EEO-AGI Scotland Seminar Review : Dr Mathias Disney : 1st Nov

This past Friday brought a joint seminar between the EEO-AGI(S) and Hutton Club brought Dr. Mathias Disney to the Old Library of Drummond Street to present his wide-ranging and interesting seminar entitled: “From Hollywood to the Carbon Cycle: 3D Vegetation modelling for remote sensing applications.”

The intriguing title seemed to smash two very different worlds together: Disney? Hollywood? 3D Vegetation Modelling? Remote sensing applications? Not only that, but as we arrived in our seats, the film references continued with the title’s subtext: “(or how I learned to stop worrying and love Structure).” Dr. Disney then embarked on a wide-ranging and interesting talk which did not include any more Kubrick, but instead brought us from wildfires in Angola, to tree canopies in Queensland, Australia, to controlled burns in Kruger National Park, South Africa and finally to a jungle in Gabon. Yet as diverse as these topics seem, he neatly tied them together with his work in remote sensing and 3D modelling.

Dr. Disney may not be related to the animation giant of yore (as far as I know) but he is bringing quite interesting Tinsel Town techniques to the field of remote sensing. While movie studios use 3D animation to make objects and vegetation look as realistic as possible, he has been working on making them be as realistic as possible, so they are able use the information in the most quantitative way. He has been working with 3D Monte Carlo Ray Tracing Process (MCRT), which simulates the absorption and scattering of light in realistic scenes. Formerly this was a limited option scientifically, but as computing power has grown, more sample can be used and in turn more precision and detail returned.

Canopy structure is an important concept for Dr. Disney. In order to create an accurate model for vegetation, MCRT requires the 3D structure of the vegetation. He and his colleges have been working with airborne LIDAR, where in the air they are able to directly measure canopy height and structure of great tracts of forest, but ground-based LIDAR is also growing in application for modelling and estimating biomass. Formerly measuring biomass was a difficult, destructive process where a tree had to be chopped down and every component measured, but his preliminary research indicates they are able to derive the volume of tree structure with LIDAR and from that biomass. This technique could potentially save huge amounts of time and money.

Ground based LIDAR can produce a spatial representation of the scanned area in the form of a 3D point cloud. By converting these point clouds into topological description of tree structure they are able to create some fascinating models, like this animated journey through Lope National Park in Gabon, or in another case, Billy, the local elephant.

Dr. Disney’s work is fascinating confluence of instruments, models and applications. If only Dr. Strangelove had been more concerned about vegetation structure…

– William Blomstedt
(MSc in GIS at University of Edinburgh)

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