Digital Lab Makes Scanning the Past A Valuable Asset for the Future

Bonnie Knuteson at EROS works on a Leica high-resolution flat bed scanner in the Digital Lab at EROS.

They sit in filing cabinets, in boxes and basements scattered across the United States. Hundreds of thousands of film prints and negatives, stored at Federal agencies and other organizations, just waiting to be digitized.

In many cases, just waiting to make their way to the Digital Laboratory at EROS.

Supplying a global user community with remotely sensed images archived at EROS—long the province of film processors and wet lab technicians at the Center—underwent a significant transformation at the turn of the 21st Century with the advent of the digital revolution.

EROS’ photo lab would fade away over time, replaced by a scanning domain tasked with turning color and black-and-white prints and negatives into browse images and digital files. Two separate paths to that end evolved: One for On-Demand high-resolution imagery; the other to make browse data available of the film located in the EROS Film Archive.

EROS Staff Develops New Systems

With the change unfolding around them, Center staff began to brainstorm ways to develop, design, and build what eventually would become the Phoenix “IV,” a machine “that basically took a picture of every frame on every roll … both those that had frame numbers, and those did not, what we call orphans … and digitized them,” said Brent Nelson, the Operations Work Manager for the Data Management and Information Delivery (DMID) project at EROS. Over the next several years, the Digital Laboratory staff digitized an impressive total of 6,752,509 images. 

“So then as technology improved, the question became, ‘Could we make a better product for our customer, a higher-resolution image?’ ” Nelson said. “And looking at technology, the staff came across a (BetterLight) scanning back that would allow us to scan at 25 microns.”

Microns are measured in pixels per inch. For example, 25 micron is around 1,000 pixels per inch. As it worked to create higher-resolution images, the lab brought in a group of scientists to help evaluate scenes at 25 micron. They ended up affirming that for 99.9 percent of the work they did, 25 micron brought out all the information in an image that was needed.

This new and better technology—developed through the ingenuity of Center employees and the craftsmanship of the Design and Fabrication staff—led to the Digital Laboratory creating the Phoenix “V” production system. It used the same base platform as the Phoenix IV, Nelson said, “but we made improvements, like a brand new LED light source that gives more uniform intensity. We have a higher light output intensity, too, which allows for improved scanning of dense inputs, and improved electronics.”

Millions of Images Digitized

Today, the Digital Laboratory has 12 Phoenix V production systems digitizing a variety of data.  At its peak in fiscal years 2005 and 2006, Phoenix IV was producing over 1.6 million browse and medium-resolution images a year. As of December 2017, Phoenix V had completed more than 4.4 million images captured from 25,158 rolls.

Once film is scanned, sent through the QA (Quality Assurance) process, and is verified, it is placed out on EarthExplorer soon after and is available to anyone free of charge, Nelson said. The only time there is a charge is if a customer needs an image that hasn’t been scanned, or wants a high-resolution image. They then order a scene through EarthExplorer, which handles it through EROS’ On-Demand process.

Customers requiring imagery that hasn’t been digitized or is of a higher resolution follow a simple process. They go into EarthExplorer, find their scenes, and submit an order. Those customers pay $30 a scene to have their priority moved up. That work then goes through the On-Demand process, which uses high-resolution photogrammetric flatbed scanners made by Leica and Zeiss. Those products are scanned at 14 micron for standard film and 7 micron for declassification-related products.

To create browse products for the Declass 3 film housed in the film archive, the Phoenix “VI” was created. This production system uses a high-end Nikon digital camera to capture rolls in a video. Using a process developed by the staff, that system then takes the digital video frame information and stitches the frames together to make a complete EarthExplorer browse image. The science community then is able to actually see the exact image to ensure it is the correct area of interest.

Today, the Digital Lab supports scanning projects for a variety of customers, from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to the Cascade Volcano Laboratory to the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

When former Long Term Archive (LTA) Project Chief Wayne Miller first started the Digital Laboratory, he had a goal of making all the data available to the science user community. That philosophy continues today under DMID Project Chief Ryan Longhenry.

The fact is, without this capability, users would most likely have limited or no access to invaluable film and other data important to performing their work. Thanks to the digital scanning activity at EROS, that isn’t a problem for them. And not just at the USGS, but throughout all other science user communities.