Rock Star David McLelland: The mastermind behind remote sensing technology

David McLelland is a pioneer of geospatial science and its applications in mining

by Jillian Clark
A headshot of David McLelland

David McLelland got hooked on GIS technology 15 years ago and saw its potential. — Photo courtesy David McLelland

Remote sensing and geographic information system (GIS) mapping is not only an extremely niche industry, but one that didn’t exist 30 years ago in nearly the intelligent capacity that it does now. David McLelland fell into geospatial technology in 2002. He studied under some of the first professors in the world of geospatial science. This new community offered McLelland years of career opportunities, leading to the technology created at Auracle Remote Sensing.

Everything is a discovery

“I found myself in a career that was new to most people, and there is something extremely exciting about that because virtually everything is a discovery,” he said. He describes geospatial science as an expression of the Internet age. With every passing year, more is discovered as processing grows faster. “Keep in mind that when I first started in 2002, it took 18 hours to process a single granule of data,” he said. Now, the same granule takes seconds.

McLelland was working on an exploration project when his friend and mentor, Jacques Houle, piqued his interest in GIS and remote sensing. In the three weeks at camp, he asked questions. When McLelland returned home, he called Tom Poiker, a Harvard professor who wrote a journal article about GIS. McLelland was hooked. He immediately signed up to study under Poiker for the next three years.

The next step was completing his Master of science at Manchester Metropolitan University. “I started digging more into the radar aspect of remote sensing,” he said. “Radar fascinated me because it was an underexploited satellite data that I thought had some incredible potential.”

McLelland’s goal evolved into developing new applications for satellite radar. He also studied ways to exploit the data and pair it with optical data, which would create more accurate results. “I had some success,” he said. The booming mineral exploration field helped McLelland connect with companies willing to let him undertake research on their properties while he completed his schooling.

Innovation and willingness create opportunity

McLelland’s innovative thinking, independence, desire to solve problems and willingness to participate helped him land leadership positions for a handful of organizations in mining and research. “The biggest lesson I learned is to pay attention to the flow and move with it,” McLelland said. “When there are opportunities, be prepared for them and be willing.”

His willingness has led to a stream of opportunities. He is the past chair of the Association for Mineral Exploration British Columbia and is on the technical advisory committee for the British Columbia Geological Survey, among other positions. “I’m humbled by everything that I do,” he said.

Filling the void of remote sensing

McLelland’s shift from exploration to remote sensing technology filled a widening niche in both industries. “There was a gap in the world of geoscience applications in mathematics,” he said. “We seemed to be filling a part of that, and we were substantiating it through our exploitation of satellite data.”

McLelland’s work essentially applies new formulas to old technology. “We’ve long known that radar could measure small amounts of movement,” he said. “It wasn’t being used because it couldn’t tell you where the movement was. It was vague spatially because of radar distortions.” When his team developed signals that were clear and lacking distortion, and fused it with optical data, they had accuracy in movement and location. “On closer look, we realized we had something ahead of anyone else in the world in terms of satellite monitoring,” he said.

Founding Auracle Remote Sensing

In 2009, David McLelland founded Auracle Remote Sensing—an act that eliminated the gap. His team stayed busy with their discoveries. “We were having fun developing new methods to exploit data,” he said.

The most rewarding aspect of McLelland’s discoveries and developments in remote sensing is the surety the data provides clients of Auracle Remote Sensing. They can monitor movement around infrastructure of all kinds: railways, pipelines and roadways, for example. These data help clients in mining and energy, environmental management and the public sector. The technology increases efficiency and emphasizes safety.

“The challenging part is that every day is new,” he said. “Changes to technology keep coming, so we are constantly trying to evolve.”

Regardless of challenges and discoveries, McLelland stressed how thankful he is for the people he has met and the developments they have made in spatial science together. “I love what I do, and I can’t see a time when I would want to step away with it,” he said.

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