In the 2010s, the National Science Foundation will support the construction of a new type of Observatory to allow understanding and forecasting of the continental-scale consequences of climate change, land use change and biological invasions. This Observatory, NEON, will be a new type of system designed to systematically observe environmental change across the US, making simultaneous measurements at multiple spatial scale, sustained over decades. A key requirement for the observatory is to measure fundamental biological variables at regional scales. The required measurements include aspects of system function, such as biomass or photosynthetic capacity and structural properties such as species composition, presence of invasive species and spatial arrangement of organisms. In the design of NEON, many technologies were evaluated, ranging from extremely human-intensive sampling on the ground to microwave remote sensing from space. While no one technology met all the requirements, the approach that can provide the largest number of required variables is imaging reflectance spectroscopy using an airborne platform. This approach combines imaging spectroscopy's known ability to observe plant canopy biochemistry, and through chemical and leaf structural signatures, species composition, with the ability, using an airborne platform, to obtain imagery at the scale of individual plants (1 meter or so). NEON, in partnership with NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab will build and deploy three visible-near IR imaging spectrometers for use in observing ecological variability and change. The first instrument will be completed and flown in 2012-13, and subsequent instruments will follow until the entire Observatory is commissioned in 2016. Once completed, the three instruments will provide regular and field campaign observations at sites across the US and internationally.