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April 8th, 2014
Is innovation of geospatial technology destined to always be driven by military budgets?

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Many of the roots of innovation in the geospatial toolbox come from military initiatives, including the Global Positioning System (GPS), many earth observation satellites and sensors, unmanned aerial vehicles, and a phenomenal push in the last decade away from paper-based maps and toward global map databases. Innovation follows investment, and the budget and market for military geospatial technology has been leading in procurements for quite some time, if not always.

The world’s premiere mapping agency, Ordnance Survey, has a name that says it all in terms of its origin. This organization continually updates map details for the country with surveying-grade accuracy for precise locations from building footprints down to such seemingly mundane details as mail boxes. This level of accuracy is a Holy Grail for all geospatial data users from the military to municipalities to marketers. Yet, it was the military that provided the mandate back in 1746 when a national military survey was first conducted. Such large-scale mapping at national and even global scale provides the impetus for automation and new technologies and approaches that simplify the mapping process, and many of these projects of such scope are driven by geopolitical frictions and a defense and security mandate.

Foundational Instability

It’s hard to imagine a decrease in military spending for mapping with today’s global connectivity and political instability. It’s too important to know what factors and factions are at play. Escalating security threats lead to better sensors and systems to collect, map and model for an improved global understanding. That this better global understanding also aids all other applications isn’t necessarily an ancillary benefit, since certainly many non-military initiatives exist, but security is often an overriding imperative over any other application.

Mapping for military rests on the need for insights into complex scenarios for tactical advantage. The world is only increasing in its complexity, aided by technology in the hands of both warfighters and their adversaries. As connectivity and map access grows globally, both sides gain insights and vie for advantage. This constant friction and technology escalation fuels further investments, particularly in light of a reduction in force that means fewer will need to know more.

Predictive Intelligence

The foundation for any foray, whether responding to a natural disaster or ferreting out bad actors, is a map, and its best if its current and accessible. Just a short while ago, the map was a paper sheet that had to be printed, warehoused and distributed, with maps in the hands of a few to communicate to the many. Now with smartphones, and soon heads-up displays, geospatial information is in the hands of so many more users to provide the necessary context for accessing information and sharing what they see.

The future promises even more of an app-based delivery on devices that are soon leading toward an augmented reality where what we see is overlaid with intelligence to guide action in unfamiliar territory. The vision is for a rich data set for the globe, where terrain and infrastructure are presented in great detail and overlain with details on the populace, their political leanings, beliefs and historical frictions. With such a geoanalytic map that is filled with dynamic information, the user will have the ability to detect and anticipate needs and actions based on changing conditions.

Giving Back

The innovator always gives back by raising technology standards and introducing new tools for the betterment of their trade. For many innovations, this is a passive benefit of the visionaries that saw an advantage and reaped a financial reward, with the top tools slowly filtering down to more users. For military intelligence, the advancements are aimed at an ongoing goal to know more, and to act before disruption or to even eliminate the disruption before it takes hold. The innovation occurs upon this continuum, and the United States National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency has given back by helping to break down barriers to make geospatial tools work more seamlessly across scale, devices, and enterprise databases.

The NGA has been a champion of open standards, and more recently open source, with advancements helping to spread functionality and ease integration. As their core databases grow to encompass an increasing mandate for information, we can expect innovation in data warehousing, distribution, communication, and map-based collaboration. Today’s military intelligence rests on a far more open and interoperable platform, with far fewer silos or information dead ends, and this vision and underpinning standards and protocols helps all users.

The benefits of accurate and detailed maps in military hands is an informed understanding and a decisive advantage for the policymakers, warfighters, intelligence professionals and first responders that use this information. Yes, much of geospatial innovation is pinned to military objectives, but we all benefit from an improved and shared understanding.


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