Home Articles A world of images

A world of images

What are the major products and services offered by Intermap? Intermap commercially exploits a technology called Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar (IFSAR) to create national and continent-wide topographic databases.

Brian L. Bullock
Brian L. Bullock
Intermap Technologies

What are the major products and services offered by Intermap?
Intermap commercially exploits a technology called Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar (IFSAR) to create national and continent-wide topographic databases. Back in 1997, this technology was quite new and it took about five years for the technology to mature.

Kindly shed light on the rationale behind creating nation-wide or continent-wide products like 3D map you are preparing for NEXTMap, given that they are off-the-shelf packages?
In 1998, we observed that our nation was not well mapped from the topographic point of view. Advanced nations had a conglomeration of maps which have been made over many decades. Many of them are now either out-of-date or made with obsolete technologies. This made us realise the need for relevant and uniform/ consistent GPS coverage of the entire nation. We felt that such a database will enable a number of new applications and enhance geospatial awareness across the world.

How has been the response to NEXTMap USA?
Britain was completed in 2003 and the rest of Europe in 2009. US was the last country to be completed, just six months back.

The advent of Internet-enabled geospatial applications like Google Earth, Mapquest and Bing Maps has made people much more location and navigation aware. A decade ago, GIS maps were primarily used by professionals. Now, there are over 100 million consumers using maps on websites, cellphones, in-car navigation systems and so on. There has been a significant explosion in the use of geospatial data over the last decade and we believe that the next movement that will take place in the coming decade where people will demand more and more geospatial accuracy. Right now, a lot of data does not have the requisite accuracy.

How unique is IFSAR in comparison with LiDAR or other latest technologies?
IFSAR is particularly well suited for measuring large areas rapidly and at a relatively low cost, almost 20 times less than LiDAR. It is not the most accurate technology. LiDAR can get higher resolution but is difficult to deploy LiDAR on a continental scale. The swath width is too low and flying altitudes are too low. On the other hand, with IFSAR one can map an entire nation like the US in four years. IFSAR enabled continent-wide mapping at just below one metre vertical accuracy. In the case of Europe and the US, the accuracy has turned out to about 2/3rd of the metre.

Which particular applications has IFSAR targeted?
The database consists of three components. The digital surface model includes building tops, trees, etc. That is the first reflected surface for radar and there is measurement for every five metres on the ground so it is a very dense grid for a nation-wide product. The second product is derived from the digital terrain model where we remove trees and buildings using computer algorithms and an editing workforce. The third product is the orthorectified radar image which has rectified image of the entire continent. Its horizontal accuracy is approximately two metres. The geospatial framework is established in x, y and z dimensions with x and y dimensions being accurate to two metres across the entire continent and vertical accuracy being one metre. Once our databases are complete, all kinds of derived products can be obtained from there.

Our first customer was an insurance company with requirements in flood risk. With water being subject to third dimension, an accurate elevation is essential to protect floodprone areas. Through an enhanced elevation model, customers can make a better flood model which will allow them to understand and manage their risk portfolio. Thus, within five years, the original sponsor of NEXTMap Britain secured a fifteen-fold return on investment. It was a huge success for them and led to generation of interest from a lot of other insurance companies. This is one of the key markets that we are exploiting both in Europe and the US.

Another key early market was telecom. The transition from ordinary phones to smart phones has led to a huge demand for building more data capacity into the networks. Carriers are looking at the existing towers and adding more and more microwave links between those towers to allow all these data to move around. A key question is whether a link is possible between towers A and B or is it blocked by obstructions such as trees or buildings. Since NEXTMap has a surface model, it has proved invaluable in addressing this issue and is helping telecom companies determine beforehand whether a link is possible between different towers.

What is coming up next in terms of NEXTMap?
We launched a fun consumer application in 2009. We wanted to see if consumers would enjoy having better maps on recreational devices. We created value added maps for the outdoor recreation market and called that product AccuTerra. This application makes outdoor recreation much more enjoyable because one can track their progress, geotag all the pictures which get automatically saved in albums. Users can replay adventures like hiking, bike-rides or a geo-caching activity. They can also post it on social networking websites or email it.

A lot of activities are happening on social networking sites like Facebook, Foursquare which are centred around data. How do you see the technology market after a decade?
To me, it is very amazing. I have been in this industry for most of my career. The ability to move data on Internet, high-speed links, huge storage capacity, terabytes on a PC – I do not think this would have been possible fifteen years ago. Processor speed, storage and connection speed have made it possible to move enormous amount of image data and geospatial data around.

We are not dependent on some of the compression technologies of the past. In the last decade, everybody worked on vector lines and polygons because raster images were too dense for the computers of those times to handle. Looking ahead in the decade, processor speed and storage will continue to get cheaper and we will continue to find ways to remove boundaries and do more with less. We are still creating vector lines and polygons which are probably on their way out.

We will have more maps that will be image maps. One can see them on Google Earth for example. Those maps are really quite useful if one has the right additional data along with it. I believe that fundamentally we are going more into an image world. Remote sensing satellites will benefit from advancements in computer processor storage. Also, more and more data needs to be inserted into an accurate geospatial frame-work like NEXTMap. This would enable whole continents or nations to be linked together. I believe this will happen over the next decade.

You have mentioned that a decade ago the geospatial market was just USD 5 billion and today it is about USD 40 billion, the majority component being data. Taking it little forward, 10 years down the line, how do you see the business trend?
What surprises me about the last decade are the two disruptive changes I mentioned. First is the availability of geospatial data on the Internet to enable location-based advertising. It is amazing how quickly it took off and emerged as an enormous market. Even through exact market size is not easy to come by, I have seen reports estimating about USD 20 billion annually for locationbased advertising. The second is the creation of what is essentially a digitised road map or a road atlas that has addresses, point of interests, turn instructions, which enabled electronic routing and created the market for handheld GPS devices as well as indash GPS navigation systems. The size of this industry has also grown to about USD 20 billion per year.

These are consumer driven markets, putting up with pretty rough data in terms of geospatial accuracy. I believe this is going to change. More and more applications for the data will emerge. As the data becomes stronger and more robust, people in other industries will also be keen to use this data. I also perceive that government- sponsored mapping programmes will decline in this decade. There will be so much happening at consumer and commercial levels that it will not really make sense for governments to do that kind of work anymore. But growth in commercial programmes will continue to accelerate.

The whole world, especially the geospatial industry is looking at investing in Asian markets like China and India because these are emerging economies and are investing in building their infrastructure. How are these countries responding to map and geographic data?
I am hopeful that at some point of time, NEXTMap India could become a reality. This can be possible only with government support. Geospatial data in India is controlled by the government. It is the government that needs to welcome a business driven approach. Another requirement for this business model is intellectual property security. Business models don’t work if people can just copy it. Secure IP rights are essential if a business is going to invest hundreds of millions of dollars and then plan to sell millions of products for a few dollars each. I am very interested in China and it is the world’s second largest economy. I am visiting Beijing shortly to talk to a couple of mapping companies in China to explore the possibility of NEXTMap China. We have started in South-East Asia. We have covered half of Indonesia and all of Malaysia. We have done about onethird of the Philippines. So, Asia is part of our NEXTtMap program. It is now a question of whether the host governments in other countries want to see this happen.

Is there any plan to localise your capability and create R&D facility in these countries?
We did exactly this in South-East Asia and created a production centre both in Indonesia and Malaysia. The data there was created by local people. In fact many amongst those people worked in the US and with European data as well. We also used some Indian companies to help with the data in the US. We partner with local companies and seek permission of the government in order to create our databases.