Stephen Scheidt
Postdoctoral Planetary Scientist
University of Arizona

Watch Jasmine Blennau’s profile of Stephen Scheidt.

The Kite Geologist

By Jasmine Blennau

Like the other geologists carrying instruments across the volcanic rock in Hawaii, Stephen Scheidt uses technology to study terrains. But it’s not the kind of tech you might imagine.

Scheidt flies a kite.

On each of the team’s treks into the lava fields of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Scheidt came equipped with his kite and camera rig to gather low-altitude images of the RIS4E field sites. He was brought onto the field project to compliment its LIDAR team, NASA’s Brent Garry and Patrick Whelley, who used remote sensing technology to provide the team with a larger context of the land they were all working on.

Scheidt and the LIDAR team mapped the topography of the field site so that the other geologists could see the lava flow both on a larger scale and in extremely detailed images, down to individual rocks. Together with topographical maps and 3-D terrain models, it provided the geologists with digital snapshots that could allow them to check details—in effect going back to specific sites in the field without leaving the lab.

“Stephen puts that kite up and we can see things at a really high resolution from a totally different perspective,” said field lead Jacob Bleacher. “That can just completely change what you understand about the terrain you’re working on. You see things that you just didn’t from the ground.”

A native of Ohio, Scheidt earned his Ph.D. in geology at the University of Pittsburgh and has lived and traveled all around the United States in pursuit of his career as a geologist who collects data to learn about the geologic history of Earth as well as other planets. His postdoctoral career brought him to Nevada’s Desert Research Institute and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and to New Mexico and Hawaii for field work. He’s now a postdoctoral research scientist at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, where his research interests include geomorphology—the origins and evolution of the processes that created the features of the Earth’s surface—and geoinformatics and remote sensing.

“I work on projects where we look at the Earth to try to understand other planets,” Scheidt said. “From a tech perspective it’s no different.”

Scheidt came up with the idea of using aerial kite photography in his work when he was working on a project mapping dunes using instruments on the ground. It required him to walk up and down high, sandy dunes all day long. “There has to be a better way to do this,” he thought to himself. Inventive by nature, he said that building and inventing in his off time is an artistic outlet for him.

Scheidt didn’t invent low-aerial kite photography, of course, but applying it to his work turned out to be an inspired stroke—a happy medium between the perspective of the ground and the view from satellite images. From the position of the ground, scientists can’t get a bird’s eye view of the terrain, and images from orbit are taken from so far away that there are limitations in the resolution of the images.

Kite photography is also an alternative to drones, which have quickly become so popular and available that the government is now regulating them. Drones (technically known as unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs) are barred from national parks without a permit, so Scheidt decided a kite would be a quick and safe way to gather similar data.

“For this trip I purchased the most boring kite I could find that’d go up there and stay there,” Scheidt said. “There was nothing special about it. Cameras don’t like to do backflips.”

The cameras are off the shelf but Scheidt uses a few different rigs to customize them. One rotates and takes a picture every two seconds automatically, another simply holds the camera facing straight down. There’s a rig that has GPS positioning electronics like those on drones. The last is a radio-controlled point-and-shoot operated from the ground. More tricky than the cameras is the kite—and the wind. Stability is key for valuable images so Scheidt needed a strong and steady wind and a kite that would take off into the breeze and stay there.

Once the gusts were constant, Scheidt attached his digital camera to the rig attachment, clipped it onto the line and released the kite higher into the blue sky. Steering the kite and camera was a delicate dance. The perimeter of the area to cover was marked with orange cones and Scheidt couldn’t afford to miss a spot. The dance could be a breeze or it could make him sweat—all depending on the wims of the wind and the unpredictable terrain. The sharp and uneven lava flows could slow him down. Loss of wind could stop him completely, and too much wind could put up a real fight.

When the geologists cleared out, Scheidt started at one end of the site and led the kite up and back in a grid pattern, carefully watching his steps, as if he were traveling the squares of a checkerboard. He guided the camera smoothly, trying to imagine what it was seeing.

Scheidt loves his work. “Messing with computers, writing codes, taking pictures, I’d be doing this anyway for fun.” Not that it’s just a matter of going to a park and flying a kite. “My job is kind of a mix of field work, getting out and making observations—there’s an art form to that—and taking all that stuff back and using computer algorithms and code to make something scientific.”

The process of making something scientific from thousands of kite photos is called photogrammetry. Computer algorithms and code scan through the thousands of photos and begin to connect and layer ones that are similar. The software continues to add individual images to the collage until it creates a super fine resolution image of the entire site. This flat image is then projected onto a three-dimensional terrain model. When the aerial photography is laid over the terrain it matches so perfectly that it looks like a single photo, though it was created digitally from thousands.

The 3-D terrain model from above will be used with the terrain models generated from the LIDAR team to study the features of the lava flow. It’s an example of how instruments can be used together to gather the most information on a site.

Later in the summer, Scheidt would be traveling to Iceland for a month-long field expedition with his advisor at the University of Arizona, Christopher Hamilton. They will be studying lava channels with UAVs and low-aerial kite photography.

Scheidt says he’s looking forward to sharing these experiences with his son. He’s just 18 months old but already likes nuts, bolts and screws. Scheidt says he can’t wait to someday build things with him. And fly kites, of course.

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