Speaking at the MAPPS Winter Conference, a group of aerial mapping specialists described the progress being made with various aerial mapping projects and programs, and noted a strong future from collection to final product.

Coastal Change Analysis

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Coastal Change Analysis Program land use and land cover data set relies heavily on large scale imagery programs, noted David Holm, Fugro. He told MAPPS members and attendees that up until 2015, the program relied on Landsat data, but at the point when his company (Fugro) got involved, the program was starting to use the more high-resolution data sets of the National Agriculture Imagery Program (NAIP).

“We’re in a transition phase right now, not only to try to use a NAIP data set, which is ideal not only because it’s been a consistent program with national coverage, [but] you can also use statewide and local imagery data sets to augment it, including LiDAR data sets,” Holm explained. The current coastal program data is at a 30-meter resolution and, Holm pointed out, NOAA is working on moving to 1-meter resolution. 

The C-CAP coverage area is larger than might be expected, Holm continued. “When I think coastal, I really think coastal, like a mile inland,” Holm said. “But it actually covers 25 percent of the continental U.S. and Hawaii. So, when we talk coastal, we’re including the Great Lakes and pretty far inland.”

One of the initial phases involves six base classes using the NAIP data as the primary resource, along with LiDAR and other sources. One interesting aspect of the process is an automated classification system. Holm explained that NOAA creates “training” samples to teach which types of features and radiometric signals belong to which class. They build a detailed rule set that combines all of the image sets into the correct class. The images are formatted and run through eCognition to generate the initial image projects. “These are small groupings of pixels with similar radiometric properties,” Holm adds. A single image can produce thousands of these objects, which go through a mainly automated classification. Then, you come back through and compare it to the NAIP imagery to confirm your rule sets are accurate enough as a QC of the data set. 

Phase 2 refines the data and addresses the limitations of the automated classification. 

“We’re 20 years into this,” Holm said, “and it’s getting immensely better. I think for the next cycle, starting in 2020, it will be in full gear or that’s the hope. And, assuming the NAIP program continues as is, as this has evolved, we’ve come to rely on these national program data sets for everything.” 

Holm concluded, “It’s a fascinating program. With all the data and the classification, the whole point is the change analysis over time. As you get these high-resolution data sets, it’s going to be a great tool.” 

Agricultural Imagery

Tim Bohn, Surdex, picked up the discussion with the National Agricultural Imagery Program (NAIP).

“If you’re not familiar with NAIP,” he explained, “it’s full statewide coverage flown in summertime during the peak agriculture growth season. The program has been running for 17 consecutive years. It’s really one of the biggest data sets and in highest demand.”

He noted that NAIP is going away from the 1 meter collection and will now be at 60 centimeter resolution. The program is averaging 1.5 million square miles a year, with 144 state coverage areas. Funding has varied over the years, but with $108 million awarded, it comes out to be an average of $15.2 million per year.

Bohn pointed out 60 centimeter is the standard the Farm Service Agency (FSA) has stated, and their preference is not to go back to 1 meter at any point. “They prefer fewer states at 60 centimeter than they would more repeated year collections,” Bohn said. 

“Anybody that’s familiar with NAIP over the years has come to learn and appreciate how that program has evolved from the very beginning. If you look back at the history of where it was, you’re talking early on delivering data [on tapes] 90 days after flying. Now, we’ve evolved to where we’re getting interim product five days after flight, which is fantastic. And then, the big addition in 2018 was delivery via media shuttle. We’re no longer loading hard drives; we’re actually uploading data for media shuttle overnight and that means a fantastic turnaround time. So, five days after flight is an interim product and 30 days is final product.” Bohn explained that in 2018, Surex was able to upload up to 815 GB of data overnight. 

Bohn also highlighted some other aerial programs. The National Resources Inventory (NRI) is still going, he said. They are the only program he is aware of that is still buying film – the rest have gone to digital imagery. It’s a large program, however, covering 70,000 sites on average per year. They include the U.S. and Puerto Rico.

A federal land stewardship program has gone to digital imagery, Bohn reported. In 2018, it collected 3.6 million acres of fully orthorectified product with a 6-inch resolution over select lands. “Stewardship land is any tract of land that the U.S. [government] has their name listed on the deed,” Bohn explained. 

Geospatial Fighting Crime

Jerry Skaw, Vexcel Imaging, provided an update on a program described at the MAPPS summer meeting in 2017. The National Insurance Crime Bureau sits between law enforcement and insurance agencies, he explained. They have primarily focused on fraud detection and prevention. “They decided about three years ago that they wanted to launch a geospatial program, and initially it was helping with their special investigations because after disasters there tends to be a lot of fraud,” Skaw explained.

NICB set up the Geospatial Intelligence Center (GIC). Included in the partnership, along with Vexcel Imaging, are Esri and Microsoft. Skaw explained the roles as Vexcel Imaging providing aerial sensors, Esri’s ArcGIS providing online web mapping services, and Microsoft providing Azure cloud-based storage services. He included the MAPPS logo on his slide, acknowledging this was because many of the MAPPS members are involved in acquiring the data. He explained, “We’re not purchasing aircraft, we’re not hiring pilots, we’re going back to our Microsoft heritage and we’re partnering with the mapping community to get the acquisitions done.”

Skaw highlighted two imaging programs. The Blue Sky program is collecting data under ideal weather conditions. It covers the entire continental U.S. at 20 centimeter resolution. It is collecting the entire U.S. over a two-year period – 50 percent the first year and 50 percent the second year. Then it will continue to refresh the data. In addition, it is launching a Metro Mapping program to collect data on the top 150 metropolitan areas in the U.S. using its oblique, nadir system at 7.5 centimeters. That data is refreshed every year.

The Gray Sky program is a disaster response program. Skaw explains, “We’re monitoring unfolding events across the U.S. on a 24 hour, seven-days-a-week basis. And we’re communicating with those insurers who have joined the GIC program and getting guidance from them.” It’s critical for the insurance companies to know where they have the most exposure, Skaw continued. 

Because the NICB has a connection with law enforcement, Skaw noted they can get faster access to disaster scenes. This was helpful following Hurricane Irma, Skaw said, when there were just two aircraft in the air, “One was ours, the other was the President’s.”

He pointed out the value of the access, “This data, once we collect it within a 24-hour period of wheels being down, is processed. It’s uploaded into Azure, and is available to insurers to download full resolution imagery in six to 12 hours max.”

In addition, Skaw noted, the data is available to first responders such as FEMA and the Red Cross free of charge.

Longer term, Skaw concluded, the imagery will provide tools and analytics for insurers to examine historical data like flood maps, crime trends, and demographic data, and layer it and toggle the layers to be able to interpret the data relative to their policies in force and their underwriting.

Getting Real

The session concluded with Randy Maden, Hexagon, describing a content program that includes Real World and Real City.

“What we do and what we’re focused on, our mission is to provide professional quality data to the geospatial professional, not just strictly imagery. It is professional quality data just like all of you have been providing over the years for state and municipal levels. We take the same care and the same seriousness to provide the accuracies that are needed into our content program.” 

Real World is the large-area program and Real City does primarily city capture, Maden explained.

From there, there are two different products: streaming source (streamed directly to a desktop computer), or licensed hard copy.

There are a lot of portions of the country that really don’t have bandwidth to be able to stream that service efficiently, Maden explained, so Hexagon makes the data available in a licensed copy they can store and access. 

The program covers the entire U.S., about 8.5 million square kilometers with 30 centimeter resolution, according to Maden. About a third of the country is refreshed every year. Real City’s 15 centimeter urban coverage includes population centers of 50,000, and Hexagon has collected about half a million square kilometers there, which is refreshed about a third every year. 

Maden added, “Urban area flights are at 15 centimeters. Where we’d like to go in the future and where we plan to go is 5 centimeters in those areas. Our current nationwide coverage is 30 centimeters and we have plans to go to a 15 centimeter resolution nationwide.” He continued, “Something that’s going to be starting in 2019 is with our hybrid program with Real City. We’ll be collecting at 5 centimeter nadir imagery and 3D buildings.”

Bright Future

It appears the aerial imagery segment is booming. Many of the programs include terrestrial components. The goal of more data and higher resolutions expressed in government and private sector programs suggests a strong, ongoing demand for geospatial services. In nearly all cases, it appears that work will be contracted to private sector service professionals.