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Global Airborne Observatory

The Global Airborne Observatory (GAO), formerly the Carnegie Airborne Observatory (CAO), is an airborne laboratory developed by Dr. Greg Asner that houses advanced Earth mapping technology. The original CAO was launched in 2006 and has since undergone significant improvements in both the aircraft itself and in its instruments and computing package, which is called AToMS or Airborne Taxonomic Mapping System. The most recent iteration of the GAO, housed in a highly modified Dornier 228-202, was unveiled in 2015 and has three integrated remote sensing technologies: (i) High Fidelity Visible-Shortwave Infrared (VSWIR) Imaging Spectrometer: (ii) Dual-laser, waveform Light Detection and Ranging (wLiDAR) Scanner, and (iii) High-resolution Visible-to-Near Infrared (VNIR) Imaging Spectrometer. This technology has transformed our understanding of natural and managed ecosystems over large geographic scales to improve conservation, sustainable resource use, and environmental policy.

The GAO has been deployed in a range of ecosystems—from coral reefs to savannas to rainforests—in eleven countries: Belize, Borneo, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Madagascar, Mexico, Peru, South Africa, parts of the U.S. (California and Hawaii), and St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The data collected has contributed to significant discoveries, such as locating previously undetected illegal gold mining in the Amazon and the world’s tallest tropical tree (294 feet) in the Bornean rainforest. The maps derived from GAO data have directly shaped policy and conservation, such as efforts to track and contain a tree-killing fungus in Hawaii and plans for creating a new marine protected area in the Dominican Republic.