One small step for mankind, one giant leap for ... averting natural and man-made disasters?

A new Tel Aviv University technology combines sensors in orbit with sensors on the ground and in the air to create what they call a "Hyperspectral Remote Sensor" (HRS) which will provide advance warnings about water contamination after a forest fire, alert authorities of a pollution spill long before a red flag is raised on earth - or even tell people in China where a monsoon will strike. 

The HRS simultaneously acquires hundreds of optical images, each from a different frequency, that enable a "spectral assessment" from distances high in the air via airplanes and in orbit using satellites. This raw data is then processed to yield sophisticated thematic maps.

An image from TAU's orbiting Hyperspectral Remote Sensor.  Credit: AFTAU

"These are not regular maps at all," says Prof. Eyal Ben-Dor of Tel Aviv University's Department of Geography. "We are combining properties from the physical, chemical and optical worlds, using all the latest technologies available from these fields. Ours is one of a few leading teams in the world exploring this novel way of mapping earth."

Ben-Dor describes his team's HRS technology as a combination of physical, chemical and optical disciplines. "When a devastating forest fire hits the Hollywood Hills, for example, we can see from space how the mineralogy of the soil has changed," he explains. "Because of these changes, the next rainstorm may wash out all the buildings or leach contaminants into the soil. With our new tool, we can advise on how to contain the pollutants after the fire, and warn if there is a risk for landslides." 

HRS provides information useful to property developers as well. It can offer a soil profile map with detailed information for contractors, farmers or vintners interested in making major land purchase deals or managing existing ones. It can also indicate where water runoff should be directed and what minerals may be lacking in a given parcel of land.

Details on new applications of this technology were presented recently in several journals including Soil Science Society of American Journals, Soil Science Journal and the International Journal of Remote Sensing.