OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

Outreach program to link space age, private industry

09/01/1998

CORVALLIS, Ore. - A $200,000 annual program has just begun at Oregon State University to help Pacific Northwest private industry tap into the powerful new tools of remote sensing, and in the process create new products, services, technology and jobs.

OSU has been named an "Affiliated Regional Center" by NASA, to operate one of only nine such programs in the nation and the only one in the Pacific Northwest.

It's part of the space agency's Commercial Remote Sensing Program for technology transfer, designed to help link everything from satellite data to soil maps into useful, profitable products.

"Remote sensing and geographic information systems are maturing technologies, poised for a period of exponential growth," said Greg Gaston, a researcher with the OSU Department of Geosciences. "NASA and OSU are now teaming up to help move these advances out of the laboratory and into real-world applications, creating valuable products and services that frankly never existed before."

The beneficiaries of this program, Gaston said, may literally be any business or industry in the Pacific Northwest that has a good idea for a new product or service, but may need some expert help to turn it into a marketable reality.

Businesses will be expected to support their own employees who work as "affiliated investigators" on projects, but will be assisted by university laboratories, faculty and graduate students. And the doors are now officially open - businesses seeking more information or wishing to develop a research project can call Gaston at (541) 737-7013.

Geographic information systems are a way to use sophisticated computer systems and merge data from diverse sources, such as satellites, radar, land form maps, the Global Positioning System, geological surveys, soil samples or census data.

"The whole can become far greater than the parts when all of this data is brought together in the right way to create a new product or service," Gaston said.

Right now, some of the earliest commercial products tapping into this concept are fairly simple, like global positioning receivers that help surveyors do their work or a fisherman relocate a favorite fishing hole. But far more sophisticated uses have already been developed in university laboratories and are just on the horizon of commercial marketing.

According to Joe Means, an assistant professor of forest science and co-director with Gaston of the new project, "we could easily see products created to help land use planners or realtors plot where urban growth is going, or help a person quickly locate their ideal home."

Another possibility is precision farming, allowing farmers to give different plots of land the exact amounts of water, fertilizers or pesticides needed.

"Radar and a laser technology called LIDAR could assist forest managers in doing more accurate surveys of wildlife habitat and riparian zones," Means said. "And navigation systems on cars might soon be a common feature, giving motorists directions and preventing them from becoming lost."

Those are just a few ideas that have popped to mind, the researchers said. More important are the ideas that private industry will develop in the future, in which they see definite marketing possibilities but may lack the full expertise to bring a finished product to market.

In this new program, businesses will be able to come to OSU, set up a research project, and work with university scientists, graduate students, laboratories, and business consultants to explore new products, processes and do pilot studies in a fairly low-cost environment.

"With this program, we're not just sitting in the university saying we have all the answers," Gaston said. "What we're offering is to work with private industry as collaborating scientists and consultants and help them explore all the possibilities. If and when a new product or service can be created, they will handle all the actual commercial production, and we'll go on to the next project."

Students will benefit greatly from participating in real-world applications of fundamental research, Gaston said, and university faculty will use these studies and consultations to stay at the forefront of developments in their field.

About four projects a year lasting six to nine months each are envisioned in the new program, Gaston said. No commitments have yet been made and the university is open to proposals.

The departments of forest science and geosciences are officially running the new program, he said. OSU was chosen for this program and its associated NASA funding because of the university's broad expertise and research in these areas, and its history of successful collaborations with industry.