From data to solutions

From data to solutions

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In an exclusive interview with Geospatial World, M. Lorraine Tighe shares the evolving vision of INTERMap and the company’s plans for the Asia Pacific market

Dr Santhosh Babu
M. Lorraine Tighe
Director – Geospatial Solutions, INTERMap

In an exclusive interview with Geospatial World, M. Lorraine Tighe shares the evolving vision of INTERMap and the company’s plans for the Asia Pacific market

You have recently been appointed to your new position – Director – Geospatial Solutions, from being Director for NEXTMap. Can you elaborate on your new profile?
Intermap, over the last year and half, has been through significant changes. We have a new CEO on board – Todd Oseth, since December 2010. I have been working with him to figure out the new vision of our company and how we want to position ourselves, especially the NEXTMap product line.

What we are focusing on now is positioning NEXTMap as a whole, something we were not doing strongly in a concerted way earlier. We see NEXTMap as a branding. We call it the best of breed – geospatial data in the form of elevation data and imagery, available worldwide. In our new strategy, we have a product roadmap – whereas earlier we would collect once and sell many times, our focus now is to collect many times and update over time. We are also moving towards a subscription-based model. Our goal is to establish where we want to be in the market space – the verticals and regions we want to focus on and how best to update over time to meet the demands of the end user. By the end of 2011, we will have a 30 metre digital surface elevation model globally, that is more accurate than any other data set currently available. We will update the global DEM to be hydro-enforced and create a DTM (bare earth elevation model) in 2012, based on customer need.

Intermap uses IfSAR technology for mapping. What are the benefits of this technology over other mapping technologies?
Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar, abbreviated as IFSAR (also InSAR), is a well-established remote sensing technology for obtaining high resolution and accuracy of x, y and z coordinates of a location imaged by two radar beams.

The IfSAR technology uses radar imagery rather than optical imagery – which means that it is an active sensor and does not need the sun as a source of illumination. The IfSAR technology also penetrates cloud and light rain and can be operated at night time. A technology like LiDAR has its own source of illumination but it is an optical sensor and is weather dependent. In places like Indonesia with frequent cloud cover or in areas like tropics with dense vegetation, using this technology can be problematic. With the radar sensors, we produce a surface model and then we derive a bare ground model as radar can “see through the clouds” to collect fully populated data.

One important aspect of the elevation data and orthorectified radar image products generated by IFSAR is the structural information that they enable. One can use this data pair over large geographic extents, to collect topographic map information, especially in remote areas, or in areas that have not been mapped to a high resolution. Moreover, this rich data set allows for reconnaissance-type geological mapping, which, in many remote parts of the world have never been done before. We are working with worldwide ASTER (Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer) GDEM elevation dataset. The final piece comes from ICESat – a satellite-based LiDAR sensor that collects 70 m footprints of elevation data around the globe, for ground control usage. ICESat has a high accuracy in the order of 50 cm or so, making very useful with other satellite technologies.

We will be merging best of breed elevation models around the world to produce the best possible global elevation mode, which we will update as the new data becomes available time and time again. Our goal is to produce the best available elevation dataset worldwide, called NEXTMap.

The new vision of Intermap includes identifying regions that the company will focus on. Which are the regions you are looking at?
We see Asia Pacific as a high potential area, where we have mapped about a little over 2 million sq km of data. We have mapped all of Malaysia, about 50-60 percent of Indonesia, a small part of Australia and some parts of the Philippines. The country of Indonesia is faced with lots of hazards, volcanic activities, tsunamis and floods, which require higher resolution topographic maps, for which our approach can assist. The sensor technology that we use can collect a vast amount of data in a short period of time, through clouds and thus an ideal technology for Indonesia. Furthermore, we have a production facility in Jakarta, Indonesia, that processes our data and trains customers how to create the maps they need.

In Australia, we will be merging a variety of elevation products from optical and radar technologies to create seamless data products with high resolutions. Our other focus region is Latin America and parts of the USA.

That is a massive amount of data that you have collected in Asia Pacific. What is the kind of market response and demand for this data?
The largest driving force of our technology in the Asian market space is our ability to collect high resolution, cloud-free orthorectified imagery, ready for use in topographic mapping. This is quite a difference response than what we experience in the US and Europe, possibly due to the availability of sufficient topographic maps, or, in the case with in these regions, in contrast to Asia, where the maps are outdated, at coarse mapping scales, and or the imagery is plagued with clouds. In the APAC region we have worked with both the government and private sector.

One important thing about this region is that a lot of terrain has not been mapped. We collect a large density of data as we fly over an area of interest. Our Malaysia data collection program (c 2009), for example, represents the first cloud free set of imagery they have ever had.

We have been in operation in Asia for several decades and they are well versed in our technology and the quality of our programs. This set of users are well aware of the benefits of the technology, including reducing the amount of field time and enhancing speed to which regions can be mapped and analyzed. They also appreciate the availability of cloud free data with radar imagery.

Which sectors are your focus areas?
Our main sectors are natural resources such as mining, oil and gas, where geological mapping are of great importance. Another important sector is hazard type mapping. Because we hydro-enforce the elevation dataset, which means that the data are edited so that a river flows downstream, they are suitable for flood modelling, analyzing risks, hazards, land slide, earthquakes, and so forth. Water management analysis is another important application for NEXTMap data.

Another key market that has come on our horizon in the last year and half is telecom, where our high resolution digital surface data can assist with backhaul planning and signal propagation analysis

Then there is also tsunami management and loss of life mitigation, which is about infrastructure planning – answering questions like: Where the roads are? Where is the nearest hospital? Where are the communication towers located? In Europe, we have had great success with police, where they use our data to plan their emergency routes and the quickest distance to the hospital.

These sectors are the key sectors in Asia Pacific region too, where we are seeing a great interest in topographic mapping, natural resources management, and oil and gas sector. In Malaysia, the key sectors are infrastructure planning, topographic mapping, and telecom.

What is your strategy vis-à-vis further ROI (return on investment) on your data?
One of the strategies behind my new position – is to create and promote solutions for use with NEXTMap data, by spending time in front of our current and potential customer base, analyzing the market sector to refine where we focus, and to create the products to satisfy the customer’s needs. Some of these markets are the ones I have just mentioned.

Also, we believe that technology transfer is the way forward. We have also done this in countries including Colombia, Ecuador, Brazil, Honduras, Jamaica, Indonesia, Philippines, Malaysia, and Europe. We have a training group that trains different segments of government organisations, government facilities, universities, as well as companies within the private sector.

We believe it is important to train end users about the technology and products to that end user has full knowledge about how to use the data for their application and within their work environment, so that we shorten the learning curve and they are up and running, for the most part, within their own workflow. For this to be a success, we spend time with the customer to understand their workflow, and then determine how to make their workflow more efficient with our data, so that we do not disrupt their work environment. This creates a win-win scenario with Intermap and the customer.

Most of the companies working with IfSAR or InSAR technology, the imagery are considered to be the byproduct because the InSAR/IfSAR technology uses two radar images to produce the elevation dataset. Intermap, on the other hand, have always focused equally on the height component and the image component so that people can use the imagery for mapping. The focus dates back to our early days, when we collected data in parts of the world that perhaps didn’t have the best maps around or cloud-free imagery to create them. In these regions, the imagery is important.

Aerial photography is subject to restrictions in many countries. What are your experiences?
Getting permits for any technology can indeed be challenging. We are still a Canadian company, relatively neutral, but, like many countries, we do encounter a lot of red tape. Let’s face it, when you are coming into a country with an aircraft that has military grade survey-type equipment onboard, then unless you are working with the government, it is very difficult to get in and out, no matter what your goals are – even if is to assist users to plan risk mitigation. You still have to be working with governments to be able to get into a region. With increasing terrorism around the world, restrictions are getting tighter. That is understandable.

Do you operate your own aircrafts?
Yes, we have our own fleet, however, in addition, we use satellite data to augment our collection process. We have refined an aggregation process to allow us to merge elevation data from multiple data source, such that our DEM output is a seamless contiguous data set.

Kindly brief us about some of the projects you are involved in, in the Asia Pacific region?
We work very closely with BAKOSURTANAL, now called BIG, which is very much engaged in trying to get the best mapping possible, so that they can understand their environment. One prominent application of NEXTMap data in Indonesia and Malaysia is oil palm plantation mapping. Companies use radar imagery in counting oil palm trees to determine the volume that they can output, size of the plantation, proximity to roads and so forth. The synoptic “cloud-free” view provided by the radar imagery makes it ideal for this application. Moreover, mapping from the desktop reduces field costs. They also use elevation data to look at run-off, and use it for predicting slopes and how to irrigate the plantations properly. Having elevation data component is important because in a lot of these regions (where the oil palm plantations are), they have never been able to map slopes, especially not at the high resolution that we offer. We have been working on the oil palm side for 6 to 7 years now in Indonesia.

Also in Southeast Asia, one of our key involvements is in telecom. We have developed a Web-based software technology that can also be installed on desktops, allowing backhaul planning and link-to-link, point-to-point planning. The link-to-link planning uses a line-of-sight that is beneficial in determining the positioning of towers right from the desktop, so no one has to go into the field for that type of analysis. Our team has visited many telecom companies who have expressed a great interest in our technology. Already, we had success in this market sectors in Europe and the US, where it has helped telecom operators cut costs significantly. For example, instead of taking 4-5 days per tower assessment, with NEXTMap and our LinkPro software, the task can be completed in a matter of minutes.

Is Intermap data subject to government restrictions, given its high resolution?
Distributions of high resolution data from a commercial entity like Intermap for a high-resolution data set may or may not have distribution restrictions. Government restrictions vary from country to country. In the US and UK for example, we are not subject to government restrictions. On the other hand, in a country like Malaysia, where there are certain government restrictions, where we work with government-approved distributors to serve up our data. To procure our data, users have to go through these distributors. For example, we are working with a government-approved company Malaysia, called DES, who hosts our data in country. In Indonesia too, the government has expressed keen interest in Web service and this would be a Web service behind their firewall. Europe is well abreast of the licensing model so data restrictions are not an issue there.

You have a production facility in the Asia Pacific region. Can you tell us more about it?
We have a large production facility in Jakarta, Indonesia, staffing about 115 people. Their main workflow is to edit the IFSAR data and to ensure that it is hydro-enforced, seamless, and quality checked.

Having a facility there helps us serve the APAC region better. Users from this region can visit our production facility, understand our processes. For example, we have been working in Indonesia since mid-1980s and we work a lot with BAKOSURTANAL and local companies to transfer technology and equip them with solutions for use with our data. Having a local production facility helps strengthen our ties in the region.

So far we have seen the demand for IfSAR technology mostly coming from the government sector. Are there any initiatives to increase demand from the private sector?
It is true that demand mostly comes from the government side, perhaps about 80 percent of our business. However, we are working towards increasing awareness on the private side, that’s part of our strategy in 2012 as well. Since the private side can find the cost of the entire dataset a little prohibitive at times, we have introduced a concept called group shoots, which is getting together a series of companies – they all have little parts of a collective data that they want. They might not be connected but they might be close enough. We can do one mission and get the data. And then each company pays just for their portion of the data. We are working on this strategy in South America as well. The goal is to get it at a reasonable price so that its win-win for both Intermap and the end user. We believe that the group shoot concept, the ability to transfer technology and the ability to lower the costs will create an environment to improve on the commercial sector side.

What is your future strategy for the Asia Pacific region?
Our focus in the region is on updating our data. Our first official product release was in June 2011, the second will be in November. In Indonesia, we have collected a lot of data over time. We have learned a new processing technique like ICESAT for calibration of datasets collected over time. We have established a system where we are processing all the Indonesia data in our database. For most part it had been a digital surface elevation model and not much by way of the bare earth model. Using ICESAT ground truth data, we have been able to improve the overall quality of the Indonesian data. We are making it homogenous, seamless and hydro-enforced. By November end, we will have a bare earth model for a large part of Indonesia