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Industry Team Proposes Alternative Situational Awareness Technology

May 1999
By Maryann Lawlor
E-mail About the Author

Commercial off-the-shelf products could provide warfighters with more complete battlespace picture, additional capabilities.

Continuously evolving visualization software now allows a host of commercial and military customers to tour a location in four dimensions without leaving the comfort of their desktop. Database and real-time imagery combined with user-friendly, dramatic formats enhance applications ranging from farmers assessing crops to the intelligence community viewing potential hot spots.

Maps have been valuable tools since the early days of man’s quest to know the Earth, but images of the planet collected by satellites since the 1960s added a new component to the equation. Given a bird’s eye view of land and water masses, mountains of data about buildings and infrastructures, the capability to add the fourth dimension of time, and the ability to blend this information, industry soon seized the opportunity to offer this total picture in products that turn raw data into valuable knowledge.

Commercial technology has been employed by several government agencies including the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA). Other sectors of the Defense Department have employed government off-the-shelf (GOTS) technology for developing their own mapping toolkits.

NIMA’s Pathfinder 99 program assessed several commercial scene visualization products for agency use. Calling scene visualization “an important component for integrating the mapping, charting and geodesy community with the imagery analysis community,” the program’s report focused on the availability of various hardware and software products from the commercial and nondevelopmental markets.

The program includes broad-range tools from companies such as Autometric Incorporated; Evans & Sutherland; PCI Remote Sensing Corporation; Cambridge Research Associates; and Lockheed Martin Vought Systems. Companies providing mid-range tools include ESRI; Intergraph; ERDAS Incorporated; Evans & Sutherland; Harris Corporation; TerraSim Incorporated; Paradigm Simulation Incorporated; MultiGen Incorporated; and Planet 9 Studios.

To address concerns about the cost and viability of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) visualization products, one of these market specialists has entered into an agreement with another industry leader to offer an alternative to the government’s current mapping product.

Representatives from Autometric Incorporated, Springfield, Virginia, and ESRI, Redlands, California, offer that existing commercial software exceeds the capabilities of current government products and believe that by combining their strengths they will be able to address questions about using COTS software, including interoperability and cost issues.

Because commercial technology designs and prices are driven by market demands, private industry is making leaps in technology, and fees are remaining competitive, according to Laszlo R. Gasztonyi, general manager of the commercial products and services group at Autometric. The desire for total solutions is also compelling visualization simulation, GIS and computer-aided design firms to merge, not their companies, but rather their capabilities and applications.

“Companies are under pressure to create the best product for the best price, and this leads to innovation,” Gasztonyi offers. Many GOTS products involve designing one product for a specific program, and no incentive exists to find additional applications for an individual product or program, he adds.

After conducting several demonstrations of Autometric’s products for military customers—software programs that, according to Gasztonyi, “raised some eyebrows” with their visualization capabilities—the company decided to pursue the command and control segment of the military. The firm has also received requests from military personnel for access to technology with these capabilities as well as heard concerns about the limitations of current GOTS products and the direction and pace at which these products are being developed.

Gasztonyi notes that both NIMA and the National Security Agency already are using company products for information operations planning to determine where telecommunications infrastructure is located. With this information, commanders can assess advantageous targets as well as vulnerable areas in friendly zones.

It is this commitment to providing U.S. warfighters with the best GIS and visualization technology available that has been one of the motivators behind both Autometric’s and ESRI’s determination to get COTS products into the global command and control system. Many of both companies’ employees came to the commercial world from a military background. This continued allegiance to the service and the troops is one motivator. However, representatives from both companies acknowledged their concern that, eventually, government technologists will design comparable products and provide them at no perceived cost to all military sectors as well as foreign customers. This development could affect business opportunities for some GIS and visualization companies, Paul K. Maguire says. He is Autometric’s director for command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance business development.

Faced with the Defense Department’s position that no single company offers a complete COTS solution and that the firms that hold the individual pieces are not working together, Autometric and ESRI entered into negotiations to address and dissolve these objections, Maguire explains. The team will now jointly offer an alternative to the joint mapping tool kit (JMTK), designed to be embedded within the Defense Department’s command and control program.

Autometric’s contribution to the partnership is elements of its enhanced digital geodetic environment (EDGE) product line. Described as the 21st century’s visual computing paradigm, EDGE consists of several items that offer different capabilities.

One item, ImageScape, features the ability to zoom through multiple layers of texture detail from large area coverage with low resolution for country-sized areas to higher resolution for specific areas of interest. This multiple-resolution capability is provided to both two- and three-dimensional windows. With on-the-fly mosaicing, images and maps of unlimited size are displayed in their correct geographical region without user intervention. Zooming capabilities are unlimited, allowing the user to view the entire theater of operations or focus on a targeted area. Various layers of image detail can be blended to maximize the information display with the tool’s real-time fade capability. Real-time control is available for contrast, brightness, fade and threshold. Accepted image formats include ARC raster digital graphics (ARDG), compressed ARDG and band sequential for maps as well as controlled image base, national imagery transfer format, Sun raster IRIS, and ER Mapper for imagery.

Another module, TerrainScape, includes a multiple-resolution terrain capability that enables a user to load broad-area, low-resolution terrain models with high-resolution terrain models of specific areas. When terrain is added, sensor modeling and display are enhanced. Terrain grids enable views of topographical models in reduced increments for increased detail or expanded increments for a general overview of an area. With the use of vertical exaggeration, a terrain’s subtle features, which might not otherwise be visible, can be extracted. Importing and viewing commercial and government-supplied terrain models enhances the display and analysis of a selected area.

This EDGE element supports commercial and government-standard terrain data formats including National Imaging and Mapping Agency-standard digital terrain elevation data, ER Mapper and 16-bit signed binary.

Changes in the weather can play a key role in decision making. Autometric’s WeatherScape, another component of the EDGE product family, incorporates data from the satellite active archive merged with commercial weather data from geostationary environmental satellites, the geostationary meteorological satellite system and Meteosat. Users can fly through clouds, see perspective views from any vantage point, and employ time-lapse animation as well as assign cloud elevations and schedule data retrieval.

Although these products fulfill many military demands, it is the EDGE Developer Option (EDO), a group of tools that work in Microsoft Windows 95, 98 and NT environments, that will be combined with ESRI GIS analysis and spatial data management software to produce the JMTK alternative.

Several components compose EDO. A C++ toolkit with visualization, simulation and analysis libraries, EDO allows users to enlist the same types of capabilities as ImageScape, TerrainScape and WeatherScape. It provides a two- and three-dimensional visualization environment for imagery, terrain and maps, and features drag and drop, cut and paste, annotation, print and speech support capabilities. EDO Sim 1.2 offers clock support, vector objects and satellites, and ground sites information. Introduced earlier this year, EDO Dcb 2.0 features database connection, query capability, layer control and vector management. It is this final component that will tie into a database and be used with ESRI’s contribution to the team product.

These substantial visualization capabilities require both a wealth of data as well as a means to manage and store this information.

“Things are moving fast in all dimensions. Graphics capability is moving so quickly. It started with UNIX but is moving fast to [Windows] NTs,” Jerry Moore, director of marketing standard products and services, Autometric, says. “Now the problem is the storage of data. Whenever a new storage task comes out, we embrace it, and that’s what’s driving the storage industry. The more storage the industry can provide, the more we use. It’s a good synergism of technology. We’ve never met a storage place we didn’t like.”

To create a JMTK alternative product, the EDGE visual computing technology will be coupled with ESRI’s Spatial Data Engine (SDE). This combination addresses the enterprise-scale data management requirements of JMTK. SDE spatially extends every major commercial retailed database system, company officials say. In addition, Autometric’s technology will be combined with SDE and ARC/INFO, another ESRI product, to ensure that the resulting commercial tool kit offers seamless interoperability between Defense Department systems.

SDE is a client-server software that enables spatial data to be stored, managed and retrieved from commercial database management systems, including Oracle, Microsoft SQL Server, Sybase, IBM DB2 and Informix. The product supports multiple users with open access to spatial data and provides open data access across local and wide area networks and the Internet using transmission control protocol/Internet protocol. It provides fast access in heterogeneous environments that include UNIX and Windows clients and servers.

Using the software’s open development environments and ARC/INFO, users can customize applications.

“When you look at database access tools, where is the cost? It’s in people, including the training, systems and data. SDE is a relational database server with all the information, including geographical,” according to John J.D. Day, ESRI account manager for U.S. Army/Air Force command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

The software offers the advantage of centralized, cost-effective data management by reducing physical storage needs and data upkeep and employing cooperative processes by drawing on both client and server processing resources.

The company’s ARC/INFO GIS software toolkit contains a set of data entry and editing tools. These allow users to build vector databases using scanned raster imagery and to convert data between numerous raster and vector formats. In addition, advanced cartographic production tools enable the creation of interactive map compositions.

Later this year, ESRI will release ARC/INFO Version 8, an integrated software system of desktop applications and back-office services. With the upgraded package, existing applications are updated and extended so that databases in Version 7 are unmodified and will be compatible with the new release. New menu-driven applications will be introduced, including ArcStudio, a map-centric application for displaying, querying and analyzing map data. ArcManager, another new feature of Version 8, is a data-centric application that allows users to locate, browse and manage geographical data. The final addition, ArcToolbox, enables geographical data processing operations such as conversion, overlay processing, buffering and map transformation.

Autometric is also developing new technologies to introduce into future marketplaces. After devoting the last four decades to refining visualization techniques for the planet, the company now wants to populate this space. “At the present time, we give a picture of the battlespace that shows where aircraft, tanks and radar are—situational awareness. But the question is, ‘Where are all the people?’” Moore explains. Maguire adds, “Our goal is to be global, regional, local and personal. We are already in the global, regional and local parts. Virtual humans puts us into the personal space.”

Gasztonyi explains the concept further. “Virtual humans are the next step. We have urban scene visualization in real time, including fog, buildings and so on. Now we want to put a person looking out the window of the second floor of a building, for example. What can she see, and how much of it can she see, and how much can she make out? Can she read the sign on a building a couple blocks away? Then the next step is why not be in the office with her? Using photos or video, we can create a person and understand how to put that person in a room. This is all part of internal research and development right now,” he says. Maguire estimates that this technology will be available in the next two to four years.

In addition to digitizing humans, the company is also working with intelligence agencies to determine how to put GIS and visualization capabilities on palmtop computers. Rather than equipping automobiles with global positioning systems that must remain in the car, these devices would be portable, allowing users to take them with them, Gasztonyi explains.

Representatives from both companies agree that two concepts are key to both commercial and government clients. Modular products that allow clients to customize their systems to meet their own individual needs permit the flexibility that the marketplace is demanding. In addition, interoperability between systems from different companies must be built in because customers reject the prospect of being locked into a single product line or one company’s offerings.