USDA’s NAIP Imagery Proves Indispensible

Ten Years Later

Fig. 1

Shasta Lake, California. NAIP image

Fig. 2

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Cade’s Cove in the lower center of image; Tennessee NAIP 2008, Natural Color

Fig. 3

Southern Lancaster County, PA, Pennsylvania 2008 NAIP

Fig. 4

North Dakota 2008 NAIP Four Band Imagery; Natural Color and Color Infrared scenes

Fig. 5

Sacramento, California 2008 NAIP and 2005 NAIP, Natural Color

Fig. 6

Southern Salt Lake County: 2008 NAIP Natural Color and 1997 NDOP Black and White (NAPP Program)

By President/CEO
Colorado Springs, Colo.

In less than a decade, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agriculture Imagery Program (NAIP) has evolved into one of the largest civilian mapping programs in the United States. And if total number of end users, diversity of applications, and satisfaction level of customers in both public and private sectors are any indication, NAIP may also be the most successful.

See also Executive Interview with Kass Green, who is quoted in this article.

Administered by the USDA Farm Services Agency (FSA) through its Aerial Photography Field Office (APFO) in Salt Lake City, NAIP seeks to collect periodic one-meter aerial imagery of the conterminous United States. The program was established to meet FSA requirements for imagery and has evolved into a partnership involving cooperative funding within USDA, among federal agencies, and at the state level with the overall goal of minimizing costs to partners and maximizing value by leveraging a common product.

This cooperative nature of NAIP may be its most notable achievement. With modest enhancements, it could provide a blueprint for future partnerships. To the credit of FSA, NAIP succeeds in fulfilling the diverse domestic imagery needs of its primary stakeholders within USDA, USGS, and the states, while also serving thousands of other applications at the federal level. Just as importantly, the data is available at little or no cost to business users in the private sector where NAIP has helped expand the commercial market on its way to becoming the most widely used source of aerial imagery in the country.

Serving Primary Partners

NAIP began as a pilot in 2002 to standardize, centralize and combine aerial mapping activities conducted by the FSA. Kent Williams, APFO Deputy Director, explained, “FSA had a need for annual imagery of agricultural land acquired during peak crop growing conditions, and a base ortho-image map to support the transition to GIS in the agency.”

At the time, Williams continued, FSA managed a separate program for the annual agricultural requirement and cooperated with USGS, other federal agencies, and states to acquire digital ortho-photography. When the pilot was started, there was some question as to whether digital ortho-imagery could be acquired and delivered in a time frame that worked for FSA and stayed within quality and accuracy standards needed to help develop a GIS in FSA.

“That we succeeded is due to FSA and NAIP vendors truly working together,” said Williams. “Since FSA’s needs were focused on agricultural lands, and since other federal agencies and the states wanted the rest of a state mapped (at about the same specifications) for digital ortho-photography, it made sense to share costs and get statewide coverage.”

Today, the program is in its second cycle of five-year acquisition contracts under which six aerial survey firms (See sidebar, below) and their team members collect “leaf-on” imagery on a state-by-state basis. Contrary to typical airborne acquisition parameters, NAIP requires leaf-on imagery during the summer months when crops are at peak growth. This off-season acquisition has proved beneficial to NAIP contractors in particular and the nationwide aerial mapping community in general during the summer months when many firms would normally have to reduce jobs.

The program keeps aircraft and cameras busy during summer months when they otherwise might be idle, which has indirectly subsidized the nearly industry-wide transition from film to digital airborne sensors. Whereas a few years ago NAIP imagery was restricted to two-meter natural color film, today’s digital cameras offer sub-meter and infrared capabilities along with greater accuracy and richer information content. The transition to digital cameras has yielded significant opportunities to all NAIP end users.

In a typical acquisition scenario, the aerial contractors orthorectify and process the raw data into two products – Compressed County Mosaics (CCM) and Digital Ortho Quarter Quads (DOQQ) – and deliver them to APFO within 30 days of collection. The standard product is a one-meter resolution, natural-color image. After quality control, APFO distributes the CCM products within 24 hours either elect-ronically or digitally to cost-sharing partners: the USDA’s FSA, National Resource Conservation Service, and Forest Service, as well as the USGS and relevant state agencies. DOQQs are made available when the entire statewide coverage is complete.

At FSA’s 2400 County Service Centers nationwide, the mosaics become the primary base layer in the geographic information systems that support compliance, conservation and analysis applications in over 30 different programs specifically related to agriculture, explained Shirley Hall, FSA GIS Program Manager.

“(NAIP imagery) is the backdrop our people in the field use to manage information about the farms,” she said, adding that imagery is overlaid with field boundaries called common land units and linked with farm ownership and crop details. One of the most important FSA applications is to validate compliance with particular farm programs. If a participating grower reports 40 acres planted with corn, for example, FSA can easily and inexpensively find and spot check that field in the NAIP imagery to confirm the report.

Also within USDA, the Forest Service has enthusiastically embraced NAIP data. “It’s used in virtually every resource management activity we have,” said Bill Belton, USFS Assistant Remote Sensing Program Manager. He estimates that 10,000 Forest Service personnel utilize the images now, with more than three quarters of those users identifying NAIP as their primary source of aerial data. And 86 percent say the images have become necessary for them to perform their duties.

Outside of USDA, the Department of Interior’s U.S. Geological Survey is a major funding partner and relies on NAIP imagery to generate US Topo, a new generation of digital map products. Available free on the Web, US Topo maps contain the features of traditional 7.5-minute quad maps and the visual content of orthorectified air photos. Feature layers, which can be turned on or off by the end user, include roads, hydrographic elements, contours, and geographic names.

Widespread Federal Use

Simultaneous with delivery to key partners, APFO posts NAIP CCMs on the online USDA Geospatial Data Gateway for free downloading by government agencies and members of the public. The CCMs may also be ordered on CDs or DVDs at minimal cost. The uncompressed, full-resolution DOQQ files are larger and are available only on CDs, DVDs or hard drives from APFO Customer Service.

Between 2005 and 2008, APFO fulfilled 1.2 million orders for NAIP datasets through the Gateway. Requests from dozens of other federal, state and local agencies ranged from tens of thousands of orders to just a few CCMs. Both statistical and anecdotal evidence indicate use of NAIP imagery by groups outside of USDA and USGS is growing rapidly.

“(Our government clients) often think they are held back from doing a project because imagery doesn’t exist, but then they find out about NAIP and it changes everything,” said Kass Green, President of Kass Green & Associates, which performs image processing and mapping projects for many federal agencies.

Aside from the data’s affordability and easy access, the secret to NAIP’s success is the quality of the imagery, according to Green. Even though it’s primarily intended for agricultural purposes, her company has used NAIP to map everything from underwater sea grasses along the Texas coast to vegetation classes in the Grand Canyon. The switch to digital cameras was the turning point that multiplied the value of NAIP in diverse applications, because digital imagery can be exploited more easily for information extraction using advanced processing techniques.

Green believes that ultimately NAIP’s most significant value will be found in its periodic coverage, which could enable the United States to establish systems for monitoring critical changes in land use, agriculture, fire fuels, vegetation, and land disturbances. “The radiometric and spectral resolutions of NAIP imagery are so high, we can start doing image classification and change detection using automated techniques.”

State and Local Benefits

In terms of financial impact, NAIP may be providing the most bang for the buck at the state and county government level. Since 2002, these agencies have put more than $10 million in cooperative funding into the program, receiving in return imagery worth many times their contribution amounts. The National States Geographic Information Council (NSGIC) informally surveyed its State Coordinators in April 2007 and found that approximately 620 U.S. counties and cities were managing aerial surveys on their own. The remaining 29,000 jurisdictions rely on NAIP or similar state and federal programs to meet their business needs.

“People can count on NAIP to provide a standard product that lets them know what’s happening in their state or county on a regular basis,” said Will Craig, President of NSGIC, adding that all of the Lower 48 States have participated in NAIP and the data has likely found its way to most count-ies in the nation. NSGIC has suggested buy-up provisions in the program that would allow the states to pay extra for sub-meter spatial resolution, enhanced absolute accuracy, and near-infrared or 4-band data in specific geographic areas. These options would meet a wider range of state and local business needs and increase the likelihood that these organizations would partner with the federal government.

In recent congressional testimony, Craig cited nearly 100 specific local government applications of NAIP imagery divided into a dozen usage categories (See sidebar at bottom). He stressed that NAIP not only saves money in data purchase costs for states and counties, but the high-quality data helps them perform critical government services more cost effectively. Roseau County, Minnesota, for example, uses the imagery to keep track of new construction to ensure that property assessment is accurate. Without the imagery, the county would likely be missing out on substantial property tax income.

At the state level, Craig said that Departments of Natural Resources and Transportation are the major beneficiaries of NAIP. Resource managers rely on the multiple years’ worth of images to see where growth is occurring now and predict where it’s headed so that limited resources, such as water, can be preserved and allocated efficiently. The images also help them decide where existing roads should be expanded and future highways should be built.

Images also are used to guide pre-design efforts for transportation facility planning and construction, and as a baseline to keep the statewide road inventory updated. These and other image applications have direct impacts on the state’s commerce and bottom lines.

“State personnel tell us they just can’t live without NAIP,” said Craig.

Seeding the Commercial Market

Among private sector commercial users, the response to NAIP has been just as positive. Its combination of high quality, low cost and frequent broad-area coverage has hit the sweet spot of professional geospatial data customers, according to David Steveley, COO of i-cubed, a provider of geospatial data and image processing services in Fort Collins, Colorado. He estimates that up to half of all consumer-sector applications of remotely sensed data now use NAIP imagery in some form.

“We provide value-added processing services involving NAIP data to a half-dozen different vertical markets, including oil and gas, real estate and insurance,” said Steveley. “It’s used most often as a reference layer.”

Steveley echoed the sentiment of other veterans in the geospatial industry who believe NAIP is seeding the commercial market for airborne image products. The affordability of the data attracts first-time aerial imagery users, and the quality converts them into dedicated customers who will expand into purchasing other sources of raster remote sensing datasets for their GIS and related business applications.

“From a taxpayer’s perspective, there is untold value in what is occurring out there (with NAIP) one-meter imagery,” said Steveley.

Tweaking NAIP

In the span of fewer than 10 years, NAIP has emerged as the source of an irreplaceable geospatial dataset used extensively in both the public and private sectors. Its success among end users is nearly unanimous. Much of the credit for this achievement belongs to the FSA’s APFO, which has continually improved the program with new imaging technologies without driving up costs.

NAIP supporters agree, however, the program could be vastly improved with more consistent funding. Currently, it falls under the FSA Geospatial Investment budget and is not a dedicated line item. As a result, annual funding levels have vacillated from $9 million to $28.5 million with an average of about $14 million since 2003. Participants agree that about $24 million is required to keep NAIP on a consistent biennial acquisition cycle for every state.

NSGIC’s Will Craig explained that inconsistent funding from the federal government creates a difficult situation for other funding partners, especially at the state level, and results in missed cost-sharing opportunities. The typical state doesn’t have extra money in its budget to participate in a NAIP acquisition at the last minute. The states need to know at least a couple of years in advance when their territory will be flown to allocate the money for cost sharing and buy-ups.

Kass Green sees a higher level need for consistent NAIP funding. She believes the program’s true potential as a supplier of data for critical automated land and resource monitoring systems cannot be fulfilled until the stream of high-resolution nationwide imagery is steady.

“Land and resources are too valuable to squander,” said Green, “and that’s why we need programs (like NAIP) to help us monitor changes in those resources.”

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