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SPIE Professional April 2012

Airborne: Imaging Spectacular

A mechanical engineer finds his career path with airborne optical systems

By Mike Borden

Twenty thousand feet above a remote corner of the South Pacific Ocean, I waited patiently for my cue.

“Thirty seconds to sighting.” A voice in my headset broke the silence. There was only one shot at this. Deep breath. I exhaled, my breath freezing as it met the cold air inside the DC-8 jetliner used for this campaign. (The plane was kept cold to prevent windows from fogging.)

“Ten seconds to sighting.” I looked down the aisle of the dark research plane. Dim computer screens lit the faces of astronomers and engineers as they waited in anticipation. Instruments lined the windows to port.

“Five seconds. Four, three, two, one. Jules Verne is in sight.”

I began working quickly at my computer. With the help of another student, I was operating a high-resolution spectrograph. Thus, a series of spectra appeared before me.

Valuable as these spectra were, they offered little in the way of aesthetics. It wasn’t until I looked out the window that I fully appreciated the work I was doing.

Spectacular image of re-entry from space

As a NASA intern in the summer of 2008, I was invited by my summer mentor on an airborne imaging campaign. The objective was to image the re-entry of the European Space Agency’s Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) into the Earth’s atmosphere. The ATV was dubbed the Jules Verne in honor of the French science-fiction author.

The Jules Verne during re-entry.
Photo courtesy NASA

After a re-supply trip to the International Space Station, the Jules Verne was to meet a fiery end as it re-entered the atmosphere. Our job was to be there when it did.

I was floored by the view from my window. Jules Verne had exploded during its re-entry and was reduced to a flaming stream of debris.

It was like watching an enormous fireworks display in slow motion, gold and blue wreckage streaking across the sky. It was mesmerizing but fleeting: the Jules Verne was in sight for just over two minutes.

It was long enough for me to see with my own eyes, and more importantly, long enough for me to realize that I wanted to pursue a career in airborne imaging.

Following the dream

With a new sense of specificity, I began my search for more ways to gain airborne imaging experience. I was pleasantly surprised by what I found. Airborne imaging is used in a wide range of research: marine resource surveys, astronomy, Arctic and Antarctic ice studies, CO2 abundance surveys, violent weather monitoring, and missile-launch surveys to name a few.

I found that this field of engineering utilized a specific skill set to support a varied spectrum of research. In this case, specificity was far from hindering; it was liberating.

My first airborne imaging job was in 2009 working at the University of Hawaii (UH) at Manoa. As a mechanical engineer with experience in optics, my task was to design and build vibration-isolated mounts for imaging systems that were to be installed in airplanes. The work required skills in CAD, hardware design; knowledge of opto-mechanics and vibration analysis; and experience in machining. It was a perfect fit for my abilities.

In the span of a summer, I built two mounts for imaging systems, one of which I was given the opportunity to fly with. This system was a thermal camera setup that was flown at night in the belly port of a small single-engine plane. The objective was to collect thermal imagery of the coastline of Oahu to find where cooler fresh water from mountain runoff was meeting warmer salt water from the ocean.

Surveying marine mammals from above

The following summer, I investigated the breadth of opportunities available in airborne imaging. I was in pursuit of a job working with marine mammals, whales in particular. From the moment I saw my first whale from above, I knew that I wanted to work with them … somehow.

Borden was working for NOAA when he took this aerial image of a dead Bowhead whale found floating in Alaska’s Chukchi Sea.  
Photo taken under permit number 782-1719, courtesy NOAA

It was an aerial photo of a blue whale which brought to light the first possibility. A short time later, I was working for the NOAA National Marine Mammal Laboratory (NMML), which had two groups who were using airborne imaging to support marine mammal research.

I was fortunate enough to be involved with both. The first group was using airborne surveys to estimate population sizes of harbor seal herds found within glacial fjords in southern Alaska. The seals rest on ice which has calved off from the nearby glacier.

At top is a high-resolution image of seals in a kilometer-wide glacial fjord in Alaska taken by a dSLR on a system Borden worked on. At bottom is a thermal image of three seals spotted in the ice.
Photo courtesy NOAA

The system being tested was to help minimize the number of photos that were taken during surveys by using a thermal camera as a “spotter.” When a warm seal body was detected by the thermal camera, a high resolution dSLR image was taken and thermal hotspots (seals) were automatically counted. By the end of the summer, I had helped design, build, and fly this system, which performed admirably.

The second group was also performing abundance surveys, this time looking for whales, walruses, seals, and polar bears. This survey was based in Arctic Alaska and was less hardware driven than the seal surveys. My job as a marine-mammal aerial observer was to spot marine mammals from a survey plane. Various information, including GPS location, was recorded when an animal was identified.

I also served as a crew photographer on many of these survey flights. As a photographer and whale enthusiast, I was thrilled at the opportunity.

airborne images of walruses
Borden took the top image of the largest coastal walrus haulout in North American history while working for NOAA on an Arctic Alaska mammal survey in 2010 under permit number MA212570-0.
Photos courtesy NOAA
Career challenges and enjoyment

For me, the field of airborne imaging has been the perfect confluence of personal and professional interests. It offers specific expertise in a wide range of applications. It provides significant engineering challenges and unique opportunities for travel.

I am incredibly grateful for the opportunities I have had participating in airborne imaging. Each experience has been a challenge and a pleasure. I knew from the moment I started in this field that it would become my career.

I just never could have expected that it would take an exploding space vehicle to make me realize it.


SPIE member Mike Borden has a BS in mechanical engineering and an MS in optical science. He specializes in opto-mechanical engineering and is pursuing a career in hardware design for airborne imaging systems. While pursuing his MS degree, Borden worked at NASA Ames Research Center, NOAA’s National Marine Mammal Laboratory, and the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He was also a NASA graduate fellow where he mentored undergraduate engineers in building and launching imaging payloads for high-altitude balloons.

Borden was recently hired at the Imaging Spectroscopy group at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California where he will continue designing and flying airborne imaging hardware. 

He writes about his personal and scientific adventures at mikesbipolaradventure.blogspot.com

Have a question or comment about this article? Write to us at spieprofessional@spie.org.


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DOI: 10.1117/2.4201204.13

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