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Aug. 18, 2006
Contact: Brandis Griffith, University Relations, (785) 864-8855.

NASA grants KU researcher $638K to design advanced data collection systems

LAWRENCE — Somewhere in the Earth’s orbit, a satellite sensor measuring the speed of an Antarctic ice sheet moving toward the water notices the ice sheet has sped up.

It deploys an unmanned, flying vehicle into the area to measure the thickness of the ice. The information collected by the two sensors is then sent to scientists studying ice sheets. So far, this situation only happens in the minds of scientists.

But University of Kansas researcher Costas Tsatsoulis just received a $638,000 NASA grant to help bring that futuristic scenario into the present.

“The ice sheets are an extremely important indicator of global climate and change. Also, if they break off into the sea, it’s going to raise sea water level,” said Tsatsoulis, professor and chair of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Earth Science Division, selected him to help support the agency’s Advanced Information Systems Technology.

Tsatsoulis said the sensors, or pods, are already used by NASA in stationary situations. His research will help to improve them and make them more widely used. Long-term goals include using pods that are land-, space- and sea-based.

“The goal is for the sensors to become smart,” he said. “So instead of just collecting data, they can predict what data they can collect, collaborate to collect better data, identify interesting events on the planet, so they can focus their attention to it.”

For example, Tsatsoulis said with current technology, it could take up to a year for scientists to first notice the change in ice sheet speed, then request deployment of an unpiloted autonomous vehicle to measure thickness and finally, months later, receive the data when it returns for scientists to use. Smarter pods speed up the process.

Tsatsoulis said the grant helps to further research he’s been working on for the past six years, but it also serves another purpose.

“I think we’re making a contribution to the study of the Earth’s environment, which as we know is in trouble right now,” he said. “So the ability to generate better data for the scientists to analyze and understand interaction between phenomena and the planet, I think is a very important thing.”

The pods are also able to collect a variety of other Earth-based information, from soil moisture to land cover to desertification.

The three-year, renewable grant is scheduled to officially start Dec. 1.

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