Satellite Software 'Descends' to Drone Altitude
By Brad Frischkorn
Once upon a time, terrestrial mapping software was so big, so bad, and so expensive that only governments with satellites and budgets footed by taxpayers could make use of it. But thanks to drones, the same technology is becoming available to nearly everybody with joystick and an itch to fly.
Such is the state of the market, with only slight hyperbole, according to Philippe Simard, Ph.D., president of SimActive Inc., a 15-year old Montreal-based firm that specializes in ultra-high resolution photomapping software. The company's booth at the first annual Japan Drone Expo 2016 expo held in late March drew many spectators to its impressive display of land images taken from earth orbit.
SimActive's prize package is the Correlator3D, a patented end-to-end solution designed to process satellite and aerial imagery. Using aerial triangulation, the software enables dense, 3D digital and terrain models to be rendered from 2D images.
"We catered exclusively to governments and militaries in the beginning, since the volume of data is so dense - 250 megapixels per frame and up," says Mr. Simard. "But with the development of drones, the same types of capabilities are now within reach of the private sector. It's been a revolution, to say the least."
Far from plotting continental drift or the location of enemy missile silos, the Correlator is now employed for a variety of commercial applications in forestry, mining, agriculture, including wine growing.
"Grape vines are extremely high-value assets for wineries, and so they have a great need to understand how weather and climate are affecting them," he says. "Periodically flying drones with thermal cameras over an orchard allows for accurate assessment of the health of the grapes, and, I suppose, how they are likely to taste."
The Correlator3D uses GPU technology and multi-core CPUs to support rapid production of images delivered by advanced computer algorithms. Large blocks of optical images, including infrared and ultraviolet pictures, can then be processed in a single project.
The software has been employed on many satellites, including the U.S. GeoEye-1, which flies at an altitude of about 681 kilometers (409 miles) and is capable of producing images of objects as small as 46 centimeters in diameter.
The system has since been adapted for drones and UAVs, which often don't have sophisticated cameras and positioning systems. From altitudes of around 300 feet, UAVs nevertheless take a high number of images at very high resolutions, down to the 1cm level. One pixel of resolution generally works out to about one centimeter on the ground.
The price for the software has also come down dramatically, by about 90% in come cases, and can now be used on a high-powered PC.
In Japan, where SimActive has had a presence since 2008, the Correlator 3D is employed at the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, and by some surveying firms.
"It's still a niche product, but there are many more potential customers for us here now," says Mr. Simard. "Unfortunately, Japan's tough regulatory environment has hindered the development of drones and their applications, allowing other southeast Asian countries with fewer rules -- such as Indonesia and Malaysia -- to take a big lead in the market. We can only hope that authorities here can learn from that."
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