NRL’s remote sensing division analyzes ground characteristics in Australia

WASHINGTON — U.S. Naval Research Laboratory physical scientists, engineers, and principal investigator Andrei Abelev visited Australia in May 2019 to validate their techniques for terrain characterization.

Using multiple types of sensors to gain understanding of different soils, the team used the trip to see how their models performed with the soils Down Under, digging into the homes of some of the most dangerous animals in the world.

Physical scientists and engineers from the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory collect soil samples and conduct ground measurements with collaborators during a 2019 Australian field expedition to validate remote sensing techniques for terrain characterization. NRL’s Remote Sensing Division uses multiple sensor modalities to understand geotechnical characteristics of the soil, such as soil type, composition, and strength. (U.S. Navy photo by Andrei Abelev)

“We are proud of being a one-stop shop at NRL for remote sensing of terrain and its characterization,” Abelev said. “It’s a capability that no other organization has, and we are unique in our multi-sensor multi-modal approach.”

Understanding ground characteristics is part of the science and the art of geotechnical engineering, which can be useful in multiple areas, including project management and planning.

Abelev said remote sensing technologies can aid many applications in civil, environmental, and hydrological engineering, as well as agriculture. For example, knowing specific soil properties can help to optimize locations for new buildings and roads, or lead to better understanding of the dangers in possible landslides or devise estimates of surface water erosion during rain events.

“The ability to survey soils remotely and on a large scale allows us to better understand the properties of these soils,” Abelev said. “We have lots of global expertise in helping people understand the composition of soil, whether it is sand, silt, clay, or rock. We can help understand runoff, soil stability, and other characteristics.”

To collect soil data, NRL researchers use multiple kinds of sophisticated sensors, also known as modalities, on the ground and in the air, including radar, hyperspectral instruments, and lidar – a laser-based detection and ranging sensor.

After the data is collected, the analysis can be lengthy and anything but trivial.

“Some of these sensors are capable of collecting gigabytes and even terabytes of data per hour, and each sensor type has its own unique set of data analysis and processing tools and algorithms,” Abelev said. “Depending on what level of detail you are looking for, it can often take substantial amount of time to analyze it.”

Abelev said the team uses several methods to analyze the data, including machine learning and neural nets, a form of computer-based analysis based on the human brain.

About the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory

NRL is a scientific and engineering command dedicated to research that drives innovative advances for the Navy and Marine Corps from the seafloor to space and in the information domain. NRL headquarters is located in Washington, D.C., with major field sites in Stennis Space Center, Mississippi; Key West, Florida; and Monterey, California, and employs approximately 2,500 civilian scientists, engineers and support personnel.