By Chuck Walker
MOBILE, Ala. – In order for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects to be successful, the engineers who work for the Corps need all of the information they can gather, to make wise decisions.
Here in the Mobile District and other Districts throughout the Corps, information about waterways and the coastline is crucial to ensure project success and completion.
The Joint Airborne Lidar Bathymetry Technical Center of Expertise, aka JALBTCX, based at Stennis International Airport in Kiln, Mississippi, fulfills the data gathering mission.
A joint team of engineers and scientists from the Mobile District, the Corps Engineer, Research and Development Center, the Naval Oceanographic Office, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Geodetic Survey, and the U.S. Geological Survey use the latest technology to provide the coastal and shoreline data the Districts need about their projects.
“We survey the sandy shoreline of the U.S. on a reoccurring basis,” said Chris Macon, Mobile District’s technical lead of the National Coastal Mapping Program. “We process and collect bathymetric and topographic lidar data and imagery to track regional scale changes that are happening on the different Corps of Engineers projects.”
The JALBTCX team collects this data by flying an aircraft at an altitude of 1,300 feet along the coastline gathering data with a Coastal Zone Mapping and Imaging Lidar system. This lidar instrument that is able to gather bathymetric information below the surface of the water.
The aircraft is equipped with two lidar sensors and two high resolution cameras that help gather the necessary data and imagery for the mapping program.
Macon said that this information is crucial for the engineers working on Corps projects and for state and local governments to see what potential problems may be happening or upcoming, along their coastlines and beaches, such as erosion.
“Bathymetry measures the ground under the surface of the water that we can’t see with our eyes,” Macon said. “With the lidar, we can track the changes that are occurring on the coastline. Since USACE is primarily a project-based organization, the regional scale data sets provide valuable information about the individual projects and the stretches of coast between.”
Another service the JALBTCX provides, that has been crucial to the District in particular, is rapid response to hurricanes. After receiving funding, the JALBTCX can deploy to a storm area and gather data in the same way it gathers it for coastal mapping, but with the added benefit of being able to produce those products in two to three days, as opposed to the six-month turnaround on coastal mapping products.
Macon, who has been working for the District since 2006, said it was his desire to do more that drew him to come to work for the Corps.
“I was one of the contractors working for the Corps and I wanted to do more than just collect and process data,” Macon said. “I actually wanted to dig into the science behind what we were collecting.”
A Texas A&M graduate, Macon said he would advise those young people considering a career with the Corps to realize that the Corps will provide them an opportunity to utilize the knowledge gained in college.
“You hear a lot of people say that you can’t do a lot with your degree,” Macon said. “But here in the Corps of Engineers you are actually able to use your Marine Science degree or your Coastal Engineering degree and put your knowledge to use.”
Along with collecting the data for USACE projects and getting to work with his teammates in the JALBTCX team, Macon said he loves what he gets to do and that his team is always trying to provide the customer with better quality products.
“I love this job because every day is different,” Macon said. “There’s always different challenges that we have to account for. We’re always improving and evolving the sensors and systems we use to collect data. And we’re always trying to improve the products we generate, creating something that is more useful to the end user, so they don’t have to do as much work when they start utilizing the data.”