Vricon was formed as a joint partnership between Saab and DigitalGlobe a little more than a year ago. The company combines Saab’s unique 3D technology and knowhow with DigitalGlobe’s image archive. Vricon is transforming this large archive of high-resolution imagery to create global, highly accurate, photorealistic 3D products and elevation data of Earth.
V1 Editorial Director Matt Ball spoke with Magnus Brege, CEO of Vricon. The conversation touches on algorithms, automation, transformation and applications.
EIJ: I see that you’re based in Virginia. Is that a fairly recent transition for you to live in the United States?
Brege: I moved to the United States from Sweden in January 2016, and before that I was going back and forth for quite some time. It was important for us to have our offices in the D.C. area to serve our customers. We are setting up our whole production capacity in the Northern Virginia area.
EIJ: It’s been a little more than a year since Saab and DigitalGlobe joined forces to create Vricon. Can you tell us how that year has gone, and how the technology and production capacity are coming together?
Brege: Saab had a really great technology—to be able to use imagery to produce a representation of the world in a fully automated fashion. DigitalGlobe had all the imagery we needed to be able to do this on a global scale and reproduce the whole globe in 3D. Seeing Saab technology as the oil refinery, and DigitalGlobe as the oil well, it’s a perfect match. Now we’re actually producing some very nice products for all our communities.
EIJ: What has been the response to the joint venture, your technology approach and the data you derive?
Brege: It has taken some time to get customers used to a new way of production and that it’s actually possible for us to do what we do. They are starting to believe that our accuracy is as good as we say it is, and the resolution is as good as we say it is.
We’ve had a lot of customers look at our production facilities and see how we produce the 3D environments in our production software. That’s when they start to believe—seeing is believing. Customers have heard a lot about 3D; it’s usually very expensive and doesn’t scale well, so it usually takes a long time to produce. We are changing that now—it’s a real paradigm shift. We can provide, within a short amount of time, complete countries in full 3D.
What’s the use of doing small postage-stamp-sized areas when you really need big areas for solutions? [With] GPS-denied navigation, for instance, or targeting, you need to be agile with high-accuracy coordinates. That’s where we really have a solution that scales.
GPS-denied navigation is a capability where you really need to have a lot of coverage for your platforms to be able to operate. If it’s a fighter aircraft or UAV, you need to have large data coverage.
EIJ: What data do you deliver for applications such as GPS-denied navigation?
Brege: We produce a 3D model, and then we do derivative products out of that. So a height model is just a Z value out of the 3D environment. Our main product is a full 3D polygon mesh that we drape imagery on top of for a fully textured 3D environment. That provides the opportunity to use other sensor data and georectify that—even if it’s a really oblique angle.
Using the model and other onboard sensors, you can calculate where you are without the need for GPS. You can use a radar sensor to give you height, or you might want to go silent and use an echo sensor or SAR or something else. You can identify where you are without telling anyone you’re there.
EIJ: Do the models also feed simulations?
Brege: That’s a very big market. When you start to get into the simulation business, people are used to high-resolution and handmade 3D environments; that’s more like a video game. We actually produce the real world based on imagery, so I think we’re the best choice to do mission rehearsal and planning for operational needs.
You have to take into account that the imagery is created from a sensor on a satellite in space. The 50-centimeter resolution from these satellites provides good data, but if you have a handmade model, you will find it to be higher resolution. We trade on the accuracy with currency, since we can quickly provide the most up-to-date model.
We provide the real representation of the world, which scales and gives you global coverage. In some cases, you might want to overlay the 3D foundation layer with some other imagery or texture. Imagery from a low-flying UAV for reconnaissance can be overlaid on the 3D model to get a higher-resolution texture and imagery with the same accuracy that’s in our 3D model. We collect the metadata from the sensor to correct their accuracy and overlay it on our model.
EIJ: Are you expanding upon the traditional uses of a Digital Elevation Model (DEM)?
Brege: We can accommodate the traditional DEM, because it’s just a derivative of our full 3D mesh. All the information is in the 3D product, with elevation for every single pixel. We have 50-centimeter resolution, with a latitude, longitude, and height every 50 centimeters.
We fit the traditional workflows and products and also, in the same product, provide the future. It’s easier for people to train in an immersive 3D environment, because the world is actually in 3D.
The people of tomorrow will demand this type of environment, because they don’t understand why they should be satisfied with a 2D map. They anticipate they will have the same type of environment they grew up with in their video games. We’re using technologies from the gaming environment to render this type of high-density 3D data.
Our vision software is the same for the Gripen Fighter that Saab produced in Sweden. Those pilots can fly around in the Vricon 3D environment, anywhere in the world.
EIJ: Your ability to create a global dataset via automation is impressive. Do you need ground control points or surveyors in the field?
Brege: It’s made without any ground control points from totally available commercial imagery, and we don’t need any assets on the ground. We can build models for denied areas, like Beijing or North Korea. Places like that, you don’t have any data other than satellite imagery.
EIJ: What’s the size of this data in terms of computer storage?
Brege: At the GEOINT show in Orlando, we had the whole country of North Korea on a small SD card to show to people. It’s pretty interesting that you could have a whole country just on an SD card, and it’s actually just half of the SD card, because we can compress the data down to about 1.5MB per square kilometer.
This past weekend, with nobody in the office, we built 17 geocells, with a geocell as one-degree by one-degree. It’s about 10,000 square kilometers per geocell. That gets us roughly 170,000 square kilometers over the weekend. We have really powerful and quick algorithms in the software, and it’s the only way to scale and build the whole globe with an efficient algorithm that works fully automatically. We take some time to do the QA/QC to make sure there are no errors in production.
EIJ: Your idea is to generate the whole globe in 3D. Is there an idea of a set refresh rate, given your ability to automate and quickly process this data?
Brege: We use the DigitalGlobe archive, which is pretty extensive. It’s about 80 petabytes of data and constantly growing. If there are special needs refresh the data over a certain area, we can of course build an area over and over again.
The refresh rate depends upon the availability of new imagery. We can always use the latest imagery and drape it as a new texture on top of the 3D model. Analysts benefit from using a 3D model versus just a 2D image.
EIJ: How does this data and your process compare to traditional methods?
Brege: The traditional way we sell our product is with a two-week turnaround for a geocell anywhere in the world—that’s pretty quick. One of the Geospatial analysts we hired here was showing me the data for a geocell he started the day before—he had 10,000 square kilometers in front of him of Saudi Arabia, and it was beautiful. It took him six months to produce a geocell where he previously worked, and we can do it overnight.
So, we have something very interesting here, and that’s why we are aiming to build the whole globe. We see there’s a huge need for this capability.