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University of Missouri

Sensing Pollution From the Air

MU researchers use military technology to monitor ground pollution.

airplane

The belly of this airplane contains a sensor that spots ground pollution from the skies. Photo courtesy of Master Sgt. Lance Cheung.

Mizzou researchers are using a military technology originally designed to spot anomalies — an aircraft downed in dense jungle, a rescue raft bobbing in storm-tossed seas — to map and monitor pollution from the air. The sensor, Airborne Real Time Cueing Hyperspectral Enhanced Reconnaissance (ARCHER), mounts in a Civil Air Patrol craft that methodically crisscrosses pollution hot spots at an altitude of 1,000 feet.

ARCHER’s electromagnetic sensor identifies a fingerprint for each object or material on the ground, says Clayton Blodgett, an MU researcher at Missouri Resource Assessment Partnership. The sensor’s great precision makes it useful. For instance, the fingerprint for clean water looks different than the one for polluted water. And each kind of pollution has its own look. That distinction led to ARCHER’s first big pollution find at a capped landfill near Wright City, Mo.

The landfill was leaking, Blodgett says. “They set up a pond to catch the effluent, and that’s where we generated spectral fingerprints for the effluent.” Then ARCHER took to the air for a look-see. ARCHER data produced a map with effluent-colored strands showing that the pollution was seeping into nearby streams. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources will send out scientists to take confirmation samples.

ARCHER also has spotted problems at tire dumps and numerous sites associated with Missouri’s long history of lead mining. Much of this work replaces ground patrols, which were far more time-consuming and expensive.