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UESI Member in Focus: Michael Olsen

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

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Dr. Michael Olsen, Ph.D., A.M.ASCE is an Associate Professor of Geomatics in the School of Civil and Construction Engineering at Oregon State University. He has earned BS and MS degrees in Civil Engineering from the University of Utah and a Ph.D. from the University of California, San Diego. He has also worked as an Engineering Intern for West Valley City, Utah. His current areas of research include terrestrial laser scanning, mobile lidar, structure from motion, developing point cloud processing algorithms, 3D visualization, geo-hazard analysis and mapping, and Geographic Information Systems.

Michael teaches geomatics engineering courses at OSU where he has developed new, ground-breaking courses in 3D Laser Scanning and Imaging, Digital Terrain Modeling, and Building Information Modeling. Sample projects he has been involved with include: development of mobile laser scanning guidelines for transportation applications, development of advanced point cloud segmentation algorithms, earthquake and tsunami reconnaissance (American Samoa, Chile, Japan, New Zealand, and Nepal), landslide and slope stability analysis, sea-cliff erosion monitoring, liquefaction hazard mapping, and modeling and studying historical buildings such as the Palazzo Medici and Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Italy.

Michael is currently serving as the Editor-in-Chief for the ASCE Journal of Surveying Engineering and also serves on the UESI Surveying & Geomatics Division executive committee.  He is also the Technical Implementation Director for the National Science Foundation Natural Hazards Engineering Research Infrastructure (NSF NHERI) Rapid Experimental Facility.

In this feature interview, Michael shares stories that shaped his life and career path, love of civil engineering and geomatics, his work at OSU, serving as editor of Journal of Surveying Engineering, and interest in Legos and film. Interview by Frank Kim, UESI.

Where were you born and where was most of your upbringing?

MO: I was born in Salt Lake City, Utah and grew up in Sandy, Utah.

What were some of the motivating factors for you to go into civil engineering & geomatics and who were some influential people in your career path?

MO: My grandfather, Don Lowe, was a civil engineer.  He also was a surveyor for the U.S. Army and spent several summers in Alaska on survey crews. I remember times as a kid when we would be driving in the car and we would pass by something and my grandpa would mention that he had designed that particular structure and tell us a little bit about it.  That is something I've always appreciated about civil engineering- the fact that you get to build something that has lasting impact that people can see and benefit from.

Growing up, I loved building with Legos.  I would spend long hours in our unfinished basement designing and building my own cities out of Legos.  I would think about what types of structures were needed and where they should be located in the city.  I remember that many structures required several iterations of re-design to keep the roofs from collapsing as I continued to build on them.

In High School, I thought that I wanted to be a doctor of some sorts.  I focused on taking a lot of medical related courses such as anatomy, health occupations, biology, etc.  I took as much physics and calculus as possible; however, I don't remember there being many other options related to engineering.  I believe this is a shortcoming in our educational program (in civil engineering) as a whole.  I soon learned from the medical related courses that I didn't like memorizing long Latin based words to describe various muscles or awkward drug names (even though my dad was a pharmacist!).  Rather, I enjoyed solving various types of problems in physics and calculus.  That was a lot more fun!

An important turning point in my life was when I served as a volunteer missionary in northeast of Brasil for 2 years.  I thoroughly enjoyed my time in that beautiful location.  I quickly came to appreciate the infrastructure we had in the U.S.  Since we were close to the equator, it was a very warm climate.  Heavy precipitation occurred within a short time period (about 30 minutes) in the middle of the day, just about daily.  I noted that many roads were built without a drainage system, so they would quickly fill up with water and then slowly drain throughout the day.  I vividly remember many instances of walking through the streets on our way to visits or other activities passing through water that sometimes almost came up to our waist!

When I returned from Brasil, I spent a summer working in the video production\media industry before starting engineering school in the fall. I quickly realized that engineering was what I wanted to do.  During my junior year, I was able to get an internship working for West Valley City (Utah).  As part of this internship, I designed a storm drainage system as well as a new bus stop.  I also was involved with topographic surveys, layout surveys, CAD drawing, and helped write legal descriptions for right of way acquisition.  I was impressed with how vital survey work and GIS were to these and other projects.  I was surprised that we only had one course in surveying, in relation to how important it is to civil engineering.

Michael Olsen and Students Mike Olsen (far right) operates a total station with GNSS reciever at a training session with (from left) Marcus Reedy (DEA), Shawn Butcher (OSU Graduate Student), Evon Silvia (OSU Graduate Student- MS 2011), and Russ Jackson (David Evans and Associates).

After completing my BS and MS degrees at the University of Utah, I went to pursue a PhD monitoring sea-cliff erosion using terrestrial laser scanning and GPS. (I originally went to San Diego to study earthquake engineering; however, I could not turn down an opportunity to do research on the Southern California beaches). During this time, I was able to dig deeper into various aspects of remote sensing and surveying.  Again, I was impressed how important fundamental geomatics concepts were to perform the detailed monitoring. When I commenced the project, I thought my focus would be more on developing slope stability models; however, I quickly realized there were many opportunities for geomatics research to improve algorithms for registration, modeling, and analysis.  After that once in a lifetime experience, I was offered the position at Oregon State University to help expand the geomatics program.  To this day, I continue to be amazed by the many possibilities of geomatics within and outside of civil engineering and couldn't think of another profession I'd rather be in!

What are some important lessons you learned in your career path that you abide by still today?

MO: One of the most valuable lessons I've learned is to be flexible and take advantage of unique opportunities.  I mentioned one example above about studying sea-cliff erosion instead of earthquake engineering at UCSD as I originally set out to do.  However, another example occurred while I was moving along in my PhD research.  I was invited to participate in doing laser scanning work at the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Italy through the Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture and Archaeology (CISA3, http://cisa3.calit2.net/cisa3/ ). Initially, I was somewhat hesitant since I felt like I needed to be focused more on my PhD research topic.  However, my wife convinced me that I was crazy to even think of turning down such an opportunity!  I heeded her counsel and embarked on a very exciting adventure. It was a phenomenal experience!

Although it is very easy to get caught up in the to-do lists and day-to-day work, I've learned that it is very important to take some time to get out in the field and work on something out of the normal routine when the opportunities arise.  I make sure that I periodically am able to go out and do field work.

Another valuable lesson is to find good collaborators and people to work with.  They help you tackle larger and more interesting problems than you can by yourself.  They also make the work a lot more fun when you can joke with one another as a result of experiences you've had. Their passion and enthusiasm will help carry you through the difficult and stressful times.  I have been very fortunate to have several great collaborators and colleagues who I continue to work with.

Mike Olsen Christchurch Mike Olsen operates a terrestrial laser scanner with a GNSS receiver to document damages to houses from seismically induced rockfalls in Christchurch, New Zealand.

What do you enjoy most about civil engineering profession and surveying/geomatics?

MO: My favorite part is the fact that you get to spend time outdoors in some of the most beautiful places in the world and then the time you work in the office you are using or developing state-of-the-art software.  I often refer to this work as "Applied Video Gaming."  I particularly like how there is rarely a cookie cutter solution and you often have to be creative in order to complete the work on a project.  There are always new challenges and opportunities.  When I introduce myself in a presentation, I often show a picture of me with a scanner and joke that the picture is of me in my natural habitat!

What are some of the biggest challenges that you see on the horizon in civil engineering and globally?

MO: There are a variety of challenges facing civil engineering and particularly geomatics.  We need to educate youth early about the possibilities in engineering and what we do.  It seems that engineering is drowned out amongst other career options in our elementary, middle, and high schools.  There are very few TV shows about engineers!  This is important to ensure the longevity of the profession.  We are also under constant pressure to do more with less.

Another challenge to the geomatics community is the explosion of technology.  The technology, in many ways, is becoming easier to operate and collects volumes of data rapidly.  This opens doors to a lot of people using it.  However, our education on the fundamentals such as datums, map projections, accuracy, etc. has become very limited. People are using black box systems without understanding these fundamentals.  Another challenge is that geomatics is very diverse.  We are everywhere but nowhere.  Because the skillsets in geomatics are so versatile, the relatively small community is scattered across a wide variety of organizations.

There are a wide range of specialization and skillsets, which makes it difficult to communicate what geomatics is to others outside the profession.  Today, people use geomatics technologies for a wide assortment of applications.  Just think about how common place tools such as GPS and digital maps are now for everyone!  Despite this prevalence, there are very few educational programs in the U.S. focusing in-depth on geomatics engineering, the theory behind the technology itself, and the supporting geospatial infrastructure.  I believe this is one of the exciting things about the UESI.  The UESI can be a stable home to bring geomatics engineers together and to provide a way to help contribute to these important educational opportunities.

Michael Olsen Family Family picture with Mike,  his son Trace, his daughter Natalya, his wife Kristen, and his son Maddox enjoying a fall walk.

Can you tell us about your current work/classes at OSU and we understand you launched a new Geomatics Engineering Research Lab at OSU?

MO: It has been a phenomenal experience to see the geomatics program grow at Oregon State, especially at an unfortunate time when many geomatics programs are on the brink of extinction. I couldn't ask for better colleagues to work with in our geomatics program as well as other collaborators at OSU that have helped support these efforts.

I consider myself fortunate that I was able to help create new courses at OSU.  Often, new faculty are limited in opportunities to create new classes and add to the curriculum.  However, we were able to build up a new graduate program specific to geomatics that built off of the strengths of our undergraduate offerings that were available in geomatics.  We were able to create two new permanent courses that are offered regularly.  The digital terrain modeling course focuses on the algorithms for spatial interpolation and gives me a chance to help graduate students learn valuable programming skills.  The 3D laser scanning and imaging course is a unique course focused on the collection and processing of lidar and structure from motion data.

We have a great group of graduate students studying geomatics. One of the highlights of the week, is the time I get to go over to the lab and see what everyone has been working on and talk through some of the challenges.

We have been fortunate to work closely with the Oregon Department of Transportation on a variety of projects. They have an excellent engineering automation and geometronics groups who we collaborate with regularly.  In one research project, we are performing a radiometric calibration with their mobile laser scanner to enable it to evaluate pavement marking quality.  We are also working on variety of landslide related research with them.  For instance, we are developing approaches to automate landslide inventory mapping from airborne lidar data.

We are performing routine terrestrial laser scan surveys of coastal bluffs adjacent to their highways.  In another we are evaluating how mobile lidar can be used to analyze work-zone safety.  These projects have been great opportunities to show how geomatics technologies can be applied to a wide range of civil engineering applications.  I've also enjoyed several opportunities to write and develop new algorithms to efficiently process and analyze the data.

We are also active in post-earthquake reconnaissance work.  I am working with colleagues at the University of Washington to develop a Rapid Response Facility for scientists and engineers through the NSF NHERI program that will provide them with a variety of geospatial tools to improve data collection efforts.  A graduate student and I recently returned from Kaikoura, New Zealand to help with mapping landslides, rockfalls, and liquefaction damages from the recent earthquake.

As you know, ASCE along with Bechtel has produced an IMAX film Dream Big, debuted all over the country in recent weeks. If you can make a film- as a director and producer of the film- what would it be about and what would be the title of the film?

MO: Growing up, my friends and I used to make short films both for various projects for school and for fun.  My younger brother has started his own company in this line of work and I'm waiting for him to get rich and famous.  After all, I gave him his first acting job in the Hound of the Baskervilles for 8 th Grade English Class!

We did several stop motion films using Legos in the 1990's (If only we knew someone in Hollywood then to pitch the idea to!).  If I didn't choose a career in civil engineering geomatics, I probably would have chosen a career in filmmaking or motion graphics.  We do have a partial script for an action/thriller film we always wanted to make called "Rodina" about a Russian spy.  Anyone from Hollywood interested?

On a more serious note, I think it would be interesting to produce a documentary about geomatics and how it has evolved over the millennia starting with its importance in ancient Egypt and throughout many civilizations.  However, like all things with geomatics, it would be hard to contain it all in a single documentary!

Michael Olsen Students From L to R: Mike, Patrick Burns, Martha McCalister, and Alireza Kashani.

What are some of the challenges you face and rewards gained from serving as Editor of the Journal of Surveying Engineering?

MO: It has been quite the honor to serve as editor to the prestigious Journal of Surveying Engineering.  I touched on some of these challenges in a recent Meet the Editor interview . I think the biggest challenge is the rush to publish that sometimes occurs.  New technologies come out frequently and lots of people want to be the first to publish an article doing something with that technology.  However, in some cases, the experiments are rushed and could benefit by a more thorough, rigorous evaluation that would have more of a lasting impact.

Nevertheless, I have found serving as an editor to be a rewarding experience.  I have been fortunate to work with an excellent team of associate editors and editorial board.  I enjoy the opportunity to see a broader view of what is going on, in terms of geomatics research.

And your personal goals and plans for the next year?

 MO: My family and I are very excited for an opportunity to take a sabbatical in New Zealand in 2018.  I will be working with collaborators at GNS science on follow up work collecting and processing additional lidar data of landslides and rockfalls induced by the recent earthquake.  I am also excited for the opportunity to explore some of the beautiful scenery with my wife and three adventurous kids.

We are also excited that OSU will be hosting the 2017 Surveying and Geomatics Educators Society Conference  and will be very busy preparing for that.  Hope to see you there!

To contact Michael