It seems that major innovation affecting the GIS industry happens in waves. In my time at Blue Marble Geographics®, I have seen the advent of LiDAR in everyday GIS, the acquisition and subsequent public release of Google Earth, the growth of open source GIS, and the proliferation of smartphones, which put GPS in the hands of virtually everyone. We are currently riding two separate waves; one for enterprise GIS and one for drone or UAV-data collecting and processing.
Enterprise GIS: data sharing and accessibility
By “enterprise GIS” we mean the ability to share not only GIS data easily and fluidly across an organization but also the ability for those users to conduct analysis on that data even if GIS is outside of their area of expertise. There are large, expensive, “stack”-focused commercial solutions available for this. However, thanks to Google, AWS, and other easy-to-use free or low-cost web GIS tools, products like Global Mapper® are able to enable that process relatively seamlessly with an everyday GIS perspective.
Enterprise GIS will continue to expand as GIS and general software users and managers innovate with the available toolsets they have access to. Many users are seeing that this does not have to be an expensive, overbearing process thanks to the surge in open source GIS and cell phone technology.
Drone-captured imagery and data processing
For the GIS analyst or professional surveyor, the more likely place for innovation from technology will be on the drone or UAV data collecting and processing side.
The advent of low-cost drones has been a boon to the average surveyor over the past years. Many surveyors dove headfirst into the process of becoming an FAA certified pilot so they could expand their business or add value to their company by collecting high-resolution imagery with drones. The improvements in the ability of GIS software like Global Mapper and Pix4D to process this imagery into derivative products such as point clouds, orthoimages, and meshes has created a great symbiotic relationship between user and vendor. These GIS professionals are pushing vendors to innovate their software solutions far beyond 2D GIS. It was not that long ago that the concept of automatically processing raster data into vectors was a pipe dream. … Now, that is yesterday.
This area of GIS is enabling the everyday GIS professional to collect better, more compelling data in ways they could never afford to dream of just a few years ago. 2020 will see more ways to process and output various data products related to this area. Look for improvements in 3D products and in the accuracy of data sets in positioning and resolution as well.
Upcoming changes to NATRF 2022
Speaking of accuracy, surveyors and GIS professionals will be able to begin the process of converting legacy data and enabling new data collection to be compliant with NOAA’s National Geodetic Survey’s upcoming change to NATRF 2022.
This new spatial reference frame will replace NAD83 and NAVD88 changing from a focus on latitude, longitude and height in coordinate reference frames (aka coordinate systems to many users) to a focus on scale, gravity and orientation, and their time variations. This new system will reduce errors and increase the accuracy of geospatial data. GIS analysts’ and surveyors’ unique knowledge and skill with highly accurate geospatial data processing will be tested, and required, in order to make compliant datasets. Internationally we will see more government entities embrace time-dependent datum transformation models as we are able to more readily deal with local shifts in the Earth’s surface and makeup.
Accurate data translation is not going away but will silently continue to remain important in the background of everyday GIS. It will be interesting to see how successfully the experts enable the novices to engage in GIS while retaining its underlying scientific power in 2020.
So, there might be a chance that you haven’t actually heard of this event. That’s ok! I’m writing this to convince you that, whether you are a Blue Marble software user or not, you should know about this conference.
Here are the five reasons why you should join us at the Blue Marble User Conference next year:
1. I’m there! … and Global Mapper architects, developers, and experts are too
Yes, I’m there running around taking pictures and recording video (and eating the food), but what’s more valuable to you are the software developers and resellers who are there to hear your questions and requests.
This particular Blue Marble User Conference was especially valuable because the Global Mapper guru Mike Childs and our international resellers were there. After the day’s presentations and software demonstrations were over, Mike answered questions and heard software suggestions from attendees while our product manager jotted down the ideas.
It’s a part of Blue Marble’s core values to welcome and encourage users to be part of the development process. That user-to-developer communication is usually in the form of emails, but at a Blue Marble conference, users can communicate directly with the experts and know their ideas will make it to a discussion in our development meetings.
2. You will be inspired by presentations from distinguished GIS professionals
Did you know that scientists know more about the surfaces of Mars and the moon than they do of the Earth’s ocean floor – aka 75% of the world’s surface? I didn’t.
At this Blue Marble User Conference, Larry Mayer, Director of the School of Marine Science and Ocean Engineering and Director of the Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping at the University of New Hampshire (phew! Long title!), delivered a presentation on the advancements in sonar and visualization technology for exploring the sea floor. He explained how the technology has helped in the discovery of 3,000-meter high mountains in the Arctic, D-day wrecks, the behavior of whales, and the history of climate through the impact of ice on the sea floor. He touted that investing in more ocean research would help us, people of the world, gain a better understanding of our planet.
Our second keynote speaker and CEO of Aerial Filmworks, Ron Chapple took attendees from exploring the deep with Larry to examining the Earth from above. Ron talked about the challenges that came with producing the Pulitzer Prize-winning documentary “The Wall”, which analyzes the impact of the proposed wall along the border between the U.S. and Mexico. His role in the project was to shoot aerial footage, over which he highlighted the location of the 2,000-mile long border using Global Mapper.
I was surprised to learn how difficult it was for the team of “The Wall” to accurately represent the curvy U.S.-Mexico border in the video.
My point is that BMUC includes amazing presentations by distinguished GIS professionals that give insight into projects that are relevant to the industry today.
3. You will leave smarter and gain Global Mapper “Tips and Tricks”
In between presentations at this year’s BMUC, Senior Applications Specialist David McKittrick took a few minutes to share some “tips and tricks” on how to use Global Mapper. The tips ranged from how to use the multiview display, smooth contours, view data in Google Earth, and create a terrain cutaway.
David also presented on the recent release of Global Mapper 20 and the LiDAR Module, which offers streamlined map layout tools, the ability to create a point cloud from a 3D mesh, a new eyedropper tool for selecting features, dramatically faster loading speeds for working with vector files, and a lot more.
All of these demonstrations were followed by an opportunity for attendees to ask questions that would help them apply these techniques to their own projects.
4. You will eat with other GIS professionals and have a chance to win a prize
Throughout the day, drinks and snacks were available, and at noon we provided lunch. During lunch, we challenged our attendees to participate in a Where in the World Geo-Challenge, in which they were asked to guess the names of geographic features in a slideshow.
At this year’s BMUC, we came prepared with a tiebreaker question, since we expected that a room full of GIS professionals would easily be able to guess all of the features correctly. The winner of the challenge went home with a gift card to the Blue Marble Emporium.
5. You will spend only $25 to attend
So why wouldn’t you attend BMUC if it’s only $25 for a day full of GIS presentations, networking, and lunch?!
They had me at “lunch”, so … I’m not sure why you wouldn’t register.
Stay tuned for future Blue Marble User Conferences
All jokes aside, BMUC truly has a lot to offer GIS professionals, even if you aren’t a user of Blue Marble software. From the insights of our keynote speakers, to the latest software developments and one-on-one interactions with our experts, BMUC is a great opportunity to connect with Blue Marble staff, have a direct impact on the software you use, and to network with members of the GIS community.
Chelsea Ellis is Graphics and Content Coordinator at Blue Marble Geographics. Her responsibilities range from creating the new button graphics for the redesigned interface of Global Mapper 18 to editing promotional videos; from designing print marketing material to scheduling social media posts. Prior to joining the Blue Marble team, Ellis worked in graphic design at Maine newspapers, and as a freelance photographer.
The What’s New list in Global Mapper 20 reflects the increasing importance of 3D data visualization and processing, with numerous new tools for working with point clouds, 3D meshes, 3D vector features, and terrain models. In the latest Global Mapper webinar, we showcase some of the highlights of this release.
Among the specific topics covered in the webinar are:
Did you catch Global Mapper on television over the summer? In an episode of the Travel Channel show, “Expedition Unknown,” the production crew visited Guatemala in search of Mayan Ruins. A team from LiDARUSA, longtime Global Mapper users, were also involved in the project, collecting LiDAR data for the Mirador Basin Project. Using a combination of drones and helicopters, the data was collected and processed, revealing an uncharted Mayan causeway. As you will see in the footage below, Global Mapper was used to classify bare earth and to view the model that was generated.
No need to worry about this brief cameo going to our heads, the “As Seen On TV” people won’t let us use their logo.
A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool. -William Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act 5, Scene 1
With any new endeavor, you often start out with little idea of the depth of your lack of knowledge until you get going. Last year, as we started working with drone imagery for the Pixels-to-Points tool here at Blue Marble, we realized we were going to need to actually do our own flying to really generate the kinds of quality testing data we wanted to be working with for developing structure-from-motion tools and other new processes that take advantage of drone generated data. To fly commercially, we knew we needed a Part 107 certified remote pilot on staff and after some discussion we decided that I would become that pilot. We all knew there was a knowledge test involved and that it would be a good idea to take a prep course, but we were at the point where we didn’t know what we didn’t know.
Luckily, we are about a mile from the University of Maine at Augusta, which happens to be developing an Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) program within the Aviation department. We had met Dan Leclair, one of the flight instructors, at a local conference and realized we had some knowledge to exchange. He and Greg Jolda, another of the instructors, came over to the Blue Marble headquarters with one of their drones to do a flight around our grounds collecting images that we could run through early versions of the Pixels-to-Points tools. Now, where we are located specifically, just happens to be on the approach to the Augusta State Airport. Dan and Greg gave us a crash course in wind speeds, flight waivers, radio communication, and airspace ceilings … or roughly enough to make a GIS practitioner’s head spin in under five minutes. The drone wasn’t even out of the case yet! There’s an old saying that an expert is someone who knows a lot about a little. We know maps, geodetics, and data analysis here and we were realizing that this was going to have a large learning curve ahead; I was going to need to become an expert in a whole other field.
Class: Learning to become a pilot at night
Fast forward to my first night of class. The course would be two nights a week for eight weeks, in three-hour class meetings, led by Dan and Greg. It had been rather a long time since I had been on the other side of the lectern in a classroom. Let’s just say laptops were not common the last time I took a class. I was rather excited; I love learning new things and applying that knowledge. The room started to fill up and we started getting to know each other with some introductions. We were from many different fields: foresters, engineers, radio tower operators, real estate agents, photographers, media company producers, scientists, and even some self-starters looking for a new line of work. Basically, everyone there was looking into a new area. Going over the course syllabus and reading materials, it was readily apparent what we didn’t know: A LOT. General regulations, pilot certification, airspace classification and restrictions, aeronautical chart interpretation (Yay, maps!), airport operations, weather, weight and balance, aircraft performance, radio communications, aeronautical decision-making, emergency procedures, maintenance, pilot physiology, on and on.
Every topic comes with vocabulary specific to flight operations, even getting into nitty gritty stuff such as how to pronounce numbers over a radio and how to read a weather report written in shorthand code. Throughout the weeks, we covered all of these topics and more. Every time we entered a topic it was a good education in just how little you can imagine is involved outside the things you already know. We found that everyone in the class had their own challenges. Being a generally spatial thinker, the mapping sections and airspace designations I found simpler than some of the more abstract bits of weather such as the different types of clouds and how to read them. Others struggled with airspace but had no trouble with the physics-heavy sections of loading, altitude density of air, etc. There’s a wide variety of topics involved and it takes time to assimilate the sheer breadth of new information that’s covered on the exams.
One of the questions a lot of my friends and colleagues have asked me is: “How do you practice flying at a night class?” It makes sense, it’s a drone pilot class, you’re going to learn to fly, right? Well, no. You don’t actually have to have flown a single minute to become a Part 107 certified pilot. The test is purely knowledge-based, and is intended to ensure that drone pilots know how to operate safely within the federal airspace. In our class we did actually spend some time flying small Blade Inductrix drones indoors with full size Spektrum DX8 transmitters towards the end of the course. We also spent some time talking about the basic mechanics of fixed-wing and multi-rotor builds, and their control systems. This is not really essential to prepare for the Part 107 exam, but it is good material to cover.
So, at the time of writing, I’ve arrived at the end of the course. Tomorrow morning I go on for my exam. I have been taking practice exams on the Gleim test prep system until I’ve started to recognize some of the 900 practice questions. I have never failed a practice exam, so I’m feeling good.
Testing: Knowing your airspace, safety, and weather
From the questions on the exam, it’s very clear where drone pilots have been having issues: airspace & operations! The breakdown of questions I encountered was about 50 questions on airspace and general safety practices and the last 10 questions on weather. I did pretty well on the test, passing comfortably. Going back through the review of things I missed (which it lets you do upon completion), I knew which questions I was shaky on. There was one question on an airport-related topic that I know I had never seen the answer to before. The test procedure itself is pretty simple, if you’ve taken practice tests on Gleim, you’ll be right at home on the FAA test system, it looks and feels pretty much exactly the same. The difference is that in Gleim, you work off of digital graphics for the charts and diagrams, and in the actual test you’re working out of a paperback copy of the Airman Knowledge Testing Supplement for Sport Pilot, Recreational Pilot, and Private Pilot (FAA-CT-8080-2G), which honestly, is easier to read than the digital practice graphics.
If you aren’t familiar with either, you have a simple panel-based interface on screen. Down the left you have your list of questions 1-60, and the main part of the screen has your questions and possible answers which are multiple choice and three options. You can mark questions to come back to later, which is very handy for taking a pass through and answering the ones that you are 100% confident in and then going back to spend more time on the others. I found two questions that I knew I would need to spend more time, because of the tricky wording. Even after spending some time looking through the book for some hints on those two, I was done in under 40 minutes. Having an hour and 20 minutes left, I used the opportunity to read through the entire test again and double check all my answers. I didn’t find any that I disagreed with myself on, so confidently I ended the exam to submit, the results go straight to the FAA, and I was immediately notified that I passed. All in all, a relatively procedural exam process after much preparation.
Certification: Waiting for the card after weeks of preparing
You walk out of the testing facility with a stamped certificate that you passed the test, then the waiting starts. This certificate only states that you passed the test, it’s not actually your Part 107 certificate. You can follow your certification progress through the FAA’s IACRA website. In about 48 hours, it updated to show that it knew I passed the test, then over the next few weeks it updated as my results were passed around in the FAA systems, until eventually, I was granted a printable temporary certificate I could fly with. With this temporary certificate, there is no certificate number you can use to fill out waiver applications, but at that point I could legally fly. My certificate card arrived about six weeks after I took the test, backdated to the test date. Getting the card in the mail was a relief after all that time studying, preparing, and then ultimately waiting. I learned more than I could have imagined at the start and like I mentioned at the beginning of this entry, I now have a better idea just how much more there is to learn.
Sam Knight is the Director of Product Management for Blue Marble Geographics. With Blue Marble for more than 14 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.
When we have a new product release like the version 19 of the LiDAR Module that comes with the Pixels to Points™ tool, it’s always exciting to see that feature in action for the first time outside of the Blue Marble office. Our South and Central American reseller Laurent Martin from EngeSat was quick to try the new Pixels to Points tool for himself using drone data collected by his peer Fabricio Pondian.
The new Pixels to Points tool uses the principles of photogrammetry, generating high-density point clouds from overlapping images. It’s a functionality that makes the LiDAR Module a must-have addition to the already powerful Global Mapper, especially for UAV experts.
Below, screenshots captured by Laurent illustrate the simple step-by-step process of creating a point cloud using the Pixels to Points tool and some basic point cloud editing using other LiDAR Module tools.
1. Loading drone images into the LiDAR Module
2. Calculating the point cloud from loaded images
3. Viewing the generated point cloud
4. Classifying the point cloud
5. Creating an elevation grid and contours from the point cloud
A quick and easy process
In just a few steps, Laurent was able to create a high-density point cloud from 192 images, reclassify the points, and create a Digital Terrain Model. It’s a prime example of how easy version 19 of the LiDAR Module and the new Pixels to Points tool are to use. Check out EngeSat’s full article on the release of LiDAR Module.
Over the past few months, the Blue Marble team has taken on the challenge of collecting drone imagery of our property for testing exciting new features coming soon to Global Mapper. As we began to step into the fairly new commercial UAV field, we realized that there are few assumptions we can make. First of all, there is a learning curve that comes with simply flying a drone to take pictures or collect imagery. There are also a number of legal hurdles, safety concerns, and practical challenges to consider. We needed guidance as we began this initiative, from which we learned a few important lessons.
Drone Flight Concerns and Considerations
Though it appears to be a relatively simple technical challenge, flying a drone has legal and safety considerations that were readily apparent to us but may not be common knowledge. Our first concern was that the Blue Marble headquarters are only about a mile and half, as the crow (or should I say UAV) flies, from the Augusta State Airport. Small planes fly overhead frequently and quite low at times. We were not sure if our building was located near banned airspace. Our second concern was that our property abuts the Hall-Dale elementary school playground. A location that is full of children three or four times a day during business hours. What if we crashed in the school yard while children were at recess? What a PR nightmare.
These concerns about the airport and school property were enough to stall us from simply buying or building a drone, and prompted us to seek guidance. Fortunately for us, the University of Maine at Augusta offers an unmanned aerial vehicle training course taught by certified pilots. A quick call to one of the faculty members for more information resulted in the gentlemen visiting our offices to conduct some test flights and to share a bit of their knowledge with us. We learned a great deal even from our first test.
Setting Up the Drone for Flight
Certified pilots Dan Leclair and Greg Gilda joined us at our office on a beautiful, clear and wind-free day in early October. They confirmed that we could fly over our property with some stipulations, despite our location near a commercial airport. As a precaution, the gentlemen brought with them a hand-held radio to monitor pilot communication in the area as we set up our flight path. They also reassured us that there was little chance of the drone flying off of our property during school recess, since the drone would be programmed and flown on autopilot. Dan and Greg shared a litany of information about how the drones now have homing devices, automatically avoid collisions with structures, and fly on a pre-programmed flight pattern. If, for some reason, it did fly over school property, we could manually fly it back. We also learned that the drone must stay within our view to remain in compliance with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulation, which was no problem. We weren’t flying a large area anyway.
As we chose and programmed the drone flight path with a laptop, the pilots focused on a very common issue for us GIS folks — proper elevation above ground. Since we are located in the descent path of planes landing at the airport, we needed to keep the drone relatively low to avoid any potential, and of course unwanted, collisions with an aircraft. We decided that we would fly at 100 feet above ground on a path that was 1,793 feet long and would take about 3 minutes.
The software the pilots used had some short comings in that the user had to manually select points for the back-and-forth flight path we wanted. As a software guy, this seemed tedious. I would rather draw a quick polygon or box around my area of interest and have that converted to a flight pattern. Perhaps that could be a new feature for Global Mapper Mobile in the future? In this case, our area of interest was our building, so it did not take long to manually designate the flight pattern by selecting waypoints for the drone to fly back and forth. We also set up the drone camera for the light conditions, and programmed it to capture an image every two seconds during the flight. One practical lesson we learned was that a good staging area for the laptop is preferable on a sunny day. We used the back of an SUV for the shade, so we could see the laptop screen and comfortably program the software.
After a bit of work we were ready to fly.
Flying the Drone and Collecting Data
We set the drone on a circular landing pad made of nylon near the back of our property. Greg attached the rotor blades, very carefully I might add. The blades attach rather easily to the quad copter by snapping into place. Dan explained that this step was done before turning the drone on, saying something to the effect of “you don’t want to lose a finger”.
Once the UAV was ready to fly we all stepped back. Dan launched it into the air with the touch of a button or two, and the drone began its pre-programmed flight path. For those experienced pilots, you might notice that we did not discuss ground control. More on that in a later blog entry, I suppose, but these early tests were not including that. The flight went seamlessly and Dan only took over manual control as he brought the drone in for a landing — a personal preference of his.
Everything seemed to progress well but we quickly learned that the drone ended up capturing only video (see below) and not still photography. A few more attempts later, we sadly learned that we would not be able to collect still imagery that day. Apparently there was some incompatibility with the flight planning software and the drone. Not to fear, they agreed to return another day after a software update to collect the imagery. So perhaps the most important lesson of the day was that, despite the best laid plans of mice and men, things do not always go as planned with drone data collection. If you’re interested in learning some more about the foils and follies of drone data collection visit this handy resource: http://knowbeforeyoufly.org/
We’ll have more to share with you on this process and, of course, what we are doing with the data soon.
Patrick Cunningham is the President of Blue Marble Geographics. He has two decades of experience in software development, marketing, sales, consulting, and project management. Under his leadership, Blue Marble has become the world leader in coordinate conversion software (the Geographic Calculator) and low cost GIS software with the 2011 acquisition of Global Mapper. Cunningham is Chair of the Maine GIS Users Group, a state appointed member of the Maine Geolibrary Board, a member of the NEURISA board, a GISP and holds a masters in sociology from the University of New Hampshire.