Tropical forest ecologist Jim Kellner is coming to Brown with an exciting innovation in mind: the development of an “autonomous airborne observatory.”
The technology of helicopter drones is inherently cool, but for ecologists the implication of autonomous remote sensing (the ability to observe and measure characteristics of ecosystems from the air, such as the height of vegetation, pigments in flowers or leaves, and the identity of species) is game changing, he said. The technology will broaden the scope of questions that researchers can work on. Developing an autonomous airborne observatory at Brown should make it accessible to undergraduates, as well as for faculty and graduate research.
“I think UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] are going to democratize access to cutting-edge remote sensing,” said Kellner, who is coming to Brown as an assistant professor from the University of Maryland–College Park. He’ll be based both in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and at the Environmental Change Initiative. “And it will create lots of opportunities for undergraduates to pursue original research.”
Kellner is not into UAVs for technology’s sake. He has been working with remote sensing for a decade because it is the only way to answer the ecological questions he’s interested in. They have to do with nothing less than the biological diversity and future of the planet’s tropical forests. Those ecosystems store tremendous amounts of carbon that would warm the planet further were it in the atmosphere, and they harbor a vast but unknown number of undiscovered species.
“The greatest diversity of life is in tropical forests,” Kellner said, “and much of it is still relatively unknown to science.”
He wants to understand what role these forests play in the global carbon cycle and how their biological diversity is changing over time. On Barro Colorado Island in Panama, for example, he’s attempting to figure out how population sizes of canopy trees have changed during the last decade, and he wants to discern whether trees will be able to acclimate to changes in the environment.
Kellner is pursuing these studies with a combination of methods that range from hiking through the forest to collect tree leaves, from which DNA can be extracted, to ongoing monitoring of flowering and other activities of the sparsely located individual trees (there is only about one per hectare of his study species) with satellite images of the forest canopy.
Traditionally, that latter technique of remote sensing has required either buying the time of pilots, sensors, and planes or using satellite imagery. Neither is cheap, readily available, or entirely under a researcher’s control.
“The problem we’ve had over the last decade is that there is some fantastic technology, but it’s extraordinarily expensive and it’s difficult to get,” Kellner said. “There might only be a few sensors in the world that can do what you want to do and maybe there isn’t one available, and even if you can get it it’s going to cost into the hundreds of thousands of dollars to collect data from the sensor just one time.”
But as costs have dropped not only for sensors but also for autonomous aircraft, Kellner said, it has become more realistic for universities to consider creating their own remote sensing platforms. He proposes to combine a commercially available autonomous helicopter with a custom blend of sensors. The result: an autonomous airborne observatory.
As Kellner begins to pursue the dream of a Brown helicopter, he’s already realized the much older dream of visiting some of the world’s most beautiful tropical forests. It began when he was 7 years old.
“I remember going to bed one night and I had a book that had pictures of animals in it from Australia,” Kellner said. “I remember counting in my head how many years it would be before I could possibly go to Australia. I remember being really frustrated because it seemed like it was so many years away, but I resolved that that’s just something I really wanted to experience. I just felt a need to see it and interact with it and be in it.”
When he went off to college at Colorado State University he soon discovered a study abroad opportunity at James Cook University in Queensland, Australia. It offered ready access to the continent’s tropical forests.
The trip became a transition. “I went on a study abroad and I never came back,” Kellner said.
Actually he did come back, first for a lab job studying endangered tree snails in Hawaii, and then for a master’s degree at Dartmouth, a Ph.D. at the University of Georgia, a postdoctoral appointment at the Carnegie Institution for Science at Stanford, and then his first faculty job at the University of Maryland.
What drew him to Brown more than anything else, he said, is the exceptional quality of the students.
“It’s the undergraduates,” he said. “I really enjoy working with talented undergraduates. It’s exciting to be around people who are passionate and motivated about what they do, and I enjoy teaching.
“Brown is an institution that has that caliber of undergraduates and is also an institution that is not shy about valuing teaching and mentorship,” he said.
It probably won’t take long for students to seek the mentorship of a similarly motivated, passionate professor who also happens to be working with a helicopter drone in some of the world’s spectacular tropical forests.