2024 Paul A. Volcker Career Achievement

Robert J. McGaughey

Developed open-source software that converts voluminous aerial data into detailed information that enables better management of forestlands.

During his 40-year federal career, Robert McGaughey created open-source computer software that converts large amounts of geospatial data into detailed information that is now widely used to better understand, manage and protect forests in the U.S. and abroad. 

While LiDAR, or light detection and ranging data collected from airplanes, has been available for forested areas for many years, researchers and geospatial analysts often found it difficult to convert complex data into useful information.  

McGaughey solved this problem, creating and constantly updating his FUSION software, which enables researchers to distill the three-dimensional data and more fully understand conditions and changes occurring in our national forests and other land areas. This information has contributed to improving forest management, which is needed to help mitigate climate change, protect wildlife habitats, improve water quality, maintain biodiversity, and provide timber and other forest products. 

Bob McGaughey’s pioneering efforts to visualize and analyze data collected using laser scanning technology have been nothing short of revolutionary,’’ said Randy Moore, chief of the U.S. Forest Service. “Thanks to Bob’s work, the use of LiDAR to assess natural resources across the world has become standard practice, and the tools he has created give land managers unparalleled insights into our natural environment.” 

Data provides critical information  

Faced with the task of sustaining the health, diversity and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands, the Forest Service produces information from the aerial LiDAR data, using McGaughey’s software, which describes the height of trees and density of the forest, tree canopy cover, biomass and amount of vegetation on the ground. 

The information can highlight areas prone to flooding or landslides, or that pose threats to firefighting crews. Vegetation information can help managers and analysts detect disease outbreaks or damage from wind or ice and determine which areas are ready for thinning or harvest. 

“Bob McGaughey has made a monumental contribution to the analysis of our natural resources,” said Demetrios Gatziolis, a researcher with the Forest Service. “His work has allowed us to make virtual representations of how a forest would look after a management intervention without having to cut a single tree and to make strategic, tactical and physical management decisions.” 

Most recently, information produced by McGaughey’s software has been used by the Forest Service on the Savannah River Site in South Carolina to assess habitat for endangered species and to identify areas ready for harvest or other management activities. It is also being used in the Tongass National Forest in Alaska to evaluate forest conditions in preparation for an on-the-ground inventory and to identify mature and old growth trees to be protected and preserved. 

McGaughey’s software expanded use of the geospatial data  

Gatziolis said most analysts originally thought the laser data was too expensive to acquire and too challenging to use, but McGaughey foresaw that the data would eventually become widely available, and he developed the first of many versions of the software in 2005 that enabled researchers to make full use of this valuable resource. 

“Bob has been instrumental in proving the utility of this laser technology and his pioneering work has influenced multibillion-dollar investments in laser scanning that have resulted in data covering more than 90% of the continental United States,” Gatziolis said. 

McGaughey said he knows it is a cliché, but his motto is: “I work for the government, and I am here to help. It is great when I hear from somebody that they have used my software and the data to assess a 50,000- acre project or something larger. It gives me job satisfaction in a big way.”