Video Games, Satellite Imagery and Alexander the Great: More from DGI 2012

January 24, 2012

Costa Concordia, as seen from a DigitalGlobe satellite, January 17, 2012. Photo from DigitalGlobe's Flickr stream; used under guidelines for editorial use on the DigitalGlobe website

Even though it may be taking place under a blanket of mainstream news media indifference (see yesterday's post for my thoughts on that), the discussions at the Defence Geospatial Intelligence conference currently taking place in London have been substantial, absorbing and fascinating. They may not be considered as newsworthy as the breakdown of Seal's marriage, 'Appy 'Arry's courtroom hilarity or the latest barbs slung between people who might run for president or those slugging it out to be mayor of London, but to my thinking the topics have been as urgent and important as they are frequently complex and cognitively demanding.

Yesterday's preliminary Focus Day was devoted to discussion of new technologies in the geospatial intelligence arena. An early highlight was a presentation by Lieutenant Colonel Babis Paraschou, the Chief Geospational Officer for NATO's Deployment Corps. He's been working with a private company in Greece - one of only three in the world with the necessary printer - on compiling holographic maps. A 3-D map makes visualising contours much simpler for people who may not be good at turning traditional map data into pictures in their head, and, unlike a stereoscopic image which is formed by fusing two pictures taken from slightly different angles, a holographic map can be created from a single satellite view. The concept is proven but it's not yet operational: Paraschou is currently working on creating a holographic map of Alexander the Great's empire to help further refine the techniques.

The presentation by John Lucier, senior product manager at DigitalGlobe, was almost as impressive as the calendars they were giving away from their exhibition stand. The satellite operator and imagery supplier collects images of an astonishing 2 million square kilometres every day, and can deliver enhanced, sharp pictures to customers within three hours. Clearly, data storage is pretty important to them, and the numbers DigitalGlobe deal with are mind-boggling. The company keeps imagery on spinning-disc storage for 90 days, then migrates it to a robot-controlled tape archive. They have been in business for 11 years and are legally required to retain every single piece of imagery they have ever collected. Lucier didn't go into how physically big that tape storage facility must be, but I'm sure it's not just their high-resolution satellite cameras that can see it from space.

Another fascinating and unexpected set of insights came from a presentation by Timothy Lanfear, Solution Architect at Nvidia. The US-based multinational is synonymous with graphics processor cards beloved of PC gamers, so they seem an anomalous exhibitor at a defence/intelligence event. But the processing power games require means that an Nvidia card, when set a numerical computation task, can complete the job around ten times faster than a normal CPU and drawing considerably less power. So Nvidia have developed a range of cards which leverage their games processing power for non-visual applications and have mated them with conventional CPU cards. It's easy to see that the resultant one-board computers - small, light, low power consumption, order-of-magnitude improvement on output - would be of interest to people designing systems such as unmanned aircraft, where the ability to process and analyse more data on board the aircraft would bring considerable advantages. My first thought was that maybe the effect would be akin to increasing the downlink bandwidth - the card would be able to put more data down the same-sized "pipe" than would otherwise be possible - but when I spoke to Lanfear later I discovered that, instead, the card would effectively permit faster and better processing and editing on board the aircraft, so that what gets sent down to the ground is the most relevant information. The same processors, included in the ground station, can be used to stabilise, sharpen and generally enhance the imagery in real time. Astonishing to think that the company have only been able to develop this new side of their business off the back of their consumer products' success - people often talk about military UAVs as being "video game warfare", but I'm sure they didn't realise that it's video gamers who may end up subsidising improvements in the sector.

And as for Saab's presentation - well, see for yourself: the videos of their rapid 3-D mapping products are much more impressive than anything I could write about them.

I realise I'm a day behind already, but there's too much here already. I'll write about the first full day of conference sessions tomorrow.


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