Hyper-accurate mapping uses satellites, software

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Jason San Souci and Ian Hanou show how digital mapping can track watershed health.

Mapping technology used by NASA and the Department of Defense is now being used in Colorado Springs and Pueblo to determine watershed health and wildfire risk.
Known as automated feature extraction, the technology can map large amounts of land quickly and accurately — by combining satellite imagery with software that can extract roads, houses, agriculture fields, even a single tree in the Pikes Peak National Forest.
“You can use this imagery for a wide variety of applications,” said Ian Hanou, account manager for Native Communities Development Corp., a local imaging company. “Water resources, watershed health, energy management. It’s still new, and we’re still finding new ways of using it.”
The company has been hired to map the Pikes Peak watershed in El Paso and Teller counties, and to determine available biomass near a planned biomass energy facility in New Mexico.
“The software analyzes imaging maps, looking for patterns,” said Jason San Souci, director of geospatial applications.
Visual Learning Systems developed the software used in the applications in 2001 as part of a NASA grant.
“There are all kinds of business applications,” said Kevin Opitz, vice president of marketing and sales for VLS. “We built it to a pretty generic audience. The Department of Defense is a customer, so are state and local governments.”
The software can determine the height of buildings, the location of possible landing zones and can track artillery movements — and is being used extensively in Iraq, Opitz said.
Because the technology is relatively new, Hanou said that commercial applications are still being discovered.
In a recent edition of Earth Imaging Journal, Jackson Cothren and Bruce Gorham said the technology advances impervious surface imaging.
“Instead of working with pixels as the most basic element of the image, (the program) first segments the image into spectrally homogenous objects,” the article said. “The user can somewhat control the size and shape in the segmentation process through various weighting parameters, making the resulting objects more compact and smooth at the expense of spectral homogeneity. The resulting objects become the most basic element of the image, and each has its own signature.”
But the technology is still only about 80 to 85 percent effective. For cities like Colorado Springs, still developing its storm water drainage fees, the old way of mapping — “by hand” — is used for greater accuracy in determining how much impervious surface is on a particular lot.
The software is available under different brand names: eCognition and VLS’s Feature Analyst for example, and works like this: it merges pixels into homogenous regions, determining patterns based on size and shapes — the resulting segments have signatures that can be used to extract buildings, roads, fields, trees and other features, according to the Earth Imaging Journal.
But it isn’t just NASA, the military and government agencies that are interested in the technology. Hanou said that he’s been contacted by groups concerned about watershed health, invasive species in national forests and urban forestry.
“Environmental groups are extremely interested in this technology,” Hanou said. “It can show health of very large regions of land, and can mark invasive species, as well as entire watersheds. I’m meeting with a group, Keep Indiana Beautiful, on how they can determine where trees are needed in cities.”
Opitz said that taxing authorities can use the software to find additions to homes, and to determine the taxable value of properties. Insurance companies are also interested.
“For example, you can determine roof types using the automated feature extraction,” he said. “If a roof is cedar as opposed to aluminum, and it’s out in the forest somewhere, an insurance company’s going to want to know that — it’s a fire risk.”
Denver has launched a program to plant 1 million trees in the city during the next 20 years. Using the mapping technology, NCDC put a dollar figure on the work even before digging begins.
“We can tell them the worth of that tree,” he said. “Not if you bought it at a nursery, but in terms of the pollution it absorbs and the oxygen it puts out. We determined that if you put a dollar amount on it, a single tree is $5,100.”
The company has used the technology to track tamarisk, a non-native, invasive plant that grows along the Arkansas River, to determine how large the problem is, and how to stop its spread.
Tamarisk poses a threat because it absorbs vast amounts of water, creating a large wildfire risk.
“There are always new applications with it,” San Souci said. “We can use it for natural resource conservation, for forestry, for emergency planning.”
Local governments have used new geospatial mapping technology to determine the best ways to fight wildfires: extracting roads and houses from the satellite images, while attempting to determine which way the fires will spread.
The system creates a simple way of determining emergency planning, said Chris Markuson, Pueblo County’s GIS manager.
“We needed to quickly put together a proposed wildfire preparedness and mitigation strategy for the county,” he said. “The ability to quickly generate accurate tree-stand-level data will greatly help us crate a highly specific plan, showing near current field conditions. The data will give us the ability to communicate, with unprecedented sophistication, exactly which forest management strategies to employ — even on a house-by-house level.”
Hanou said that the software also has commercial applications, such as creating more effective direct mail campaigns.
“The software can extract swimming pools out of the data,” he said. “So maybe a pool cleaning company could find out how many pools there are — exactly how many — and exactly where they are. It could target their advertising directly to those people.”
But VLS is focusing on its government clients, working on a program for the Department of Defense that can find buried land mines or other types of unexploded ordnance.
“We’re working on a program that can take pictures, using hundreds of spectrums, and combine them to show when the earth’s been disturbed,” he said. “That has applications beyond the military, of course, but it will keep people from getting hurt by these land mines.”