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From early on, the USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center forged relationships and connections with universities that ultimately became symbiotic.

EROS, which celebrates 50 years this year, has offered training and technology opportunities to faculty and students, while also benefiting from university research and skilled graduates-turned-employees.

1966-1979: How Sioux Falls Ingenuity Secured the Center

1966-1979: How Sioux Falls Ingenuity Secured the Center

1980-1999: Through Uncertainty to a Firm Footing

1980-1999: Through Uncertainty to a Firm Footing

2000-2023: Data and Science Surge

2000-2023: Data and Science Surge

Take the nearby example of South Dakota State University (SDSU) in Brookings, South Dakota.

SDSU formed its Remote Sensing Institute in 1969, with an early focus on data collected by airplane. The 1972 launch of Landsat 1 gave SDSU and other universities a new, intriguing view of the Earth’s surface—and new research potential. SDSU also received a bonus when the site selected for EROS, the archive of Landsat data, conveniently ended up about an hour down the road.

Before Landsat came along, SDSU’s Remote Sensing Institute worked to process aerial film and thermal infrared data. Mary O’Neill, with a degree in mathematics and experience in computer programming, started working on image processing at the institute in 1972. With no remote sensing courses available at the time, “it was very much a learning-on-the-job kind of experience,” O’Neill said.

The back of a woman sitting in front of a computing machine that reflects her face in a mirror
Mary O'Neill processes a Landsat scene using Signal Analysis and Dissemination Equipment (SADE) at the Remote Sensing Institute at South Dakota State University in Brookings in about 1972. 

O’Neill recalled a trip to EROS’ temporary quarters in downtown Sioux Falls soon after Landsat 1’s launch to see some of the trailblazing satellite’s first images being printed. “I don’t think I realized at that time what a big deal that really was. But it’s been a big part of my life, and it’s been a big part of the EROS legacy,” said O’Neill, who served as program manager of SDSU’s Office Remote Sensing before retiring in 2013.

EROS hosted O’Neill’s students and visiting scientists from around the world for tours, presentations, meetings, workshops and training and invited them to work with the more advanced image processing capabilities in the EROS Data Analysis Lab.

EROS’ Early Work with Universities

In 1974, EROS began a cooperative education program agreement with SDSU to place students in work assignments paired with classroom studies. This allowed students to earn money as well as academic credit and provided EROS with a source of quality employees. Since then, the government and contract staff at EROS have hosted poster sessions and internships for students from SDSU and other universities, along with summer sabbaticals for faculty. Students graduating with the education and skills relevant to the work at EROS also have been hired for full time employment.

Beyond SDSU, EROS’ early work with universities included hosting remote sensing training courses on-site, such as one in 1978 for Texas A&M Geology Department faculty and graduate students, and off-site, such as an open-enrollment workshop in northern Michigan held in 1978 with the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources to encourage universities to train the data user community. That same year, the Graduate School of Harvard University began hosting a series of terrain analysis training courses at EROS. The following year, EROS scientists provided workshops at the University of North Dakota and the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, as well.

A man, Dennis Helder, sits on the floor surrounded by stacked boxes
Dennis Helder, founder of SDSU’s Image Processing Lab and former head of the Electrical Engineering Department, sits surrounded by boxes of documents in the USGS EROS basement as his team works with EROS staff to sort through documents for the archive. 

It was to EROS’ advantage to train college students and faculty about remote sensing basics and what Earth observation data could show them—the resulting research created some demand for the growing archive at EROS, which included not only Landsat data but also aerial photography and eventually other types of remote sensing data.

Sharing Data in AmericaView

A policy in 2008 opened the EROS archive for anyone to obtain data online at no cost, but before that, university researchers on tight budgets tended to purchase Landsat scenes sparingly. At different times in the Landsat Program’s history, a single scene could cost hundreds or even a few thousand dollars. They were kept and shared within a department almost like a precious commodity and used in later projects.

Agreements arose among various groups, including federal agencies, for sharing purchased imagery. In 1998, a pilot program began that involved Ohio universities sharing a copy of remote sensing data—including the then soon-to-be-launched Landsat 7 data—supplied by EROS. This OhioView Consortium eventually evolved into the nonprofit AmericaView, with infrastructure supported by EROS, and has grown to include university partners in 41 states. These partners conduct remote sensing research, education for ages kindergarten through college, and outreach activities.

O’Neill served as the South Dakota View principal investigator and is finishing up a term as board director for AmericaView. “If we can get these kids involved at the K-12 level, they’re going to be more ready at the university level, more accepting and more able to solve a lot of our world’s problems. That’s an important thing that I’ve learned in my involvement with some of the programs like AmericaView,” O’Neill said.

‘Selling Point’ of University Job: Close to EROS

In 2005, a partnership between EROS and SDSU was announced that created SDSU’s Geographic Information Science Center of Excellence, designed to carry out collaborative research, professional development and educational experiences. Co-directors of the new center were Tom Loveland from EROS and Matthew Hansen from SDSU, and researchers from both facilities served as senior scientists in the program.

David Roy, one researcher recruited to the Center of Excellence when it began, said the idea of working with Loveland and Hansen and their team and helping set up a new research center appealed to him.

Color photo from 2005 of GISsCE dedication
Dr. Thomas Loveland speaking as Senator John Thune, Senator Tim Johnson, EROS Director R.J. Thompson, Robert (Tad) Perry and Dr. Peggy Cordon-Miller listen at the September 1, 2005 dedication ceremony of the SDSU and USGS EROS Center Geographic Information Science Center of Excellence (GIScCE) in Brookings, SD. 

“The selling point,” Roy added, “was South Dakota State is just a one-hour drive from EROS, and the point was, EROS is the data archive. It’s got all the Landsat data. It’s also got all the terrestrial remote sensing data, pretty much, archived at EROS. So, the opportunity to work with people at EROS, and the engineers in particular, and get hold of the data, for me, was really attractive.”

Support and Science Collaborations

Other examples of EROS collaborating with public and private South Dakota universities through the years have included:

  • EROS employees serving as adjunct professors
  • EROS’ membership in the South Dakota Space Grant Consortium, led by the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology and including other universities
  • EROS providing internet connectivity support to universities
  • EROS providing support for improved science education for Native students at Sinte Gleska University

Scientists at EROS and at universities and around the world have found benefits in teaming up for projects and research studies. Just a few examples have included working with:

  • The University of Nebraska-Lincoln to help develop the Global Land Cover Characterization Program and drought monitoring tools
  • The University of California, Santa Barbara to help establish what is now called the Climate Hazards Center to support the Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS NET)
  • The University of Montana to blend invasive grass mapping products for a valuable data layer in a management toolkit for the Western Governors’ Association
  • South Dakota universities to help monitor local and regional concerns such as land resources, water bodies and flooding, cropland, wildlife habitats and carbon measurements.
color photo of unmanned aerial vehicle
The Rochester Institute of Technology drove several unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) from New York to South Dakota for a validation event put on by USGS EROS on the campus of South Dakota State University in Brookings in 2021. Rochester Institute of Technology attached various instruments to the UAVs, including multispectral visible cameras, hyperspectral imagers and thermal infrared sensors. (Photo courtesy of Cody Anderson, USGS EROS)

Landsat Calibration Work

The EROS calibration and validation efforts have long relied on universities for help in ensuring that Landsat and other remote sensing data have the best accuracy and quality possible.

The overall Landsat calibration team consists of experts from the EROS Cal/Val Center of Excellence (ECCOE) and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and Jet Propulsion Laboratory in addition to SDSU, the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York and the University of Arizona. The universities help obtain ground reference measurements from across the globe and develop and evaluate new calibration and validation methods.

After the 2021 launch of Landsat 9, an “underfly” of the satellite in orbit below Landsat 8 to cross-calibrate the satellites’ data resulted in partnerships of field crews around the world collecting data from the ground. Among those were SDSU, the Rochester Institute of Technology and the University of Arizona in addition to the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada.

Dennis Helder, founder of SDSU’s Image Processing Lab and former head of the Electrical Engineering Department, has been working with EROS and NASA on Landsat calibration since his Ph.D. dissertation days. He helped set up ECCOE and, now retired from SDSU, currently works as a part-time technical adviser and contractor at EROS.

Helder was asked to help the EROS calibration team add Landsat radiometric capabilities to their renowned geometric expertise. “By asking SDSU, through my work, to do the radiometry side, that brought a balanced approach to the imagery itself. We could answer the two key questions: Are the pixels the right value, and are they in the right place?” Helder said.

‘’We tried to build up a research capability at SDSU to complement EROS’s mission to archive and distribute data. So, the huge benefit to working together with the university was we could focus more on the research going on, and EROS could focus more on how to operationalize that and get it into the products and get the products out the door,” he said. “It’s a great relationship.”

“The benefits to universities and EROS can’t be overstated,” said Cody Anderson, ECCOE project manager at EROS. “One, I work with each of the universities mentioned to calibrate the active and in-development Landsat missions, and two, for me personally having been a student at SDSU and now working for the USGS, many of our scientists and engineers got their first experience at one of these universities.”

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