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Guevara ArmandoA lot has changed in the geospatial industry since I started my career back in the early 1980s. GIS software today has a level of sophistication that we could have only dreamed of back then. Digital technology and the Internet have transformed how we do business and how customers utilize imagery. And the geospatial industry has grown tremendously. Most importantly, geospatial imagery and data is everywhere today, used in countless applications by private companies, non-profit organizations, government agencies and the public. That is deeply rewarding to people who have devoted long careers to advancing the technology and promoting the use of geographic information.

The world has changed a lot over the last three decades and the use of geospatial information has grown exponentially, but in many important ways sensors have changed very little over that span of time. No, sensor technology has not been static. There have been important advancements that make them more powerful. But in a very fundamental way, sensors have not changed much since “E.T.” was the biggest movie at the box office and Olivia Newton John’s “Physical” was playing non-stop on the radio: Sensors today are predominantly monolithic, single-purpose, proprietary devices, just like they were 20-30 years ago. That would be fine if the world we live and work in was single-purpose world, but it’s not. We live in a multi-purpose world, and that requires a new approach.

A New Direction for Sensor Design

Our industry needs a new generation of sensors that are designed to move beyond that monolithic approach. Some people might contend that the traditional sensors are OK as-is, arguing that the longevity of these traditional sensors prove that they work fine and arguing that a new generation of sensors is unnecessary. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” some might say. But the truth is that the monolithic approach is broken and has been for a while. Companies that use the sensors have been incredibly creative in working around the limitations of those sensors, and they have shown saint-like patient with the frustration of working with those outdated devices.

Traditional sensors are too limited in functionality, too hard to work with, and too costly to operate and maintain. Their design drawbacks and inflexibility impact geoimaging companies’ bottom lines every day by imposing unnecessary hard costs, soft costs and opportunity costs. The companies that use these sensors to collect imagery and data need better equipment in order to increase their productivity, increase their margins and grow their businesses. And I firmly believe that our industry will not achieve its true potential and advance the “science of where” until sensor technology evolves in a way that overcomes those limitations and drawbacks.

The Next Generation of Sensors

So what are the key attributes that the next generation of sensors needs to have in order to meet the technical and business requirements of geospatial companies for the next 10, 20 or 30 years?

  • Flexibility and Multi-Purpose Capabilities – As the use of geospatial data has grown, the specifications of collection projects have grown in variety and complexity for geoimaging companies. On a given day, the collection company often needs to do radically different projects using the same plane or helicopter. Single-purpose sensors are an obstacle to the variety of projects they are doing, forcing companies to do tedious and time-consuming set-ups in between flights in a business where time on the ground is money lost. The next generation of sensors must be highly flexible, multi-purpose devices that can easily adapt to the needs of each project.
  • Standards-Based Design – Traditional sensors are typically built on proprietary designs that create interoperability issues between sensors that need to work in concert with one another. The lack of standards-based design has also inflated maintenance and repair costs for geospatial companies who must deal with the chaos of so many different platforms, maintenance programs, etc. Standards-based design would dramatically simplify things and reduce costs in the process.
  • Oblique and 3-D Capabilities – One of the biggest market opportunities for geospatial companies going forward will be oblique and 3-D imagery, which will require sensors designed to support those collection capabilities and that are designed to work in sensor arrays that are integrated to deliver the necessary precision. The next generation of sensors will be able to do ortho, multispectral, stereo, oblique, 3D, point clouds and geoinformation product generation, all in one pass.
  • Miniaturization – The future of sensing will include deployment on a larger range of aircraft and locations than in the past, and sensors will need to be optimized for rapid deployment on not only aircraft and helicopters, but also miniaturized airborne devices and other mobile applications.

These are the key design principles that are shaping the new generation of geoimaging sensors, and they will provide a powerful foundation for the geospatial industry as we continue to grow and as we continue to support new applications of geographic information.

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