Ever-increasing data sources and image processing capabilities are revolutionizing the Earth imaging community's ability to map and monitor our changing planet.
What are the most significant technology trends shaping the remote sensing industry? That's the question Earth Imaging Journal's staff asked a range of industry experts who specialize in Earth imagery collection, processing and analysis. Their insights compose this year's State of the Industry Report.
BLUNDELL: We're at the threshold of a new era in Earth science analytics. Everything about how we do our business is being challenged by the staggering growth of Earth imagery, radar, LiDAR and full-motion video data. What happens next with this massive amount of data will be nothing short of transformational. We have the opportunity to move beyond image classification and apply Earth science analytics to a wide range of critical needs in environmental and natural resource monitoring, global food production, security, urbanization and other fields of research.
Today's image analysis software, such as ENVI, provides users with accurate information to make better decisions. Information management tools allow users to quickly locate critical information with advanced discovery and filtering capabilities. When such tools are combined with cloud-deployed image processing applications, you've got a massive computational capability to search, query, discover, analyze and share data anytime and anywhere. Such solutions provide users with rapid access to everything they need to solve today's complex problems in a single, integrated workflow.
COTHREN: If you use digital maps”especially ones from the major providers”for navigation and routing, you may have noticed some significant changes in the past year or so. Today's maps are far richer and more accurate; they capture new roadways and intersections as they're being built; and driving directions can be almost eerily precise, including lane change warnings and even quotes from installed signage.
This is only one manifestation of our increasing ability to economically collect, extract information from and distribute deeply integrated data from multiple sources. Major companies have come to the conclusion that access to high-quality and current geospatially enabled information”not just map data, as many think of it”is fundamental to creating and maintaining a competitive advantage.
Imagery from a variety of platforms is, and almost always has been, a primary data source, and continued research in image processing, particularly computer vision, is necessary. For example, many of the rapid updates and improvements in Google Maps are, evidently, aided by Street View data. Engineers there realized the value of such data in understanding complex interchanges and street patterns and began using the images to correct errors and add detail.
As we develop the ability to autonomously extract this kind of information from images and video streams, we'll no doubt accelerate our ability to maintain accurate, high-resolution maps of our world. And more image data are coming. Even the strictest Federal Aviation Administration regulations concerning the operation of unmanned aircraft systems will not prevent these platforms from providing even more image data that can be used to increase the accuracy and currency of our geospatially enabled data. Within the University of Arkansas, we see a continuing need to work with computer science and engineering programs to develop graduates who have the ability to work in data rich environments and contribute to the kind of research”especially in image processing and computer vision”that will continue to increase the quality of ubiquitous geospatial data.
GIACOBBO: The way satellite operators respond to and monitor natural disasters, collect commercial and military intelligence, and carry out peacekeeping and active operations is changing. Driving this shift is the provision of reactive imagery made possible through the enhanced agility of commercial imaging satellites and their ability to operate as part of a constellation. When combined with the capacity to acquire imagery at an appropriate resolution, the widest range of demanding applications can be served.
Indeed, Airbus Defence and Space's new satellite constellation has been designed to ensure extreme responsiveness in case of a crisis or an unexpected event. Fast access to the target is guaranteed, with an acquisition opportunity everywhere on Earth, every day.
Satellite tasking also has benefited from the introduction of new Web services, enabling users to submit tasking requests and receive data on their laptop in only a few hours. For example, using Airbus Defence and Space's Instant Tasking service, users can task satellites remotely; use the service anytime 24/7; get the highest priority; obtain the best reactivity; and choose the best satellite, depending on the need, between PlÃ©iades and SPOT.
JOHNSON: With a commercial drone market, unmanned aircraft system (UAS) capabilities will soon come of age for use by oil and gas, law enforcement, utilities and many other industries. Such systems carry optics and video capacity for myriad applications, including land and natural resources management. Global growth projections for the UAS market average 20 percent annually, moving this market segment from approximately $5 billion in 2014 to more than $15 billion by 2020. That type of growth will change the way users think of investing in typical airborne and spaceborne imagery.
Changes are also afoot in the image processing/geographic information system arena. The biggest players see that, although imagery is more abundant now than ever, users still want professional assistance in managing and analyzing their imagery. However, users are pushing for one- or two-click, easy processing tools. Esri is moving in that direction with ArcGIS Online, and we may see some other big names struggle to change their business models to reflect ease-of-use needs and peruse licenses, thereby facing downward pricing pressure.
As for geospatial analysis, interoperability is the name of the game now and in the foreseeable future. Professional users want geospatial analysis tools to fit into their workflows as seamlessly and easily as possible. Geospatial analysis tools must be cloud accessible in a world where novice users, as well as experienced professionals, want a less cumbersome way to analyze and visualize their geospatial inputs.
The global market for query, reporting and analysis software, including data and imagery visualization, is predicted to grow from approximately $10 billion in 2014 to more than $17 billion by 2020, with the expansion of cloud technologies spurring at least part of this growth. Whether it's a commercial cloud or a private cloud, users want their geospatial analysis capabilities to be interactive with other tools and data in their workflow and to be interoperable with other tool sets to quickly produce graphics and reports, using imagery based on specific applications.
NAVULUR: The commercial satellite industry has seen a proliferation of new players and new satellites come into the market. The current market is comprised of two sets of players: big satellite companies (bigsats) and small satellite companies (smallsats).
Bigsat companies, such as DigitalGlobe, have built their constellation based on high-performance satellites that produce high-quality, high-accuracy imagery designed to support global mapping as well as monitoring missions. With the launch of the WorldView-3 satellite, DigitalGlobe introduced 30-cm imagery from space to consumers. Other WorldView-3 technological advancements include eight shortwave infrared bands in addition to eight visible and near-infrared bands. Moreover, the WorldView-3 satellite has an additional payload designed for atmospheric measurements to improve image quality and consistency, and it was designed to address automated information extraction from satellite imagery. Big satellites typically have shown usable life spans of more than 10 years, ensuring mission continuity into 2025 and beyond.
In comparison, smallsats have focused on low-cost satellite constellations, with the primary focus on monitoring missions with frequent revisit. Some of the smallsat companies are planning constellations with dozens of satellites that enable revisit multiple times per day, globally. Smallsats are typically designed with a shelf life of 3-5 years, with the goal of replenishing the constellation and taking advantage of the latest advancements in satellite technology.
The geospatial community will benefit from both these sources of commercial satellite imagery for mapping and monitoring missions. Commercial remote sensing technologies have reached the threshold of collecting and replenishing global imagery on a frequent basis. Now the industry is focusing on other technological advancements, including ease of access to satellites; speed of data acquisition and derived delivery to end users; and cloud-based platforms to expose the power of imagery and information to an ecosystem of users, developers and partners. As the concept of location, time and context becomes an integral part of our daily life, commercial satellite remote sensing is poised to become one of the key underlying technologies for mapping and monitoring our changing planet.
RABER: Unmanned aircraft systems (UASs) are everywhere! You see them on television commercials, Hollywood movies, at mall stores, video games, everywhere! Personally, I'm excited about the endless data collection and analysis possibilities these platforms enable and the positive impact such systems will have on the geospatial profession and society in general. However, I'm also concerned about the responsibility we have to our profession to see that appropriate airspace regulations are developed, standardized product guidelines are created, public safety and privacy are protected, and our professional reputation is maintained.
Currently, UASs are restricted for commercial use in the United States as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) methodically creates a plan to safely integrate these platforms into the national airspace. Geospatial associations and other special interest groups continue pushing for exemptions and permits that produce logical and safe operating protocols, thus allowing qualified firms to use UASs for mapping, surveillance and intelligence-gathering applications. These groups are also actively working on state legislative privacy issues to prevent these laws from having unintended consequences on legitimate geospatial uses. As these important issues are beginning to get resolved, technology innovation, market demand and excitement continues to grow.
Concurrent with my enthusiasm is a concern that many instances continue to occur where UAS users aren't conforming to conventional photogrammetric guidelines when creating precision mapping products and seem to be doing so with limited knowledge of well-established accuracy, validation and data integrity guidelines/standards. I was discussing this topic with a brand name UAS manufacturer and wasn't surprised to hear that some of the company's UAS customers are creating standard mapping products without incorporating survey control to the photogrammetric solution.
Additionally, manufacturers of UAS software and hardware are advertising push button processes to create products such as digital surface models and digital orthophotos. These potentially disruptive data processing applications, which some call black box and easy to use, use highly automated photogrammetric solutions. From Merrick's UAS experience, automatically processing the large amounts of nonmetric and overlapping digital photographs collected by the UAS is necessary. However, Merrick and its clients still require traditional validation steps within the workflow that provide data accuracy and error reporting statistics to verify our products conform to a known and industry-accepted standard.
I don't want to restrict the many UAS-derivative products that may not require professional mapping standards, but I sense the need to establish minimum data validation and acceptance guidelines when positional accuracy expectations are required. Acquisition firms and clients have well-defined methods for validating and reporting accuracies from these push-button workflows. For example, several Merrick clients in Mexico and Colombia are asking for traditional aerial triangulation reports and statistics that demonstrate wide-area and automatically generated tie-point accuracy. This may sound like a tall task, but I feel much of the current body of knowledge from geospatial companies and geospatial associations could be adapted to meet this need.
Our profession has faced this type of challenge many times during the last 30 years as geospatial technologies have matured and transformed, moving from analog plotters to digital workstations, film to digital cameras, hand-drawn contours to interpolation to LiDAR point cloud terrain and feature extraction, and conventional to GPS surveying, just to name a few. The geospatial profession has come a long way in gaining the recognition it so richly deserves. My unease is that it has taken a long time for our profession to gain the respect of the general public, and we can't lose the momentum. Creating data product guidelines prior to the tidal wave of firms coming into the market would help clients and UAS operators develop responsible, robust data products that have known positional accuracies and data integrity characteristics.
STOJIC: Not long ago, only a few satellites provided Earth imagery to military and commercial customers. Now swarms of nanosatellites are being built to offer high-definition pictures and video of new and often startling quality to anybody who wants”and can pay for”them.
Coping with growing volumes of big data, manifested by the proliferation of images and movies, and incorporating all of this into tools to predict and manage a future that can be visualized”often in 3-D”is a continuous journey. Making sense of data from creation to analysis to storage and reuse alongside new data is a challenge even for the most efficient organizations. This charts the passage, from history to the horizon, for companies that provide predictive analysis tools to meet their clients' needs.
Industry leaders recognize that return on investment (ROI) in meaningful data is an increasing part of our users' financial well-being. With technology versatile enough to cope with unexpected answers generated by data and tools nimble enough to adapt to change, data can truly be managed and understood, providing ROI.
Data's dynamics also drive a need for dynamic tools to respond to”even create”change. Simplifying the user's experience, while leveraging all of this information effectively, is our challenge. It's also the key to our future success.
WOOD: We're at a technological tipping point in geospatial analysis. Up until now, our industry has been characterized by a relatively small number of satellites providing imagery to traditional users, the majority of this work driven by government, defense and intelligence contracts. The satellite operators largely continue to sell pixels to this long-established user base that often produces proprietary, often classified and customized results.
Today, however, several major trends are taking geospatial analysis to the next level. With a surge of new imaging satellites being launched and already on orbit, we're reaching an inflection point of satellite imagery coverage where near-real-time imagery of almost anywhere on Earth is more realistic and possible, and new resolutions and sensors are already redefining what's possible in global remote sensing. Other types of coverage are adding to the mix, including unmanned aircraft systems, making real the promise of true all-source analysis. More open-source data, better data mining tools and more sophisticated geographic information system software are opening new opportunities and a wealth of ways to manipulate, extract and manage huge waves of information.
Although our company, Allsource Analysis, serves a variety of traditional customers, new users are emerging in several markets where commercial imagery intelligence tools haven't been used. Financial services and research analysts are finding ways to use visual imagery intelligence to support commodity market research and make trading decisions. Insurance companies are beginning to use satellite imagery to not only assess disasters and damage but to make predictions for prevention and actuarial evaluations. We're increasingly using remote sensing technology to monitor humanitarian situations in North Korea and the Middle East. These and other emerging markets for commercial imagery intelligence are helping to increase the value for new generations of decision makers who are starting to shift the paradigms in their own industries.