How Geolocation Has Changed

April 2012
By Kent R. Schneider, SIGNAL Magazine

I joined the U.S. Army in 1968. Having been trained as a Signal officer, I went to the field in the early 1970s with maps in hand, and I used acetate and grease pencils to prepare overlays for troop movements, command post and signal site locations, and the ever-important radio line-of-sight calculations. One of the greatest technology developments of the time was the marking pen—we got rid of grease pencils and we had color!

Fast forward to today. Troops in the field have digital communications, handheld computers, digital mapping, access to databases with friendly and enemy troop dispositions, and computer models to determine optimum terrestrial and satellite communications antenna orientation. Global Positioning System (GPS) information displayed on a digital map background shows exact location and directions to the destination.

Geospatial technology is fundamental to our professional and personal lives now. When was the last time you left the house without a navigation system in your car? Do you own an iPhone or an Android? If you do, the latest apps are asking if they can use your current location to provide information ranging from the weather forecast to the location of the nearest restaurant or gas station. And they display the information on a digital map that can be changed instantly to an imagery display. The airplane on which you travel uses GPS to navigate, and often you can pull up the current location and information on time of arrival on the personal television screen at your seat.

Recently, AFCEA hosted an industry day for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA). The senior leadership explained the strategic direction of the agency and the requirements for industry support going forward. Key to the strategy is not only the movement away from paper maps—although the NGA always will have to maintain some paper maps for specialized applications—in favor of digital maps and imagery, but also the placement of all this data online: in the cloud. Government users globally will be able to pull the maps and imagery they need when they need them, along with the applications they need to use them effectively. These products will be platform-independent—usable on the computer in the command center, as well as on the smartphone or the tablet in the hands of a soldier, sailor, airman, Marine or coast guardsman in the field. The user will not have to determine whether he or she has the latest map or imagery because it will be continuously upgraded as new maps and imagery become available.

This represents a tremendous advance in geolocation. Yet, we are not entirely there today. Significant progress has been made in digitizing maps to blanket the globe and to make imagery available through a combination of government efforts and the growing body of commercial imagery. The underlying data increasingly is being made available, again through a combination of government and commercial work. Not all of this is available instantly online as the NGA wants it to be, but the agency is working diligently to make it so.

Few applications today lack robust links to geospatial data to make them more effective and efficient. These range from command and control to intelligence to logistics. Substantial progress is being made in this area, and some of the most significant new developments in the use of mapping and imagery are tied to real-time data essential to mission accomplishment.

The availability of this data is exploding, as are related applications through the amazing insertion of new technology occurring throughout government and the force structure today. Advances in bandwidth, cloud computing, cybersecurity, and mobility are putting geospatial applications in the hands of everyone on the battlefield and in the sustaining base, down to the individual. The Defense Department chief information officer’s information technology modernization campaign plan describes the full range of effort being applied to enterprise visibility and mission assurance.

This is an exciting time in our business in spite of some budget constraints. At the center of much of the progress are the geospatial technologies and those leaders who are bringing them to us. I extend my thanks to the NGA, its director, Letitia Long, and to all of the dedicated men and women working to make these solutions better. I also give kudos to all of you in industry who are working with them to advance the technologies that give us better tools with which to do our jobs.

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