Geospatial revolutions

Em Prof Chris RizosSince the 1990s digital technologies have been revolutionising engineering practices, and perhaps nowhere more so than in geospatial engineering, where new and developing technologies such as GPS, satellite imagery, laser mapping and advanced computing systems are all assisting surveyors and geospatial engineers to create complex layers of interconnected geographic information.

New tools do not change the fundamental principles of surveying

Em Professor Chris Rizos

CVEN Emeritus Professor Chris Rizos believes there is a geospatial revolution happening in positioning, mapping and remote sensing. Geography, geometry and cartography are being altered and so is our own analogue sense of space. These far reaching developments are challenging our minds and our very way of being: just as railroads did when, during the industrial revolution, they opened up our horizons and changed our sense of time.

If a map is a compressed form of data, then it is the earliest form of geospatial technology. First revolutionised by photography it is now being transformed by laser scanners that allow us to see through what used to be opaque. These scanners have given ‘sight’ to remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs) that can cover vast areas of land in bite sized amounts of time. Jobs that could have taken months in the past can be completed in days. Difficult surveying tasks which used to involve survey ors climbing and clambering over precarious structures can now be completed by RPAs.

The mobility of laser scanners in Lidar technology has produced higher density mapping with billions of points in space, capturing up to millions of points per second and providing extraordinary levels of accuracy and density. Autonomous, real-time 3D mapping is a new and developing field of interest with implications for the more trivial events like road traffic to the profound destructions of natural disasters.

Professor Rizos describes how maps, as geospatial data, have become mobile, malleable, alive and responsive. “Now maps can be drawn on devices “on-the-fly” as we need them,” he says, “ they can pan and zoom. We can filter information or add layers, such as superimposing socioeconomic data onto geographic detail. We can insert imaginary information like a future building or road onto the current landscape. We can add dynamic data like traffic flow on roads. We can change perspectives in an instant. We can drape imagery onto the “wire-frame” models of buildings.” The list goes on.

Australia is embracing geospatial technology with gusto, resulting in a raft of home grown innovations. Global Positioning System (GPS) has been under development and refinement since the 1980s and has had a revolutionary impact on the geospatial community. It is a low-cost, easy to use, accurate, global tool for determining the coordinates of anything static or moving, on or above the earth’s surface, from dekametre to sub-cm accuracy. Without GPS all images and scans would just be “pretty pictures”, not geospatial information. But…. GPS does not work indoors.

Now an Australian company has developed a new technology called Locata to provide coverage where GPS fails to do so. Locata utilises a network of small, ground-based transmitters that blanket a chosen area with strong radio-positioning signals. Technologies such as Locata can revolutionise safety conditions in underground and interior workplaces such as mines and building sites as accurate positioning helps to ensure the safety of workers in an emergency.

Safety has always been a primary concern in engineering and these new technologies can create safer, healthier work environments. Automation on building sites means robots can do the heavy lifting and this is proving productive and protective in countries with ageing populations like Japan and Australia. In the future, we can look forward to more refined and complex human-robot collaborations.

Despite our analogous predisposition, we humans have swiftly become enthusiastic about and accustomed to digital realities, expecting the transfer of information to be speedy, on devices that are becoming smaller, sleeker, more efficient and cheaper. Chris Drummond and drone

But there is some resistance to the huge influx of digital technologies. CVEN’s Dr Johnson Shen, an expert in construction innovation, puts this down to a range of factors. There is conservativism inherent in any established field that creates a wariness of the untried and untested. New technologies can be expensive and risky and sectors of industry are hesitant to invest. Then there are some who believe we are losing sight of fundamental knowledge amidst the furor of a revolution.

Recently developed geospatial technology, such as GPS, digital cameras and Lidar, are widely available and are so much easier to use than surveying equipment of the past. More and more “non-geospatially-trained” people are using the equipment without foundational instruction. This has the potential to create geo-databases with coordinates that have errors. Imagine putting up a building in the wrong place or an automated tractor running through a fence or internal walls incorrectly located during a Building Information Modelling (BIM) process? While these technologies have the potential to improve safety standards, there is also a potential for harm if used without sound knowledge.

While he believes in fully embracing innovation, CVEN Surveying and Geodesy lecturer Dr Craig Roberts is asking some necessary, pertinent and cautionary questions to those that gather and use geo-spatial data. Do those collecting geospatial data know which datum they are using? Are they equipped to recognise errors and account for them? Do they know, as surveyors do, the difference between ‘ground’ and ‘grid’? As grid flattens the curved surface of the earth can they include scale factors?

After geospatial data is collected how is it understood and analysed? It is time consuming digesting and processing data and point clouds can have so much detail. So how are we to select data to create a model? On which criteria do we base selection? Where are we to find the expertise to reconcile data from many sources? How can engineering clients understand the relationship between accuracy and cost, between technology type and project type?

Once geospatial data is processed where is it to be stored? How much will this cost? Are there multiple sets of the same data? What are the impediments to sharing data? Is commercial confidentiality causing costly replication? For users of data, do they know where it has come from and how reliable that source is or shall we all just trust Google? What about ambiguous or redundant data? Who will decipher it? 

These questions raise more questions about how to train students in a rapidly evolving discipline. How can geo-spatial engineering and surveying students be prepared to deal with the technological advances whilst maintaining foundational knowledges?

As Craig Roberts notes “New tools do not change the fundamental principles of surveying.” But perhaps these advances may change surveying practices. Chris Rizos can see a new future emerging. “Now, because it is so easy to “make maps”, surveyors are moving towards becoming spatial data managers.

Australia is embracing geospatial technology with gusto, with a raft of homegrown innovations.

Dr Craig Roberts

As Geospatial Surveyors, they are also becoming geo-IT specialists.” As the work life of a geospatial engineer is changing in very particular ways, Professor Rizos also notes that this digital revolution is changing all our lives in a very broad and abstract manner.

“Going from ‘analogue’ to ‘digital’ is having huge impacts across a wide spectrum, from merely converting paper records to images or numbers, to truly unlocking the potential for new services, new capabilities, new insights, and ultimately a new way of interacting with the physical or digital world.”