By Dale Lehner, Office of Corporate Communications, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (www.nga.mil), Springfield, Va.
The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) Advanced Visualization Branch, known as ASCSV, is taking imagery to new heights of usefulness with commonly used off-the-shelf software.
The branch uses advanced geospatial and 3-D modeling tools to perform precise measurements, feature extraction and high-resolution terrain generation using available geospatial data and imagery, according to Dave Bonner, ASCSV’s chief. The branch created a georeferenced 3-D PDF, known as Geo3D PDF, to give NGA customers highly detailed, geospatially accurate 3-D visualizations based on imagery.
“For our interactive visualization products to be useful, they must meet three criteria,” said Bonner. “They need to be easy to use; deliverable via email; and require no specialized, extra software on our customer’s computer. More importantly, the products needed to be georeferenced—after all, that’s the ‘G’ in NGA.”
Adding georeferenced information to the 3-D PDFs image models virtually places the model in the same position on Earth as the real object, allowing accurate coordinates to be reported. This gives users the feeling of being on-scene at the actual location and allows them to derive defensive and offensive locations for the area. The branch has had the ability to produce rudimentary 3-D PDFs that met the first three criteria for some time, but wasn’t able to georeference its products.
“We always take painstaking steps to ensure the geospatial accuracy of our interactive products,” said Robin Kang, a software developer and 3-D visualization specialist with ASCSV. “However when our products were packaged into 3-D PDFs, all the georeferencing information was lost.”
Kang found a promising software solution that was compatible, but the licensing was cost-prohibitive. The software also needed a plug-in, which customers may not have. The next step for Kang was to look for software that allows users to implement new functionality within 3-D PDFs without the need for plug-ins.
“I was able to leverage (the software) to develop the new georeferenced 3-D PDF capability,” said Kang. “The Geo3D PDF features mouse-over, geocoordinate readout, dynamic compass and azimuth reporting, and basic point-to-point distance measurements.”
Kang then tackled the problem of presenting Web-based, large scale, real-time 3-D scene visualizations to a broad customer base. Though the technology is primarily geared toward the manufacturing industry for archiving parts and other assets in 3-D, there are many distribution advantages to using 3-D PDFs for NGA customers.
Looking for the next level of product that gives NGA’s customer the advantage is always at the forefront of the agency’s mission, according to Bonner. There are a lot of gaming engines that could make the agency’s products more effective for customers. Unfortunately, customers can’t always run the executable programs or install the special software these products need.
After extensive research, Kang found that a common platform on computer systems would work without specialized software. He used the accelerated graphic capabilities of the program with Away3D, an open-source, script-based, real-time 3-D engine for Adobe Flash. He leveraged Away3D to bring the capability to NGA’s systems without installing software.
Kang added many innovative advantages to Away3D for the end user, including a new workflow for optimizing and loading 3-D geometry and texture assets into the framework. The enhancements also include intuitive 3-D navigation controls, a dynamic compass display, a mouse-over geocoordinate readout, an interface to facilitate scene navigation, interactive map legends, annotations within the 3-D scene and a Web- based 3-D visualization product to accompany an official NGA intelligence report.
The immediate prime beneficiaries of the Web-based, 3-D visualization product are NGA analysts, according to Bonner. The product can be customized with layers of intelligence, icons, links, etc., and some customers already experience the benefits. The accomplishments are just the beginning, according to Kang, who has more ideas for future Away3D products.
“The Away3D product will enable higher fidelity visualization of larger footprints, better interactive performance and unlimited customization, which will be highly beneficial for all customers,” said Bonner. “Browser-based 3-D visualization, requiring no specialized browser plug-in, is the product of the future.”
Editor’s Note: Thanks to the NGA Pathfinder staff for their assistance with this column.