MACOMB, Ill. — Chad Sperry and the Western Illinois University GIS Center are putting Macomb on the map.
“Any kind of information that you could visualize in a map, we can turn that into numbers and calculate statistics and do all sorts of analyses,” Sperry said.
On this particular day, Sperry was mapping the WIU Allison Organic Farm with a drone.
The drone was flying the whole farm, taking still and video images. That imagery would be put together, “stitched” is the term, into a map that Joel Gruver, director of the WIU Organic Research Program, and Andy Clayton, farm manager at the Allison Farm, will use for their research and planning.
“We mainly work on applied and research projects for the university,” Sperry said.
The center has four full-time staff, including Sperry, and also employs students.
The center is located in the Department of Geography, GIS and Meteorology. The center also acts as the McDonough County GIS Consortium, a partnership among the university, the city of Macomb, and McDonough County.
Educating students and preparing them for careers in the Geographic Information System field is a priority at the center, and students work on the different projects for the university and for government entities.
“We work with local agencies and governments, as well as the private sector. We’ve helped out engineering firms with elevation studies and elevation models,” Sperry said.
Those projects help pay the bills, including the wages for the student workers, and they also give students hands-on experience.
“Right now we are doing a lot of 911-related projects. We’ve got a 16-county region grant project that has been really good for our students. They get hands-on experience. They then are able to go out and get jobs and contribute because they have not only the theory in the classroom, but that actual experience working on these projects,” Sperry said.
Most recently, Sperry and his team have been working on doing COVID-19 mapping for the state, helping create the map that shows cases by county and breaks out other data related to the pandemic.
“We have been doing a lot of COVID-19 mapping. We created the forward-facing GIS for the state,” Sperry said.
Sperry uses the tools of the trade, drones and thermal imaging cameras attached to a drone to not only map crops, but to help local agencies in emergencies, including law enforcement.
“One of my most exciting days was when we were called out at 4 a.m. There was a fugitive who pulled a gun on a sheriff’s deputy then escaped. They called me, and we went out and found him hiding in a cornfield. The sun was just coming up when we located him, and the deputies were able to go in and arrest him,” Sperry said.
He and his team also assisted during the spring floods in 2019.
“We were really involved when the flooding was going on last year. We were flying inundated fields along the Illinois River where levees broke and flooded those fields,” he said.
The center uses different drones to do different jobs. Sperry started with the drones about four years ago. He’s been doing GIS work for 20 years and has been the director of the center for 16.
“The technology has really caught up. When I started, the hardware wasn’t there, the software wasn’t there. Now you can do a lot just on an iPad, and we couldn’t even think about that 20 years ago,” Sperry said.
Sperry emphasized that it’s not necessarily the equipment that is the most important thing when doing mapping, but the information it collects.
“There’s nothing really special about this drone. This is something anyone could buy at Best Buy or on Amazon. It’s really what we do with the data and how we collect images. For example, we can make a satellite view in Google Maps. For the research plots out here, that’s really valuable,” he said.