(Image: Norbert Pfeifer/TU Wien)

What would Turner think of a landscape painting created by a plane? This artistic-looking map was captured in 3D by laser pulses fired from an aircraft as it flew over the conservation area of Ágotapuszta in Hungary. Each type of vegetation within the mosaic of salt meadows, grasslands and marshes is represented in a different colour.

The aerial system was developed by Norbert Pfeifer from the Vienna University of Technology in Austria and his colleagues to monitor Europe’s nature reserves, which cover a fifth of the continent’s surface. To retain their status, regular checks have to be carried out at least once every six years, which is far easier to do from the air than on land.

A plane scans a strip of land between 300 and 800 metres wide by directing half a million infrared laser pulses at the ground every second. By measuring the return travel time of each pulse, computer algorithms can work out the total distance of the round trip and build up the shape of a landscape.

Protruding features, such as trees, are revealed by pulses that have travelled a shorter distance. Even minute details like weeds and vehicle tracks come to life.

(Image: Norbert Pfeifer/TU Wien)

A ground-level view, shown above, can also be recreated by looking at a specific cross-section of the 3D map. From this detail, ecologists should be able to determine the leafiness and height of the trees as well as the species.

Journal reference: Canadian Journal of Remote Sensing, DOI: 10.5589/m13-013

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