Win a Copy of Global Mapper in the Where in the World Geo-Challenge

Think you know your way around the world?
Why not take the Blue Marble Geographics‘ Geo-Challenge? Simply identify the five geographic features or locations below and you will be in the running to win a copy of Global Mapper.

Prize | Global Mapper: GIS, only better

With a rapidly expanding worldwide user community, Global Mapper is changing the way people think about GIS. Offering support for over 300 spatial file formats and boasting a surprising collection of powerful data processing and analysis tools, Global Mapper is a viable and genuinely affordable alternative to traditional GIS applications.  So while you’re waiting to see if you are the lucky winner, why not download a trail copy today and see for yourself.

Contest | The Geo-Challenge Happens Every Month

If you miss out this time around, not to worry, Blue Marble is giving away a copy of Global Mapper every month. Check out Blue Marble Monthly for details.

Ready, Set, Go …

View the form at Google Forms >

4DMapper Emphasizes the Importance of Cloud-Based Data Management and the Role Global Mapper SDK Plays in Their Processing Platform

4DMapper is a cloud-based geospatial platform for enterprise, providing customers with workflow tools for asset inspection, virtual surveying, photogrammetry, and geospatial analytics.

The Global Mapper SDK has empowered countless software developers to create a wide array of powerful and innovative geospatial applications and none more so that Australia-based 4DMapper. Recently, Blue Marble teamed up with 4DMapper to produce a video illustrating common workflows in Global Mapper and how they can now be performed in 4DMapper’s cloud-based platform. We also chatted with COO, Paul Douriaguine about the company why they chose the Global Mapper SDK.

What is the story of 4DMapper? What products or services do you offer?

4DMapper is a cloud-based geospatial platform for enterprise, enabling customers’ 3D maps and models with workflow tools for asset inspection, virtual surveying, photogrammetry, and geospatial analytics. It lets you manage, visualize, process, share and collaborate on your geospatial data… all this with just a web browser!

From its early days, 4DMapper’s mission has been to make geospatial data readily accessible to professionals and non-technical decision makers alike. By doing so, we are helping our customers unlock the value of their geospatial data for their enterprises.

4DMapper Pty Ltd is an Australian technology company formed in early 2014 by highly experienced geospatial professionals Rob Klau and Adam Chabok. At the time geospatial data was processed on desktops, required expensive hardware, highly specialist skills to interpret, and was very slow and unwieldy to move around (typical delivery was via hard drive in the mail). The duo recognized a void in effective delivery of geospatial data to people who need it. Joined by a group of elite software engineers (ex-Google lead techs) they’ve developed a platform for streaming these massive files without the need for expensive software or hardware. The First version of 4DMapper was released in July 2015.

4DMapper environment
The 4DMapper environment with tools on the left. 4DMapper offers tools for photogrametry, LiDAR analysis, terrain analysis, and image analysis powered by the Global Mapper SDK.

Can you explain the name? What are the four Ds?

4DMapper is a set of tools and workflows to accurately map our physical world and bring it into the powerful world of virtual surveying and 3D asset inspection, geospatial analytics, artificial intelligence, and big data.

As for the “D”s – the first three “D”s are the dimensions of our physical world, accurately represented via absolute geospatial coordinates. The fourth “D” is to capture the change or variability of the world, being as it changes over time (e.g. repeat inspection of a mining site or building rooftops), change of a particular attribute of real-life objects (e.g. corrosion or fault detection on cell towers) or some other variability of metadata about the real-life object (e.g. pattern recognition in mineral exploration, NDVI analysis in agriculture, geospatial analytics in mapping and surveying applications)

4DMapper's Layer Manager
A 3D model of a crash site in 4DMapper’s layer manager environment.

Why do you think it is important to be able to manage geospatial data on the cloud?

There are many reasons for cloud’s growing popularity. The three most important ones in our view are:

  • The Cloud empowers – elastic computing and infinitely scalable data storage removes the need for expensive software and hardware driving significant savings for the businesses
  • The Cloud connects – it’s ability to facilitate business transactions creates numerous win-win opportunities and drives growth for geospatial providers and their customers
  • The Cloud enables – it makes data readily available to people who need it when they need it, thus unlocking the value of geospatial data and insights for enterprises

When did you first become aware of Global Mapper?

Like many other geospatial professionals we have grown with Global Mapper, first came across it at university when doing surveying / photogrammetry / remote sensing degrees many years ago, have been using it ever since.

Why did you choose the Global Mapper SDK to provide 3D data manipulation tools to your users?

Global Mapper provides a set of powerful tools, and it has been a de-facto industry standard and a tool of choice for many professionals for decades. When we looked at the options – the choice was obvious.

Processing Services in 4DMapper
The Processing Services dialogue box in 4DMapper shows the photogrammetry, LiDAR analysis, terrain analysis, and image analysis tools that are powered by the Global Mapper SDK.

Your website talks about how 4DMapper was conceived in response to the lack of affordable and effective ways to deliver geospatial data to people who need it. What are some of the challenges you faced in the GIS industry leading up to the first release of 4DMapper in 2015? And what challenges are you facing today?

4DMapper was conceived to tackle a major problem of efficient delivery of large geospatial data to people who needed it. When the first version of 4DMapper was developed and released in 2015, we quickly came to the realization that it was some years ahead of its time and the market wasn’t quite ready for it. The cloud offering was immature slowing its adoption by conservative industries such as mining, building and construction, insurance, and government. At that point in time, most of the serious geospatial software was still available on desktops only, cloud processing was a novel idea with no major vendors offering cloud-based photogrammetry or analytics services. 4DMapper’s team has worked with some of the major vendors assisting them with the development of their cloud offerings.

The world of geospatial has moved on since those days. Cloud is becoming well accepted not only for data storage but for processing alike. However, a new challenge has emerged in that the advancements in geospatial data acquisition technologies seem to be outpacing data management and processing capabilities creating a so-called data deluge. Now the penny has dropped, and the fast-growing demand for information is driving the increased requirement for keeping geospatial data management tools simple and intuitive.  Luckily, 4DMapper’s approach to working with geospatial data was exactly that – usability has been a primary concern to keep the tools simple and intuitive yet sophisticated and powerful. These days there is a proliferation of point solutions, multiple unconnected tools, highlighting a need for an enterprise-grade geospatial platform.

Contours Generated by Processing Service
Contours overlaying this 3D model were generated using a service powered by the Global Mapper SDK.

What Global Mapper SDK functionality do you think is, or will be, most useful or popular among your users?

The whole suite… that’s the nature of Global Mapper, it’s not just one tool – it’s a professionals’ toolbox. 4DMapper would like to make most Global Mapper functionality available on our platform. So far we only released a small subset of Global Mapper tools as a pilot. We are looking for feedback on what you would like to see prioritized for the upcoming releases.

Can you share an interesting or surprising project that you’ve seen your platform used for?

We don’t get to see the data our customers host on 4DMapper. Our customer data always belongs to them, we recognize the importance of data ownership and take data security and privacy very seriously. Unless our customer’s share their projects with us, we don’t have visibility of them.

Having said that, one of our recent projects that went viral when the customer shared it on social media was a beautiful 3D model of a Fire Department training center. The mesh model was created using Bentley Context Capture, a data format natively supported by 4DMapper (we also support Agisoft, Autodesk, and soon Pix4D models). When posted on LinkedIn the project instantly gained a lot of eyeballs for its accuracy, elegancy, and a visual appeal.

We have many other interesting projects that have been shared with us by the customers from all walks of life – large mining sites, agriculture farms, rooftop inspections, powerlines, bridges, offshore oil and gas platforms, critical infrastructure, and large scale high-accuracy 3D models of major cities. 4DMapper is a scalable enterprise platform for managing a wide variety of geospatial data.

How do you see the integration of the Global Mapper SDK into your online platform impacting your future business development?

Integrating Global Mapper SDK is a major step toward realizing our vision of building an ecosystem that would connect geospatial professionals and facilitate business transactions. Only launched as a pilot, Global Mapper tools already generating interest from our existing customers. We can only imagine what it will be like when more Global Mapper tools are made available on 4DMapper.

What do you think the future of geospatial data processing and delivery looks like?

Geospatial is again a rapidly evolving industry. We don’t have a crystal ball to predict the future, but there are some trends we are seeing that are likely to continue and accelerate:

  • 3D is rapidly becoming a new norm, so is cloud-based delivery and collaboration
  • majority of geospatial data will be stored on the cloud, data processing will undoubtedly follow suit and move to the cloud too
  • simplicity and usability will be a major requirement as geospatial data gets higher adoption and becomes more relied on by non-technical decision makers

Blue Marble and 4DMapper Collaborate

Recently 4DMapper and Blue Marble Geographics collaborated on an online webcast. A recording of this presentation is available here.

For more information on 4DMapper or to sign up for a free trial, visit

Where in the World Geo-Challenge – March 2018

View the form at Google Forms >

Global Mapper Licenses and You!: Single User and Network Licenses

Illustration by Chelsea Ellis
How do you choose what Global Mapper license is best for you? It’s simple. All you have to do is ask yourself a few quick questions.

Congratulations, you have decided to evaluate Global Mapper! You know that Global Mapper will be a great addition to your GIS workflow, but now you face a decision; what kind of license do you need? We can help you find a license solution that will work best for you! Who are we? We are Carrie and Rachael, sales support specialists and unofficial license gurus. So, we know when it comes to selecting a license solution there are a few questions that you need to ask yourself: How many computers do I need to license? Do I need to access the software remotely? Do I want to share the software with co-workers?

How many computers will the software be on?

A seemingly simple question can save you time and money. If you are purchasing the software for yourself, and the license will reside on one computer, then a single-user license, sometimes called a node-locked license may be the best option for you!

Illustration by Chelsea Ellis
How many computers will the software be on? If you are purchasing the software for yourself, and the license will reside on one computer, then a single user license may be the best option for you.

The single-user, machine locked license is registered to one computer. The license itself is written to your computer’s Ethernet port (using the MAC ID, must be static). However, if you have a Windows 2-in-1 laptop or tablet you may have difficulty licensing your computer. This is because some of these devices might not have a stable Ethernet port. Should you encounter this problem, please contact our licensing team at

If you have a single machine license and need to move it to another computer, there is a license removal tool you must use in order to generate the proper removal code needed to complete this process. This process can be automated; both the old and new machines must be connected to the internet during the removal or activation process. This allows your computer and the application to properly and quickly communicate with our licensing server. If you re-image your machine, perform an operating system upgrade, and/or change hardware, please properly remove the license BEFORE any updates are made. Please note that remote desktop (RDP/RDS) is incompatible with a single user license. If you are looking to utilize RDP/RDS, our network server licenses are compatible with this functionality.  The single machine license can be moved twice per year.

If you need to frequently move the license or share it with others, keep reading for more licensing solutions.

How many people will need access to the software?

Do you work with multiple Global Mapper users who need to concurrently access the software? Are they all in one office? Are they at different locations? Do they work from home on a remote desktop? Do you have a limited budget and want to get the most software? If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, then a network license may be the answer for you! Network licenses are sold with a minimum of two seats. In other words, while everyone in your company can install the software, only two users can use it any one time. We haven’t run into a maximum seat limit yet so if you need 100 seats, not a problem!

Global Mapper network licenseIllustration by Chelsea Ellis
The network license can be shared not only internally but also across office locations and the seat count is the number of concurrent licenses (users) that can be utilized at one time.

Network Licenses are a convenient and flexible way to manage a pool of licenses. Network licenses are designed to provide broad access to the software where an individual license will usually serve only one person. The network license can serve one or as many as you like depending on how frequently they use Global Mapper. The network license can be shared not only internally but also across office locations and the seat count is the number of concurrent licenses (users) that can be utilized at one time. Heading out of the office? Not a problem, the network license comes with a convenient borrow feature that allows for a license to be “checked out” and used off the network for a set period of up to 90 days. When that expires the license is automatically returned to the server. This feature is perfect for business trips, going out in the field, working from a ship, temporary employees or a vacation. Yes, you can even take Global Mapper on your vacation. Network administrators love this option as there is only one file to maintain and update. No need to track individuals or physical hardware.

If you are thinking to yourself, “these options are not what I am looking for,” that is okay! Blue Marble has four different licensing types, so we have two more options for you to choose from. In our next post we will be covering the USB Dongle and the Single Floating licenses (portable or virtual license with extreme flexibility).

If you want to learn more about how our license options can provide the best return on your investment please contact use directly, we love to talk about licensing! Send an email to .

Carrie Strauch and Rachael Landry
Carrie Strauch and Rachael Landry

Carrie Strauch and Rachael Landry are the unofficial license guru’s and the official Sales Support team. Together they bring over 30 years of customer service expertise to Blue Marble. They are the people you are most likely to work with when you call or email our office, and they are always ready to answer questions.

A Brief History of Global Mapper Part I

Global Mapper Disco Logo
The Global Mapper logo before the 2016 redesign is lovingly called the “disco logo” at the Blue Marble office.

In the beginning…

As a Global Mapper user, have you ever contemplated the important role that the release of Windows 95 had in the early development of your favorite GIS application? I thought not! There’s a strong possibility that many of you readers were but a twinkle in your parents’ eyes when Bill Gates and his cohorts borrowed a classic Rolling Stones number and awkwardly frolicked around the stage while our Windows 95 computers beseeched us to “Start Me Up”.

It seems that the folks at the USGS were looking past the ungainly dancing and paying close attention to this personal computing innovation. The newly revamped, graphics-friendly computers now sitting on everyone’s desks were the inspiration that the agency needed to embark on a project to develop a freeware application for viewing their burgeoning collection of data. The lead developer on this project, which would culminate in a product entitled dlgv32, was a certain Mike Childs, whose name would become synonymous with Global Mapper over the subsequent two decades.

If the truth be told, dlgv32 is not a name that smoothly rolls off the tongue, but there is a certain 1990s logic to the moniker.

DLG = Digital Line Graph was the name given to the USGS vector data files

V = Viewer 

32 = 32-bit operating system which the application supported

Compared to today’s Global Mapper, dlgv32, which was released in June of 1997, was bare-bones, to say the least. Supporting just one file format and with no analysis, editing, or even exporting capability, it really lived up to the “V” in its name. It was a viewer. That’s all. Nonetheless, dlgv32 was a resounding success. According to USGS statistics, the application was downloaded on average 100 times each day with a total of 60,000 copies in circulation after the first two years.

Just a month after version 1.0 was released, version 1.5 was completed boasting support for the USGS DRG data, the agency’s raster topographic maps. This rapid functional upgrade was the first example of what would later become one of the defining characteristics of Global Mapper: its continual state of development.

An elevation grid in dlgv32 Pro

Dlgv32 Evolves into Global Mapper

Subsequent releases of dlgv32 added support for newly available USGS terrain datasets, including the option to apply a shader to represent variations in elevation. They also introduced an innovative and, at the time, unique reprojection function that applied the active projection parameters to all data layers as they are loaded — a function that users of the current release of Global Mapper still appreciate.

With this enhanced functionality and expanding format support, it became clear to the folks at the USGS that dlgv32 was developing beyond the agency’s original directive, so they made the decision to release the source code for commercial development. Who better to take up the mantle than Mike Childs?

Basic digitizing in dlgv32 Pro

Spurred on by the fact that tens of thousands of satisfied downloaders were already using dlgv32, Mike recognized the potential market for an advanced version of the software and so began the real story of Global Mapper.

It is worth recalling the nature of the GIS industry at the time. As a technical discipline, GIS very much belonged in the hands of a relatively small group of highly skilled and trained people. Applications such as Global Mapper, into which dlgv32 would soon evolve, succeeded in opening the field of spatial technology to an increasingly wider audience.

September 2001 saw the release of dlgv32 Pro for the modest price of $79. More significantly, it opened the door for Mike to independently address the needs and requirements of the growing user community and to create software in direct reaction to customer input, with no bureaucratic overseers. Technically this first commercial release was version 4.0, a numeric naming sequence that continues to this day.

Early Highlights of Global Mapper

Over subsequent releases, many of the capabilities that were seen in today’s Global Mapper were sequentially introduced:

Global Mapper HistoryChelsea E | Projections

After just three years of focused development, Global Mapper had already begun to gain considerable attention in the GIS community, not only within the U.S. but throughout the world. This occurred in spite of the fact that there was no formal marketing or proactive business development effort. Most early users cited word-of-mouth recommendations from colleagues or clients as the primary reason that they initially found out about the software.

These early users were also instrumental in steering the continued evolution of Global Mapper. Reacting to requests from individuals, Mike would often create an update to the software and deliver a unique build to the requester, often within a few hours of the initial contact. This was a mutually beneficial arrangement: Mike was able to develop functionality that specifically targeted the needs and requirements of a particular industry, and was able to lean on the requester to test the new functionality before it was incorporated into the general release version. The requester benefited from the fact that they received a version of Global Mapper that was customized to meet their needs. While Global Mapper has matured considerably since these early years and now follows a more formal development process, this underlying reactionary development philosophy is still prevalent today.

In part two of this Brief History of Global Mapper, we highlight the milestones from 2005 to the acquisition of Global Mapper by Blue Marble Geographics in late 2011.

David McKittrick is a Senior Application Specialist at Blue Marble Geographics in Hallowell, Maine.  A graduate of the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland, McKittrick has spent over 25 years in the field of GIS and mapping, focusing on the application and implementation spatial technology. McKittrick has designed and delivered hundreds of GIS training classes, seminars, and presentations and has authored dozens of articles and papers for a variety industry and trade publications.

Blue Marble Monthly – November 2017 GIS Newsletter

Satellite Imagery

Product News, User Stories, Events, and a Chance to Win a Copy of Global Mapper Every Month

After the Global Mapper 19 release, Blue Marble refocuses its efforts on the next item on the docket — the LiDAR Module. In November’s newsletter, we give users a sneak peek of what to expect from the upcoming release of the module. We also take a look at what happens behind the scenes of software development, such as the “foils and follies” of collecting drone imagery described in a blog entry by Blue Marble President, Patrick Cunningham. Finally, and as always, we challenge your geographic knowledge in the Where in the World Geo-Challenge with a brand new copy of Global Mapper 19 up for grabs for the lucky winner.

LiDAR data

Product News | Drone Imagery to Point Cloud

The saying “you usually have to wait for that which is worth waiting for” couldn’t be more true for the version 19 release of the Global Mapper LiDAR Module. Since its introduction in version 15 the LiDAR Module has offered an increasingly powerful set of tools for editing, classifying, and extracting features from LiDAR and other point cloud formats.

The pending release of the version 19 edition will elevate the module to the next level by offering a simple tool for generating a dense point cloud from overlapping imagery. Tailor-made for the rapidly emerging professional UAV market, this powerful feature was previewed at the recent Commercial UAV Expo in Las Vegas and received universal acclaim.

Keep an eye on your inbox for an announcement about the availability of the Module.

Drone at Blue Marble headquarters

Projections | Foils and Follies of Drone Data Collection

Recently, the Blue Marble team took on the challenge of collecting drone imagery of their headquarters for the purpose of testing some exciting new features coming soon to Global Mapper. Stepping into the fairly new commercial UAV field comes with a handful of lessons and hurdles, from actually flying the drone to understanding legal and safety concerns. In this blog entry, Blue Marble Geographics President, Patrick Cunningham describes the most important lesson learned from the team’s UAV experience — things don’t always go as planned.


Hyperlinks in Global Mapper

Did You Know? | Hyperlinks in Global Mapper

Did you know that Global Mapper offers a tool for embedding a hyperlink within any point, line, or polygon, allowing you to associate an external file or even a website with a defined geographic location? The linked file or files are accessed using the Feature Info tool and will trigger the launch of whatever software is associated with that file type. Adding a link can be done manually by typing the file path or URL as an attribute value when creating or editing a vector feature, or by clicking the Add File Link(s) button in the Modify Feature Info dialog box. For a creative and extremely useful application of this functionality, try linking to a Global Mapper workspace file from a point feature that has been placed at the location of the corresponding job site or project location. This a great way to streamline data management by providing one-click access to all of your workspaces in a single reference map.


Screenshot of Attribute Editor

Webinars | What’s New in Global Mapper 19

Our latest webinar, which was recorded live in October, showcases the highlights of Global Mapper 19.

As with all previous releases, version 19 includes numerous functional enhancements and performance improvements throughout many areas of the software. Among the specific topics covered in the webinar were:

  • New Attribute Editor
  • Interactive Hillshade Control
  • Drag and drop window docking
  • 3D Viewer improvements
  • New online data sources
  • Several new built-in raster calculation formulas
  • And much more

This and previous Blue Marble Webinars and Webcasts can be viewed at Blue Marble YouTube Channel and on the Webinars page on the Blue Marble web site.


November 2017 Geo-Challenge

Where in the World Geo-Challenge

Thank you to all who submitted an entry in October’s Where in the World Geo-Challenge. Check out the answers here. The randomly drawn winner and the recipient of a copy of Global Mapper is Ian James from HiSeis Pty Ltd. This month, in response to several comments that the challenge is “too easy”, we upped the ante just a little. A copy of Global Mapper is being offered to the winner so why not take the challenge.


See complete terms and conditions here. 


GEO1 Hangar

BMUC LA Rescheduled | Conference to be Held in June

Due to reasons beyond our control, the Blue Marble User Conference planned forNovember 15 at the Hawthorne Municipal Airport in Los Angeles had to be rescheduled to June 8, 2018. The conference will be held in partnership with GEO1 and will include an onsite drawing for attendees to win a helicopter tour of the city. At the end of the event, winners will accompany GEO1 technicians on a flight over LA as they simulate their aerial data collection workflow. Space is limited, so sign up today. Look out for announcements about the BMUC 2018 locations and schedule.

Upcoming Events

Visit Blue Marble at the following events:

Fall Northeast Arc User Group Conference | Newport, RI | November 5 – 8

Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference (I/ITSEC) | Orlando, FL | November 27 – December 1

GeoData 2017 London Showcase | London, UK | November 30

Where in the World October 2017 Answers

Name the country – Djibouti













Name the river – The St. Lawrence River

The St. Lawrence River












Name the island – Borneo












Name the capital city – Lisbon












Name the mountain range – The Pyrenees
The Pyrenees

What’s in a Name? | The North American Terrestrial Reference Frame of 2022 is Replacing NAD83

Four new reference frames of 2022Chelsea Ellis

There are going to be four new reference frames that will be introduced in 2022: One each for the Continental US/Canada/Mexico; the Mariana [tectonic] plate; the Pacific plate; and the Caribbean, each with similarly abbreviated names.

For the past five years, the folks at the National Geodetic Survey (NGS) have been speaking at events around the country and around the internet about the 10-year plan under which they are operating. Among the items on the list are a few that we in the geospatial industry need to start thinking about. We’ve been hearing presentations on GRAV-D, HTDP Replacement, NSRS Modernization, and many other acronyms. A couple months ago, there was a new one: NATRF2022. This was one of the main takeaways from the NGS Geospatial Summit, held in Silver Springs, Maryland near the agency’s headquarters. The NGS folks say NATRF2022 as “Nat-reff” in a way that makes you think “National Reference but that’s not actually what it stands for. Let’s dig in.

Why Terrestrial Reference Frame and not Datum?

NATREF2022 stands for “North American Terrestrial Reference Frame of 2022”. It is going to be the new national reference, replacing NAD83. So why “Terrestrial Reference Frame”, and not “Datum”? On the NGS web site, the page that has all the information about the new systems is titled “New Datums”, so one might infer that they mean pretty much the same thing; they do. The difference is at an academic level. Geodesy is an interesting field because there are subtle nuances to word definitions, and slight differences to how those words are used in other mathematical sciences such as geometry. “Datum” in a mathematical sense, is simply a singular form of “data”. In geodesy, this indicates a single point from which to begin measurement in a relative measure. Classically, our geodetic datums are formed from the location of a single place of reference such as an astronomical observatory. In modern systems, they are formed by a network of points that are geometrically related into a single collective, a sum of many parts, rather than relying on the single point as an anchor definition. So rather than defining it by a single point out of many, it is recognized as a geometric network, and the reference that network provides is a Geometric Reference Frame.

I’m going to say it: Conceptually, a geometric reference frame is just a new datum.

To the GIS practitioner, map maker, or surveyor, they provide the starting point and context for our relative descriptions of location. Geometric Reference Frame is currently the popular term in geodesy. It is academically appropriate and conveniently serves as a way to make the new name different from the old, which in this case I can get behind. Can you imagine reading someone’s sloppy handwritten field notes of NAD27 vs NAD22? It would invite disaster. Sometimes, change for the sake of change is not a bad thing. So aside from a mouthful, what are we getting?

From “Fixed” to Time-Based Reference Frames

There are actually going to be four new reference frames: One each for the Continental US/Canada/Mexico; the Mariana [tectonic] plate; the Pacific plate; and the Caribbean, each with similarly abbreviated names. We’ve never had that kind of unified coverage before, so that’s pretty cool. Each of these frames will be plate-fixed, but also, at the time of realization, geocentric. This gets right to the heart of why this is happening now. As it turns out, NAD83 wasn’t as geocentric as intended when it was created. That is to say, the middle of the datum should theoretically have been at the geocenter but it wasn’t; it was off by about two meters.

NAD83 diagramChelsea Ellis
The middle of the datum NAD83 should theoretically have been at the geocenter when it was created, but it wasn’t. It was actually off by about two meters. As tectonic plates moved over time, the effect of this offset grew and could no longer be ignored.

Over time, with tectonic motion, the effect of this offset grew and its effect on surface positions could no longer be ignored. What does that mean? Well, most of our positioning work in modern times is done based on GNSS devices (Global Navigation Satellite System), GNSS by nature is geocentric since the positions are calculated from satellites which orbit the center of mass of the planet. If our national reference frame is not geocentrically related, then it is not directly compatible with GNSS. As motion continues into the future, the new models will acknowledge this and will dynamically change over time following the rotations and motions of the plates. This is necessary because if we are working on the surface of a plate that is moving relative to the geocenter, we need to track that motion if our survey devices stay with the geocenter. So once again, the new models are fundamentally different from the old and a significantly different name will really help to acknowledge that. This is going to require a new mindset for a lot of GIS users. Right now, many still deal with coordinates in “fixed” reference frames where we may acknowledge a reference epoch (date), but that date isn’t actually used for anything other than metadata. Time-based coordinates are inevitable in the future, so it’s time to start getting comfortable with them.

One question I heard directed to the NGS at the Summit was along the lines of, “If we’re just going to have to update again in a few years, why don’t you fix the problem at 2022 so we don’t have to deal with it again?” The problem here is not with the system that needs to be updated (with the implication being that it is flawed now), but in our understanding of the system we’re moving to. We are currently using a system in which we don’t acknowledge that things move and a lot of people have come up through their careers comfortable with there being a fixed relationship between any two given coordinate systems. We are moving to a system where time is not only a factor, but is fully acknowledged as necessary in a moving system. Data epoch is no longer optional. We need to know where our data was and when it was there in order to know where it is a few years later.

Under the hood of this new name NATRF2022, we are adding an entire dimension of measurement, and that’s far more exciting than adding a few new words in the name of the datum.

Preparing for the New Reference Frames of 2022

Over the next few years, we will need to make a few fundamental changes to GIS in order to be ready. First and foremost, we need to make sure our colleagues are comfortable with the new terminology and the concepts of time itself as being an important part of position. After the new systems are in place, we will likely also have new projected coordinate reference systems to deal with. It is very likely that we will have new versions of the US State Plane coordinate system zones. Furthermore, many states are undergoing a push to support new Low Distortion Projections such as the efforts in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Oregon, Iowa, and others.  With 4 new plate models, we’re also going to have new Coordinate Transformations to relate them to each other and the older systems, the new reference frames will require it.

As a key player in the geospatial software industry, Blue Marble is already working on changes to our software in preparation for the upcoming new reference frames. Much of this will be invisible in our tools for the time being, while other components are already there, such as epoch settings, transformations that are not stuck to WGS84, and the ability to dynamically bring in new parameters to the database. We have been paying attention and are ready for the coming changes and will strive to help our users be ready, too, as we all learn exactly what these new reference frames will look like over the next five years. As an industry, we have grown very comfortable and perhaps complacent with our systems and transformations in the US for some time. Change is coming, and the time to prepare is now.

Sam Knight

Sam Knight is the Director of Product Management for Blue Marble Geographics. With Blue Marble for over 13 years, Sam has lead hundreds of GIS and Geodetics courses and is a frequent speaker at industry conferences, trying to make tricky geodetics concepts accessible at a practical level.