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NASA Technology Helps to Show Why Trees Fail


If you’ve ever been to an FLC event or been trained by an FLC trainer, you’ve most likely heard someone say, "Tech transfer is a contact sport." Well, there may be no better example of that than this story. A Space Act Agreement leading to a joint project between NASA and Illinois’ Morton Arboretum came about after a conversation between neighbors.

According to the NASA release, “It all started when two trees began to die in Matt Melis’s front yard. When the NASA Glenn engineer noticed the robust health of a mighty oak tree in his neighbor’s front yard, he asked for advice and was referred to local Cleveland arborist Mark Hoenigman.…Hoenigman was servicing Melis’s trees one day when he mentioned that he and the greater arboriculture technical community were struggling to find better ways to quantify and understand the biomechanics of tree failure. They wanted to know how trees fail under hurricanes, ice and snow loads, but attempts at finding a comprehensive way to measure and analyze the data weren’t adequate.…Melis had just the answer—stereo photogrammetry—technology he used during the Space Shuttle Columbia accident investigation.”

From there, they were off—figuring out how to use the technology to find deformities in the trees, conducting demonstrations to large groups of foresters and arborists, and analyzing data.

Their work has so much potential that the Tree Research and Education Endowment Fund (TREE Fund) awarded a grant, which funded a Space Act Agreement that enabled NASA engineers to conduct a collaborative photogrammetry research study with Morton.

Now, there’s already a potential commercial application that could have great benefit to communities that are at risk from extreme weather. According to NASA, “A consulting firm, Bio-Compliance, is working with utility companies on the east coast where billions of dollars have been lost due to extreme weather events, including Hurricane Sandy. The company wants Melis and his team to look at branch structures. Falling branches account for a high degree of damage to property and have been responsible for human fatalities during these incidents.”

So a collaborative effort, a new spinoff capability, and a whole lot of learning later, there’s a new method in the works that not only has commercial applications, but could also protect infrastructure, reduce repair costs, and save lives.

So the next time you hear us call tech transfer a contact sport, this is exactly the kind of thing we mean. Not bad for a neighborly chat!

Read the full NASA story here.

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