In the past few years, the number of space-based Earth observation sensors, their resolution, the number of bands they have, and their refresh rate have exploded, especially with the launch of swarms of smallsats, cubesats, and nanosats. The latest Earth observation satellite is China’s Gaofen 8 (“gao fen” means “high resolution”), launched on June 26. It is optimized to provide country surveying, disaster response, agriculture mapping, city planning, land ownership marking, and road network planning.
The vast amounts of Earth-observation data now available provide new opportunities to solve challenging environmental, natural resource, and global security problems. However, efficiently extracting meaningful information from imagery and sensor data requires automating much of the image analysis and feature extraction and providing access to the data and the analysis on the cloud. Most providers of satellite imagery are now offering their customers end-to-end solutions, so that they are not just selling pixels, but information. “As new imagery companies come into the market, they and the traditional providers must diversify their product and service offerings to compete for market share”, says Dennis Jones, president of the Earth Observation Industry Alliance.
DIGITALGLOBE BRINGS ENVI EARTH SCIENCE ANALYTICS INTO GEOSPATIAL BIG DATA PLATFORM
In December 2010, GeoEye acquired SPADAC, a geospatial predictive analytics company, turning it into a wholly owned subsidiary named GeoEye Analytics. It provided geospatial predictive analytic solutions to more than 40 customers in the defense, intelligence, and homeland security markets by combining satellite imagery with intelligence data to try to anticipate the future locations of adverse events and opposing forces based on their pattern of prior locations. After DigitalGlobe acquired GeoEye in 2013, GeoEye Analytics became DigitalGlobe Analytic Services [www.digitalglobe.com/products/analytic-services], which brings together the company’s massive image archive with a cross-disciplinary team.
“Airbus Defence and Space is introducing Data Management Solutions, an integrated suite of products and services that enable users to access, manage, and disseminate various types of geospatial data.“
Now, DigitalGlobe has launched a cloud-based image analysis service jointly with Exelis. It offers ENVI Earth science analytics software for the DigitalGlobe Geospatial Big Data (GBD) platform, creating a single platform that enables imagery users to combine ENVI geospatial analytics with DigitalGlobe’s image library. ENVI image analysis software, designed and built by Exelis (now Harris), has been in use for more than 25 years to extract information from geospatial data, especially in the fields of mineral exploration, precision agriculture, environmental protection, and national defense. The offering promises to greatly reduce hardware costs and requirements for processing power and data storage, lowering the barriers to entry into the Earth observation market.
DigitalGlobe’s new service is a Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) offering under GBD. “The platform enables a variety of operations to be performed at scale against imagery such as exploring, extracting, and exploiting information associated with imagery,” says Kevin Lausten, Sr. Manager, Geospatial Big Data. ìThis model gives users access to imagery data, tools, infrastructure, and expertise.”
GBD combines DigitalGlobe’s imagery and the ENVI software via two Web application programming interfaces (APIs). The first API performs a search and discovery operation against DigitalGlobe’s imagery catalog; for example, one might use it to find all the images related to Boulder, Colorado. Images, of course, are datasets that can be processed. “That is where ENVI comes into play,” Lausten explains. The second API enables users to run a set of tasks against that set of images very quickly using scaleable cloud computing approaches. For example, having discovered all the images relating to Boulder, a user could use ENVI’s vegetation analysis tool to show changes in vegetation over time. In other words, the ENVI tasks are now an integral part of this workflow API.
By combining the ENVI software and its imagery archive this way, DigitalGlobe, Lausten points out, has brought about a technological advancement and a business innovation. The former consists of bringing together infrastructure, data, and software tools so as to enable users to ask broad questions in time and space. The latter consists of a business model that lowers the barriers to entry into Earth imaging analysis by offering developer-friendly pricing to access this bundled solution. End users obtain the analyses they require, while the raw images remain in the cloud, where DigitalGlobe retains ownership and control of them. See Figure 1.
DigitalGlobe provides commercial high-resolution Earth observation data and geospatial solutions sourced from its constellation of six satellites. Last August, it launched its most advanced satellite, WorldView-3, which has a panchromatic resolution of 31 cm, as well as eight SWIR bands to penetrate haze, fog, smog, dust, and smoke, and 12 CAVIS bands to map clouds, ice and snow, correcting for aerosol and water vapor.
“We are thrilled to have the opportunity to expose our 15-year catalog of high-resolution satellite imagery to ENVI’s technologically sophisticated user base,” said Hyune Hand, DigitalGlobe’s Senior Vice President of Product Marketing and Management.
AIRBUS DEFENCE AND SPACE LAUNCHES DATA MANAGEMENT SOLUTIONS
In July, at the 2015 Esri User Conference in San Diego, Airbus Defence and Space, a division of Airbus Group, is introducing Data Management Solutions (DMS), an integrated suite of products and services that enable users to access, manage, and disseminate various types of geospatial data. The product, which can be hosted in the cloud or on premises, includes fully managed solutions that eliminate the problems traditionally associated with managing large volumes of different types of geospatial data archived and accessed in multiple locations. DMS is designed to handle raster imagery, GIS vector layers, digital elevation models, LiDAR point clouds, contour maps and asset-monitoring information in virtually any format. See Figure 2.
Airbus Defence and Space has been tailoring solutions for each client’s specific data management needs for more than two decades, says Jessi Dick, Sr. Marketing Manager of Online Partnerships and DMS, Geo-Intelligency Programme Line. “Because of the customization we are able to provide, these solutions quickly become core components of our clients’ businesses,” she says. “They are invaluable tools for increasing overall efficiency, and in most cases, decreasing operational costs. Our offerings range from simple, cloud-based geospatial data archive management portals to fully customized location intelligence systems, so organizations large and small can benefit from the expertise and capa- bilities included in Airbus Defence and Space Data Management Solutions.”
“We developed the DMS suite to enable our clients to profit from almost three decades of Airbus Defence and Space experience in archiving, processing and delivering geospatial data,” said Bernhard Brenner, head of the company’s Geo-Intelligence Programme Line.
The Data Management Solutions suite includes four offerings:Data Management Portals that provide single-point access to all of a customer’s geospatial data and that integrate into existing workflows. Customers can choose the DataDoors Portal, a software-as- a-service (SaaS) option, or the GetGeo Portal, offered as part of a customized solution for secure data storage, analysis, monitoring, and collaboration. Fully Customized Solutions, which combines the company’s geo-intelligence portfolio with open source modules to provide location intelligence solutions. Streaming Services, which give clients instant access to their own data and/or the full line of the company’s geospatial products via an Internet connection using multiple streaming delivery protocols. Data Management Systems, which include three hardware/software packages that can be installed behind the client’s firewall onsite or on mobile devices.
THE BLACKBRIDGE GEOCLOUD
BlackBridge – a provider of satellite opera- tions, ground station services, and worldwide sat- ellite imagery distribution, as well as value-added products and geo-service solutions – also recently formed a marketing agreement with Exelis VIS to provide ENVI software inside of its cloud for pro- cessing and analytics. BlackBridge’s philosophy is “bring your algorithms to the data, rather than the data to your algorithms.” In addition to providing the ENVI analytics, the company’s GeoCloud allows customers to host their own proprietary algorithms and workflows next to the imagery. By obviating the need to download high-resolution imagery, the system reduces processing time by orders of magnitude. Additionally, the derived information product typically has a smaller file size than the raw data, making it much faster and cheaper to download.
Most of BlackBridge’s cloud-based imagery is for its Monitoring Programs for Agriculture, which is a subscription service that gives users access to all the imagery acquired several times throughout the growing season across specific areas, as well as archive imagery dating back from 2009, via a cloud platform. See Figure 3.
“BlackBridge’s philosophy is ‘bring your algorithms to the data, rather than the data to your algorithms.“
A CUSTOMER’S VIEWPOINT: BECHTEL
Bechtel, the largest construction and civil engineering company in the United States, has used imagery from DigitalGlobe – and, before the companies merged, from GeoEye – on projects ranging from the Dallas Metro Rail to transmission lines in Chile to infrastructure development in West Africa. “We have used it for traditional background information but also for remote sensing analytics and other work that we’re doing,” says Tracy McLane, Bechtel’s GIS Corporate Manager and GIS technical discipline lead. “Bechtel was the first commercial entity to sign a master services agreement with GeoEye, before it merged with DigitalGlobe. I helped negotiate that. We are in the midst of updating our arrangement with the company.”
“The merger of GeoEye and DigitalGlobe has considerably improved the satellite constellations available to us,” McLane says. “[It has improved] the turn-around time and the number of analytics that are part of the services. We may end up expanding and actually having them do part of that work, depending on the needs of a project. Certainly a lot of topography that is developed from geostereo-type data is of interest as well. [For engineering,] we do need very detailed data, but a lot of their products are getting down to the centimeter accuracy. So, when something from a satellite can be turned into a topo with 20-cm accuracies, then it is something that we can really talk about.”
“DigitalGlobe has launched a cloud-based image analysis service jointly with Exelis. It offers ENVI Earth science analytics software for the DigitalGlobe Geospatial Big Data (GBD) platform, creating a single platform that enables imagery users to combine ENVI geospatial analytics with DigitalGlobe’s image library.“
“We’ve had vendors provide [image analytics] for us in the past,” says McLane. “Some of it has also included development of feature-coded lidar, so that we can look at things from a 3D aspect. That can be important in terms of clearances for equipment that we may need to get in and out of a job site. It is also important in terms of what other types of utilities and infrastructures are intersecting our project locations.” Bechtel, McLane explains, does some image analytics in-house, using such software as ArcGIS desktop and ERDAS Imagine. “I’ve used it since the days when it was a DOS program. It’s come a long way since then.”
Becthel’s enterprise GIS is built on both ArcGIS Server and Oracle Spatial, which has some internal database analytics capabilities. “I just arranged for a training of a good number of our GIS specialists for using Oracle Spatial for georaster analysis,” says McLane. “From a big data standpoint, it gives us a lot more capability to do what we have been doing on a more manual basis.”
Bechtel is not new to cloud services, but it is still worried about having data beyond its firewall. “Our use of [cloud services] is currently limited due to security concerns. Not all of that has been fully flushed out by our IS&T organization, particularly as it pertains to some kinds of work and clients. We haven’t yet taken advantage of [DigitalGlobe’s new offering of ENVI on its cloud platform] but I’m sure that we’ll be looking at it, figuring out how that fits with our project work going forward. Again, the only things that we have to look at very carefully are the data security issues.”
Hosting and processing immense volumes of high resolution imagery in the cloud is the new normal for imagery providers. It makes their services scalable, protects users from data loss, and saves them time and money. Increasingly, users can ask questions such as, “How have land use patterns changed in a certain area over a certain period of time?” or “Which parts of which fields require more water or fertilizer?” and get the answers, without having to set up their own image analysis shop with hardware, software, and expertise. However, adoption may be slow, due to security concerns.
Harris Acquires Exelis
Harris Corporation, a vendor of advanced, technology-based solutions for government and commercial customers, recently acquired Exelis. Harris shareholders now own 85 percent of the combined company and Exelis shareholders own 15 percent. The company now has a combined pro forma revenue of about $8 billion, about 23,000 employees, including 9,000 engineers and scientists, and customers in more than 125 countries. “Together, the two companies’ complementary technologies and capabilities strengthen the core franchises and provide new opportunities for innovation to solve our customers’ most complex challenges,” said William M. Brown, Harris’ Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer.