Connected Car | Emergency Comms | Emerging Trends | Infrastructure
September 6, 2017

How DigitalGlobe offers ‘ground truth’ of Hurricane Harvey fallout from the sky

By Roger C. Lanctot

If you are mapping the planet you can take a variety of approaches. You can drive the roads with trucks outfitted with cameras and LiDAR and GPS, you can fly airplanes outfitted with cameras and related sensors, you can gather and compile existing maps and surveys, or you can aggregate probe data from moving vehicles. But today, if you are building maps for almost any purpose you are likely starting your work with satellite imagery from DigitalGlobe – soon to be owned by McDonald, Dettwiler and Associates.

DigitalGlobe is a behind-the-scenes player in the earth mapping business, but its assets occasionally peek out from behind the curtain, for example in the dashboards of certain Tesla Motors and Audi vehicles – among others. But DigitalGlobe is popping up on the radar of the automotive industry more and more as the company commences offering imagery suitable for developing self-driving systems by offering digital imagery with 30cm-level accuracy.

Mapping companies such as HERE, Mapbox and TomTom use DigitalGlobe imagery as reference and validation for data gathered from vehicle probes and sensor-equipped vehicles.

Eyes in the sky provide ‘ground truth’

DigitalGlobe represents ground truth for many, and nowhere has ground truth become more critical, this week, than in Houston, Texas, where DigitalGlobe has captured the entire mind-blowing impact of Hurricane Harvey from its eyes in the sky.

In the words of one DigitalGlobe executive: “There is a ton of misinformation right now in Houston. I have friends and colleagues on the ground. It’s like a ‘fog of disaster’ – misinformation about what areas are accessible, what areas are closed, etc. to the point where even if you hear a report that something is open you don’t believe it. First responders and relief organizations trust DigitalGlobe. No ‘fake news’ with high resolution satellites.”

Too many, stories coming out of Houston tell of tragedies that might have been avoided if people had either remained in place or evacuated earlier – but making these kinds of decisions requires that bigger picture along with analytical insights.

Those are powerful words when you are talking about hundreds of thousands of people in peril. But DigitalGlobe also gathers far more mundane insights such as lane markings, traffic signal locations, road surface conditions, vehicle speeds – all from far above the surface of the earth.

DigitalGlobe is also able to observe plant openings and closures. The company even has a comprehensive compendium of vehicle production and inventory observations for car makers including BMW (Spartanburg, SC), Toyota (San Antonio, TX), Hyundai (Alabama), Kia Motor Manufacturing (Georgia) and Volkswagen (Chattanooga, TN). In fact, DigitalGlobe has been monitoring a massive and now completely full parking lot for storing diesel-equipped Volkswagens.

“Monitoring” isn’t really the right word to describe DigitalGlobe’s work. DigitalGlobe is simultaneously an interested and disinterested observer. It is up to DigitalGlobe clients to infer the value in the imagery – which is available here

This is not to say that DigitalGlobe is incapable of using machine learning to extract insights from images. But the eye in the sky doesn’t lie – and DigitalGlobe’s satellites are always on and gathering data regardless of the level or nature of human interests or applications.

Another organization concerned with ground truth is OnStar – which has become a resource for owners of GM vehicles in crisis circumstances. I was heartened to hear a report on Fox News highlighted by the GM Authority newsletter regarding OnStar’s response to Hurricane Harvey.

With 200,000 customers in the Houston area, the OnStar Command Center reported 18,000 more calls than it usually receives, according to the report. OnStar became a go-to resource during Hurricane Harvey for locating assistance and evacuation routes or finding family members.

The kind of assistance provided by OnStar deals with a different kind of ground truth. It is the kind of ground truth that is highly specific to the trauma being experienced by an individual or family with no ability to grasp the bigger picture.

Too many stories coming out of Houston tell of tragedies that might have been avoided if people had either remained in place or evacuated earlier – but making these kinds of decisions requires that bigger picture along with analytical insights.

OnStar’s call center is also uniquely equipped to call for assistance on behalf of callers while keeping the caller on the line in order to relay information or establish a direct connection to first responders.

Both OnStar and DigitalGlobe have been able to deliver the big picture to individuals and organizations responding to the catastrophe. Hopefully, the lessons learned from Hurricane Harvey preparation and response will paint an even bigger picture about how to better anticipate and mitigate the impact of such a massive natural disaster.

Roger C. Lanctot is Director, Automotive Connected Mobility in the Global Automotive Practice at Strategy Analytics.

The original version of this article was first published here.

Views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of ITU.

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