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September 30th, 2014
Is the convergence of geospatial technology ripe to cause disruption in natural resource industries?

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A new population projection from the United Nations pushes past predictions beyond marks made just a decade ago. The new numbers show that we have an 80 percent chance of reaching 11 billion people by 2100, up from today’s seven billion number, and well beyond the prior estimate that showed growth rates leveling off. With these numbers, there’s a need to consider the carrying capacity of our planet with an eye on our raw resources.

Geospatial technology plays a critical role in our ability to find, control and manage what’s needed to meet our needs. The fairly recent closer convergence of GIS, remote sensing, 3d modeling, measuring, and monitoring technologies comes at a time when natural resources industries are in need of tighter controls with improved efficiencies. The economic performance of these sectors is currently impinged by over production with agriculture, mining and oil and gas set to have significant price drops. The production levels and lower prices certainly can’t continue, and it’s the wise manager that is implementing new systems to gain better insight into production cycles to improve performance.

Sustainable Agriculture

Precision agriculture allows growers to ascertain available soil moisture, fine tune seed rates, fertilizer requirements and other production factors and manage levels of weed infestation across varying terrain. This practice is aided by precision guidance of farm implements that allow for variable application to meet an underlying plot map.

The map, and the farmer’s control of the map, are about to make a huge leap forward in greater accessibility with lower costs thanks to an explosion in earth observation technologies from satellites to smallsats to unmanned aircraft systems. With the ability to more frequently monitor their land at increasing resolution, growers are poised to introduce a more direct correlation between their actions, their yield, and their profits. Geospatial technology is central to this ability, with a soil map more closely aligned to a yield map, and on toward a profitability map plant by plant.

More Efficient Mining

Mining is another sector that is benefitting greatly from better mapping capacity, and this time it’s more about 3D. The detailed 3D maps are aided by better sensing and better software to visualize the deposits under the ground. The mining operation is also being automated, with ongoing sensing and precision position leading to autonomous vehicle routing and other extraction and transportation efficiencies.

There was just news last week of Rio Tinto PLC placing their faith in 3D mapping as their means for greater profitability as commodity prices are squeezing profit margins. The company has seen great increases in their ability to extract more quality ore, and with ongoing real-time insights into the quality of ore and productivity of their mining operation. Again, geospatial technologies provide the glue to connect sensors and robots, while providing management with the big picture of resources and operational efficiency.

Energy Exploitation

The idea that we’d hit peak oil is certainly plausible, and yet it hasn’t played out as new technologies have continued to increase production capacity. The United States has surged in oil production since 2009, thanks to oil field technology advancements and improved prospecting tools. The ability to find new reserves is getting a boost from higher resolution earth observation satellites that are the advance tools for mapping the geology across the globe. Geospatial technologies are also critical for mapping and managing oil and gas infrastructure, such as in the upcoming Pipeline Week run in part by the Geospatial Information and Technology Association.

Mapping renewable resources is also on the rise, with many cities undertaking solar rooftop potential maps as this energy source decreases in costs and gains in efficiency. Wind mapping is also reaching new levels of granularity as lidar sensors have proven insightful for understanding wind and wind tower placement and individual wind turbine performance. There are also greater insights into wave power, geothermal, biofuel and more. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory continues to produce geospatial tools and maps, and have just recently updated their resources page with atlases, maps and prospecting tools.

Suffice to say, that geospatial technologies are integral to greater resource understanding. The history of their application were tied more toward a big-picture inventory of resource availability, but Increasingly these tools are being applied to daily operations for a greater real-time understanding of individual farm, mine and well or power source efficiency. Geospatial technologies are poised to play a much larger role in resource operations as population pressures force us to find more or make do with less.

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