You Made What?

FluxData (Lawrence Taplin, Tracie Spiliotis, Pano Spiliotis)

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These three graduates own a company that made a camera installed on the International Space Station. The pictures help farmers understand changes to their land.

A camera installed on the International Space Station is giving upper Midwest farmers real-time data about how their crops are growing. And a company owned by three RIT graduates built that camera.

Pano Spiliotis ’99, ’01 (imaging science, MBA), Tracie (Lamphere) Spiliotis ’99, ’01 (accounting, MBA) and Lawrence Taplin ’01 (color science), own FluxData, based at RIT’s business incubator Venture Creations. The University of North Dakota hired the company in January 2010 to build the multispectral imager for its International Space Station Agricultural Camera (ISSAC) project.

ISSAC was designed to take images of crops, grasslands and forests to help farmers and ranchers better understand vegetation health changes of their land. A farmer can get the pictures days after making a request, says Doug Olsen, ISSAC project manager.

But University of North Dakota researchers and students, who operate the camera from their campus in Grand Forks, are finding that the project is appealing to a broader audience. Scientists are interested in the pictures to study glacial changes, for example. The images also can help during disasters. Images were taken of flooding in Minot, N.D., to show the extent of the damage.

Olsen says project coordinators contacted FluxData because the company, which licensed a patent from RIT, builds cameras that can take multispectral images in red, green and near infrared wavelength bands.

In January, the camera, which was assembled and tested just blocks from the RIT campus, was launched into space on a Japanese rocket.

Pano Spiliotis, CEO of FluxData, says building the camera was challenging because it had to be rugged enough to survive a rocket launch. “It goes from here to outer space in 15 minutes,” Spiliotis says. “There’s a lot of vibration and shock.”

The camera captured its first high-resolution image from space—the western coastal region of Florida—this summer.

“We were pleasantly surprised with the FluxData camera,” Olsen says. “Its dynamic range is very good.”

The project has been a great marketing tool for the company, which can now tell clients that they can get an identical system that is on the space station.

FluxData has made more than 100 cameras since it incorporated in 2006. The majority of its business is with the U.S. Department of Defense, Spiliotis says.

The cameras are custom-made to isolate what the customer is trying to find. For example, a client may want to find camouflage. Trees have chlorophyll but camouflage doesn’t. FluxData then builds a camera that has a spectral channel tuned to chlorophyll.

Olsen hopes the camera will be in space for at least three growing seasons.

What kind of reaction are these graduates getting when they tell people about this project?

“There’s disbelief,” says Tracie Spiliotis, chief financial officer. “People can’t believe someone they know has something in space.”

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