipment that will be used from study beginning-to-end helps to ensure the value of the data.

Observations About the Workflow

  • “In actual fire situations, the highest priority is for the County Fire Service and others to fight the fires.
    Mapping fire-grounds can begin once the fires are extinguished. Also, it is not possible for our LiDAR and many other aircraft camera systems to penetrate the smoke well because they are optical instruments,” said Jorg.
  • The combination of the high resolution LiDAR from the RIEGL LMS-Q680i-S, combined with the spectral cameras provides a variety of data that the typical standard scans have been unable to achieve. Different information can be drawn from the various technologies to give a more complete picture of the conditions of the trees and other vegetation.
  • An interesting challenge to this project is to present the data in a suitable and accessible form to the end user. People unfamiliar with the technology must be shown how it can be used to benefit them,
    and it is important to have the right tools to display the data. “Visualization is extremely important to show the value of the information. Land owners and the general public may have limited experience with scientific technology, so looking at a point cloud may be outside of their day-to-day experience. I always think hard about how I can bring the data into a form that will help others appreciate what they
    can see,” said Jorg. He added, “Interactive animations and change detection/sliding side-by-side images raise people’s interest. The concept gets into their thought processes and they come up with more and more ways to get value from the data.”

What Are the Early Findings of the Research?
“Many trees and plants that one might think were burned to the point that they would not survive are already starting to regrow after just a few weeks. Nature is just amazing,” said Jorg.

Plants and trees can burn quite differently, for instance, eucalyptus trees burn explosively. The rate of regrowth can be quite different too.

Mother Nature is resilient. The
vegetation is already showing signs of
coming back. Having been through a
fire like this only five years previously,
Jorg had an idea of what to expect.
These yucca typically flower every five years or so. I found
one that has 20 shoots! It’s exciting to see how nature comes
back after such a short time,” said Jorg Hacker.
Photos courtesy of ARA

Grass trees, also called yucca, are prevalent in the area and they are
coming back first. Immediately after the fire they appeared as if they were
completely dead. But after only a few weeks they began shooting out again.
And they are growing back quite differently, either producing an incredible
amount of flowers, or growing flowers unusually fast and extra tall.
There are a myriad of applications for the collected data. A good example is
the information LiDAR is able to uncover about the conditions of the tree plantations on Kangaroo Island. Data can be collected from the air and
analyzed in detail, even while it is still impossible or even dangerous to enter the forests due to fallen or unstable trees that can collapse without warning.
Another example of a valuable application is the ability of the LiDAR data to accurately quantify the extent of the burned areas with the click of a few buttons. Then the user can refer to, or even overlay the spectral images to determine and/or map out where there is fresh growth.

Click Here for Video: One Native Tree – a visual story from the
Kangaroo Island Bushfires, Jan 2020

About Airborne Research Australia Airborne Research Australia (ARA) is a not-for-profit research institute that grew out of Flinders University, in Adelaide, South Australia in 2016. ARA’s many projects provide insights into environmental issues ranging from land, air and water management, food production, mining, energy (coal, natural gas, fracking) and climate change.

ARA is led by Jorg Hacker, ARA founder and chief scientist who is also Professor Emeritus at Flinders University. Jorg considers himself an atmospheric
scientist turned airborne environmental scientist, with a
strong interest in the sport of soaring. And that passion for airborne science has led him to seek out new tools
to help him perform his team’s work. In the past 30 years ARA has performed the bulk of its scientific work in Australia, but has also worked on projects in
Malaysia, Japan, Germany, and even in space on a
project planned for Mars and on a satellite.

ARA’s RIEGL Scanners and Other In-House Flight Tools Allow ARA to Mobilize Quickly for a Variety of Missions

ARA began flying the RIEGL LiDAR scanners back in 2000 and has since used models LMS-Q140, LMS-Q240i, LMS-Q560, LMS-Q680i-S, VQ-820-G for bathymetry, and the VUX-1UAV. Other sensors in the toolbox include hyper-spectral, microwave, thermal infra-red, and atmospheric in-situ and remote sensors. ARA uses mostly open source software for processing their data into information-rich results.

ARA operates two research motorgliders that were “purpose built” by Diamond Aircraft in Austria. These gliders allow flying comparatively low and slow, and monitor the environment at very high spatial resolution. The motorgliders are configured to enable mounting of many different sensors including those used for this series of bushfire data collections: RIEGL LiDAR, hyper-spectral scanner, and an RGB camera. Photo courtesy of ARA.

About the Research Motorgliders:

  • They are basically manned drones, but without most of the restrictions imposed on drone operations.
  • Able to fly from just above the ground to more than 7000 m for up to 8 hours.
  • Able to fly comparatively slow enabling very high resolution data collection, but also up to 100 Knots for
    ferry flights.
  • Comparatively less expensive to maintain and operate than traditional survey aircraft.
  • Quiet.
  • Fuel efficient (14-20 l/hr premium unleaded petrol – no CO2 pollution).
  • Payload of 55 kg in each underwing pod, plus up to 15 kg in each wing pylon.
  • Easy to integrate scientific instrumentation, adaptable to specific mission needs.
  • Extensive on-board infrastructure such as multiple IMU/GPSs, central PC network, internet connection,
    and flight trackers.

ARA and RIEGL Relationship Dates Back to 2000
Jorg attended an industry demonstration in Australia in the year 2000 where he was introduced to the concept of terrestrial LiDAR. “I thought, this is fantastic! I want to install one of those on my research motorglider and see what is possible!” Jorg sent an email to RIEGL headquarters in Horn, Austria asking to have a loan unit for some time to learn more about and test the technology. To his surprise, the request was answered immediately by RIEGL founder, Dr. Johannes Riegl. He and the team of engineers in Austria was quite keen to collaborate with potential users at that point in time. They embraced the idea having a fresh perspective to learn what applications might come from it, or product tweaks that would make the equipment more user friendly or productive. Dr. Riegl and his team agreed to make the LMS-Q140, RIEGL’s first small footprint airborne laser scanner, available. Plans were set in motion right away. “We (our team) had many conversations, especially with Dr. Riegl, and the collaboration continues.”

Jorg Hacker and Dr. Johannes Riegl at the River Danube near Dürnstein, Austria. Photo by Shakti Chakravarty.

ARA installed the LMS-Q140 on their then only research motorglider, a Grob G109B. The very first target ARA scanned was a row of trees on the airport, spelling out the name “Parafield Airport”. To everyone’s surprise, all worked “first go.” This was also the first
time a small footprint airborne LiDAR system was flown in the Southern Hemisphere and the start of a long, ongoing and fruitful relationship between RIEGL and ARA. ARA has since been invited to give presentations and provide research not only in Australia, but also in Austria and Switzerland. “Twenty years ago much of our work involved measuring sea breezes, and a little bit of aerial photography and researching the
atmosphere. That first RIEGL encounter and the demonstration changed it all for ARA. Today LiDAR is one of our main tools for a wide range of research projects and applications,” said Jorg.

During all these years, ARA has been incredibly satisfied with all the RIEGL scanners. “They never miss a beat, or perhaps I should say ‘shot’! They just work! Whether it’s raining or it’s 45 degrees, it’s absolutely amazing. I would say that RIEGL scanners are the most reliable sensors we have ever flown,” said Jorg.

If you would like to read the full article in PDF form, please click below.

Researchers in the Southern Hemisphere Innovate Using LiDAR and Hyper-Spectral Scanners to Document and Help Restore Burn Areas

For More Information:

Airborne Research Australia, Jorg Hacker, ARA Founder and Chief Scientist, Adelaide, Australia, +61 418 857 115 or

RIEGL is an international leading provider of cutting-edge technology in airborne, mobile, terrestrial, industrial and unmanned laser scanning solutions.

Author: Jackie VanderPol, RIEGL Editorial Content Provider The Fulcrum International, Inc.,

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