The view from above

Imagine how useful it would be to have sensors to determine the pigment content of leaves from space. Or how important it would be to use this same technology to understand the role of terrestrial vegetation in global warming. John Miller, professor of physics and Chair of the Department of Earth & Space Science & Engineering in York’s Faculty of Pure & Applied Science, is currently working to make these goals a reality.

Right: Professor John Miller

Using instruments employed on aircraft, Miller and his research group are developing new and better ways to assess the health and growth of vegetation in forests and farmland through the remote measurement of the water and chlorophyll content of leaves. In fact, with the aid of the York Compact Airborne Spectrographic Imager (CASI) airborne sensor, Miller has achieved success mapping the pigment content in leaves to within about 10 per cent of typical values. Such a sensor might be used in the near future on satellites, drones or tractors to enable farmers to optimize the fertilizer application for their crops. This application, part of an emerging technology area called “precision farming”, offers many long-term advantages.

“By optimizing the yield of farms,” said Miller, “we’re not only facilitating more sustainable agricultural practices; we’re paving the way for some very important economic and environmental benefits.”

Miller’s research also exploits new developments in imagers, a technology that is increasingly being used to observe earth from space. Specifically, Miller’s work is aimed at developing interpretation methods for new sensors called imaging spectrometers.

Left: A CASI image of a forest

These spectrometers are destined for advanced National Aeronautics & Space Administration Agency (NASA) and European Space Agency (ESA) satellite sensors as early as 2006. The technology could map the biochemical constituents and canopy structure of vegetation from space. In a proposed Explorer Mission by the ESA, such sensors could also monitor key sites in different biomes around the globe, and may dramatically improve the global models that describe the rate of change of greenhouses gases like carbon dioxide.

Relevant to global warming and Canadian agriculture, Miller’s innovative work is also interdisciplinary, drawing not only upon applied physics, plant science, computer science and space science, but also upon technology developments by industry partners like ITRES Research in Calgary and MacDonald, Dettwiler & Associates of Vancouver.

The above article was submitted by Jason Guriel, York’s Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada SPARK student (Students Promoting Awareness of Research Knowledge). Guriel, a second-year graduate student in English, will be writing stories on York NSERC-funded researchers throughout the academic year.

SPARK is a program that was launched in 1999 at 10 universities across Canada. Through the program, students with an aptitude for communications are recruited, trained and paid to write stories based on the NSERC-supported research at participating universities. For more information, visit