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Mainstreaming Photogrammetry

Stanton H. MOLL
International Sales Manager
DAT/EM Systems International
8240 Sandlewood Place Suite #101
Anchorage, AK 99507-3122
[email protected]

One of the consequences of the ongoing digital revolution is that faster, better, and cheaper computers continue to arrive on peoples’ desks. A corollary of this is that software to take advantage of this power is also becoming available, and it is smarter, faster, and easier to use than ever before. But this tide of change is not just lots more of the same. It means a whole new way of doing business.

People are using software to expand the domain of their expertise and to perform tasks they would never have done before. This has profound implications to the traditional consultant/client relationship as clients find it easier to perform for themselves what were once difficult, dangerous, or impossible tasks.

Many years ago, when kriging was a relatively new concept, there was a company that specialized in geostatistical software. They were a leader in their field, and their software was widely regarded as high quality, accurate, and full-function. It also ran on mainframes (PCs were in their infancy) and was difficult to use. It required a trained statistician to operate the software and interpret the results.

The developers realized this. One day they told me their goal was to remove all human decision-making from the process. Incredulous, I couldn’t believe a mere computer could make the educated decisions necessary to perform a reliable analysis.

They were on target, and sooner than I could have imagined. Now geostatistics is a mainstream technology, available as a component in image processing and GIS packages. The technology can be run by non-specialists: Geochemists. Foresters. GIS Analysts. And the original company succeeded so completely they are now completely unrecognizable.

In a very real sense, everyone wins from this advance. The price for quality software has declined by two orders of magnitude. A complex, sophisticated, and powerful tool is available to intelligent non-specialists. Your GIS technician can do in four hours what previously took a PhD in statistics four weeks.

There are some downsides, also. Errors are more likely to be made by non-specialists; software errors are less likely to be caught; recognizing and extracting subtle features is more unlikely. Sometimes legal certification is required.

Now, substitute photogrammetry for statistics and see if this story resonates. It should, because see the same things are happening in this field. Good, smart, inexpensive software is overtaking the trained photogrammetric technician and turning their domain into a mainstream technology accessible to a more general audience.

Downward pressure on the costs of software is coupled with inexorable improvement in its capabilities. This is itself due in part to increases in hardware metrics – speed, memory, bandwidth – and in large part to both smarter and more muscular software. We have better math, better algorithms, and we also are getting better at using the better hardware.

Another influence that is rapidly changing our ability to deploy digital techniques is the very lively transition from analog data sources to digital sources: LiDAR, radar, digital optical cameras, high-resolution satellites, GPS and inertial measurement units. These data, because they are already digital, are more convenient and more well-suited to digital treatment. What is easier than measuring fiducial mark? Not having to measure fiducial marks.

Software, hardware, and data all work together to make our jobs easier. We can do automated aerotriangulation and automated terrain generation; automated feature identification and classification is getting pretty good. Our own costs are coming down and so the clients’ costs are coming down, too. Isn’t the tide rising, raising us with it? Why don’t we all celebrate?

Because a rising tide raises all boats. Our clients are able to perform many of the tasks that they previously required us for. They, too, can create beautiful orthophotos and finesse the feature classification. Our own clients are competing with us! Shouldn’t we be upset?
No. There are three primary reasons why:

  • The domain is becoming more widespread and the photogrammetrist will find employment in non-traditional ways. The mathematical and spatial skills owned by a practitioner are “transferable skills” that may be used in innovative ways. Brain surgeons use screws drilled into a patient’s skull as control points to map their operations – realtime. Movie special effects use photogrammetry to paint a face onto a wireframe – an orthophoto in reverse.
  • There is increased public awareness of geographic information through such means as Google Earth and Microsoft Live. People want current, spatially accurate planimetry and addresses when are looking at driving instructions.
  • And the most importantly: our clients still need us. They are our partners as well as competitors. Most would rather do their own jobs than ours also. Clients will still demand aerial photography. However, instead of specifying contact prints and planimetry they will demand properly oriented digital stereomodels. They themselves will perform the domain analysis, whether engineering, geology, forestry, or urban planning, on digital softcopy workstations.

So the good news is that the inexorable march of the digital revolution brings new opportunities for awareness, quality, and partnering with one’s clients. It’s just that everything will be completely different.