Amazon’s Delivery Drones and GIS Mapping

We have previously identified drone technology as one of the top applications of GIS in 2019 and beyond. Amazon’s Prime Air drone project, which is expected to officially launch sometime in the next few months, is a perfect example of how several GIS technologies, artificial intelligence and drones have come together to create the future of unmanned aerial systems (UASs). We’d like to take a step back and examine how Amazon approached using geographic information science (GIS) to address some of the common challenges associated with using autonomous aerial systems for mapping and dynamic environment navigation.

For those interested in getting involved in cutting-edge technologies that make autonomous aerial systems possible, USC offers a Master Certificate in GIS, Remote Sensing and Earth Observation. Students will not only gain exposure to the latest remote sensing technologies and applications, they will be able to develop their core skills in spatial analysis, learning to collect spatial information and arrive at actionable insight.

What is Amazon’s Project?

Although it remains unclear when exactly the project will take off, Amazon has been creating drones to ensure fast and safe aerial delivery for its Prime service. In the latest prototypes, the drones have the ability to automatically maneuver in the air, respond to obstacles and fly across multiple axes. Amazon is bringing together a few key technologies that play a critical role in modern geographic information science and technology:

  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Remote Sensing and Imaging
  • Photogrammetry
  • Robotics

Although the use of algorithms in remote sensing and drone technology is not a new trend, Amazon faces a few unique challenges. The company is trying to build entirely autonomous drones to minimize manual interaction and to reduce the cost of its shipping service. Historically, drone technology has included a mixture of remote-controlled and autonomous functionality with limited capability to react to dynamic environments and obstacles. As a result, drones have most often been used in cases where there is little risk of collisions or where the environment is known.

By contrast, Amazon’s drones must be able to respond to changes in terrain and in the environment, such as when encountering other moving objects in the air. They must also be able to operate in places that may not be fully mapped and react in environments they’ve never been in before. While this might have seemed impossible to the first people who used drones for GIS mapping, advancements in image recognition and machine learning, along with faster and lighter on-board processors, have made it more feasible for autonomous drones to navigate chaotic environments.

Drones and GIS Mapping: An Overview

Drone technology has been crucial in developing modern GIS applications and for maintaining up-to-date GIS data. Remote-controlled drones have played an important role in lowering the cost of collecting geospatial data and making it easier to collect spatial data in dangerous environments. Since the integration of GPS technology with these devices, it has also become possible to fly drones over much larger distances and BVLOS or beyond visible line of sight.

Additional technology advancements — in areas such as artificial intelligence, imaging and image recognition, edge computing and remote sensing — have contributed to enabling drones to be used for more efficient and comprehensive GIS analysis.

For example, in addition to spatial information related to geological structures, modern multispectral sensing technology can also be used to acquire data related to the chemical composition of agriculture in an area. Meanwhile, advances in drone artificial intelligence have made it possible to more accurately track wildlife and other dynamic elements of an environment. Here are a few other examples of GIS analysis that can be enhanced with drones:

  • Matching consumer demographic data with spatial information about the places they live
  • Validation of existing GIS data sets
  • Weather monitoring and prediction
  • Habitat surveying
  • Landscape modeling
  • Assessing damage following a disaster

While these are just a few examples, the potential uses for drones are expanding rapidly, and in conjunction with the evolution of onboard image processing, so is the potential use for AI and GIS mapping software. Furthermore, the weight and size of sensors continues to decline, making it possible for drones to carry far more advanced hardware.

However, there are a few common challenges to using autonomous drones that remain. Here are a few of the big issues and how Amazon is approaching them:

Challenges with Autonomous Drone Technology

1. Network Latency

A major challenge associated with making autonomous drones safe to use in highly populated areas is the potential for network disruption. With many artificial intelligence-powered drones, the actual AI is stored via the cloud. Onboard sensors would send image data to a server or another computer to be analyzed, and the AI would send its analysis back to the vehicle.

This means that there is significant potential for delays in the drones’ decision-making and ability to make rapid flight adjustments. Historically, the solution to this problem has been to design drones specifically for low latency. In Amazon’s case, however, the company’s goal is to make its drones “independently safe.” To achieve this, much of the analysis happens on the aircraft itself. As Amazon Prime Air VP Gur Kimchi told TechCrunch, this allows the drone to adapt to its environment even when it loses connection to the network.

2. Software Failures

It’s already pretty terrible when you get the blue screen of death on your computer, but it would be even more horrifying if the equivalent happened to a drone flying toward your house. Amazon is addressing this problem by including multiple layers of redundancy in its drones. This includes multiple operating systems to protect against critical failures as well as multiple types of sensors, so that if one sensor misses an object in the surrounding environment, others will detect it.

The onboard software is also capable of multiple approaches to GIS analysis, including photogrammetry models, Visual Simultaneous Localization and Mapping (VSLAM), segmentation and classification. According to Kimchi, all the different models and sensors must be aligned, or the drone will either delay delivery or abort its mission until it can safely move into an area.

3. Hardware Failures

In addition to software failures, companies making autonomous drones have to address possible hardware and equipment failures. For example, what happens if a rotor or engine breaks?

The Amazon drones are built with a large degree of hardware redundancy so they can continue operating when one component fails. Another precaution built into the design is that they can glide, meaning that it is possible for them to make an emergency landing if multiple components fail at once. In these scenarios, the drones are programmed to land away from people or objects to avoid injuries or property damage.

Amazon and the Future of Drone GIS Mapping

This project presents an impressive milestone for the use of drones across many disciplines. Although Amazon has pulled together these technologies for its business, there is considerable potential for the technology in countless academic disciplines, other business sectors and in government and military operations. As drones powered by artificial intelligence become more cost effective, we will be able to capture GIS data far more efficiently while also gaining the ability to gather a greater depth of information than ever before.

Overview Of 3D Geospatial Information Science

Geographic Information Science (GIS) has established mapping and spatial reasoning as essential methods for problem-solving. Geospatial professionals use GIS to develop buildings, manage disaster response, address public health concerns and much more. For all these innovations, however, traditional GIS systems can be limited by working with only two dimensions.

As spatial software and techniques continue to evolve, USC GIS certificate has been adopted for a wide range of applications. Just as GIS delivered innovative approaches to compiling and analyzing maps, adding a third dimension opens fresh possibilities for fields ranging from urban planning to earth sciences.

What is 3D GIS?

Like standard maps, traditional GIS systems are plotted along two dimensions: the horizontal (x) and vertical (y) axes. 3D GIS goes beyond providing coordinates and makes it possible to depict objects in greater detail by adding another dimension (z).

Most commonly, 3D mapping serves to represent elevation as well as location, creating scale models of features in the earth or buildings. For instance, a topographical map created with 3D GIS can show the height of a mountain, not just its location.

However, geospatial professionals may also choose to plot other variables as z-values or even assign multiple values to the same two-dimensional coordinate. The third dimension might represent:

  • An urban area’s population density
  • The relative suitability of various plots of land for development
  • Concentrations of chemicals and minerals throughout a region
  • The positions of aircraft
  • The depths of underground wells.

All the possibilities that come with 3D GIS also mean adding complexity to the processes involved in developing mapping layers and maintaining spatial information databases. Committing the additional effort and resources is worthwhile in situations where the resulting visualizations allow detailed analysis and accurate planning. Geospatial professionals continue to experiment and discover how the practical applications of 3D GIS certificate software can bring about more powerful problem-solving and in-depth visualizations.

Applying 3D GIS in Disaster Response

In some of the most hazardous situations that face individuals and communities, 3D GIS can help. Extensive geographic data and up-to-date, nuanced visualizations guide efforts to save lives and property or rebuild after devastating events.

Wildfires like the record blazes that raged across California in 2018 can offer examples of how geospatial information proves crucial in planning and executing disaster response. During a fire, detailed maps provide emergency personnel with situational awareness, including information like:

  • The coordinates of a fire and best way to reach it
  • The types of terrain and vegetation in the area
  • Available routes for evacuation
  • Priorities for protecting structures
  • Current weather conditions

After firefighters extinguish the flames, 3D GIS mapping software can make the labor of restoring a decimated area more efficient and effective. In a hilly region, tasks like fertilizing and seeding the land for new plant growth may be complicated by uneven terrain and weather conditions. Wind and rain might transport fertilizer particles to low-elevation areas or outside of the target zone entirely.

By implementing 3D mapping and drawing on historical weather data, planners can account for elevation in their strategies, accurately anticipating wind conditions to distribute seeds and fertilizer evenly. With this data, experts make strategic decisions about where to concentrate the new growth and safely lay out construction plans for nearby roads or walking paths.

Spatial Reasoning for Clean Energy Initiatives

Clean energy infrastructure is another field that has seen a growing demand for 3D GIS. Local government agencies rely on spatial planning to develop sites for renewable energy production. As alternatives to fossil fuels become integral to power industry and transportation, 3D GIS has proven invaluable for taking full advantage of these energy sources and promoting a greener future.

By examining layers of relevant data, planners consider what areas would be best for producing wind, solar, geothermal or biomass and maximize the chances of success for renewable energy initiatives. For example, officials can:

  • Decide what parcels of land have soil that is suitable to grow crops for biodiesel
  • Situate wind farms in areas that pose minimal danger to migrating birds
  • Employ radiation maps to evaluate whether a building is a good candidate for solar panel installation
  • Monitor the status of construction or maintenance projects in real time and provide useful spatial information to workers

Mapping Used by NASA & Application of GIS

When we think of the tools involved in exploring outer space, images of astronauts collecting mineral samples on the moon may come to mind. However, scientists also depend on more remote methods to deepen our knowledge of the solar system and the universe beyond, like those offered by geographic information science (GIS). GIS space exploration has become a crucial part of how NASA gets to know the features of other worlds, develops our broader understanding of geophysics and gathers valuable information about our own planet.

The wide array of GIS uses and applications include enormous possibilities for applying spatial data to make discoveries and solve problems. Geographic Information Science and Technology (GIST) enables powerful insights into the development of urban cities, the geography of forests and even phenomena throughout the observable universe. With skilled experts at NASA and other organizations guiding GIST strategies and software, we can continue to learn more about our planet and the universe.

Exploring Mars with Spatial Thinking

Getting to know the planets and objects in our solar system requires advanced systems for observation and extensive analysis. The more information that researchers have concerning the features of these surfaces, the better we can understand their origins and how they have changed over time. Advances in GIST enable more accurate mapping of planets and other celestial bodies than ever before possible, turning the data and images that satellites and rovers send back into a wealth of spatial information.

Although no astronaut has yet set foot on Martian soil, scientists have become highly familiar with the terrain’s features, thanks in large part to GIS Certification Program. 2001 Mars Odyssey, the robotic spacecraft that has orbited Mars since October of that year, provides spatial data on the planet’s surface. As part of its mission to explore the red planet and locate any signs that it may have once supported life, the orbiter collects geological details and transmits images of surface minerals for more extensive analysis.

To accomplish these objectives, NASA equipped the Odyssey with a camera called the Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS). This system maps the surface, both capturing images in the visible spectrum and detecting thermal energy in wavelengths that are undetectable by the human eye. As a result, scientists were able to generate a detailed model of the planet, learning about many different types of rocks found there and the effects of tectonic activity on the surface. By applying GIS techniques to the details that NASA has collected, experts can find the most productive paths for Mars rovers and potentially a future manned mission.

Venturing to the Edge of the Solar System

NASA further enhanced our perspective on the solar system through the New Horizons mission launched in January 2006. The probe visited Jupiter before carrying on toward the solar system’s outskirts, where it completed its primary mission of observing Pluto in 2015. The Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) and the Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) onboard garnered an unprecedented close-up look at the dwarf planet and its moons before the probe moved on to examine more of the Kuiper Belt, a massive collection of icy objects with a history that traces back to the formation of the solar system.

Planetary maps and mosaics generated from the spatial information gathered from these efforts build our understanding of the geology, topology and geography of distant objects in space. The U.S. Geological Survey’s Astrogeology Science Center offers access to the images and data collected by various missions, including New Horizons, for use by researchers and the public. The database features visuals from our moon, Mars, Pluto, Saturn, Mercury and more, with the compatibility to use GIS certificate programs Los Angeles for further analysis.

Mapping from Space to Solve Problems on Earth

NASA’s organizational goals are not restricted to answering questions about space. The agency also channels its technology and expertise to confront pressing issues here on Earth, and GIS has an important role to play in several of these initiatives. GIS analysts at NASA may be tasked with projects such as:

  • Model the effects of climate change
  • Track the spread of contagious diseases
  • Monitor populations and habitats of endangered species
  • Provide information about water resources and risks of flooding to vulnerable regions

The GIS team at NASA Langley Research Center uses spatial data to perform surveys and measure flood impact, locating flooded buildings and drawing historical comparisons. They also work toward helping the agency function more efficiently and responsibly. GIS tools reveal how to utilize the available area in facilities more effectively and assist in planning relocations. The team continues to create tools for monitoring the construction and maintenance of buildings, as well as managing cultural resources on the grounds of NASA centers.

For those who want to use GIS mapping in their own research, the NASA Center for Climate Simulation released a Spatial Analytics Platform. Some of the applications for this tool’s analytics and data management capabilities include:

  • Compare results for areas included in the U.S. Census
  • Find topographic details for cities around the world
  • Locate hazards like landslides with key statistics
  • Perform geometry operations

What is GEOspatial Intelligence & What are Uses?

What is GEOspatial Intelligence?

Geospatial intelligence (Geoint) is a broad field that encompasses the intersection of geospatial data with social, political, environmental and numerous other factors. The intelligence community defines geospatial intelligence as “the use and analysis of geospatial information to assess geographically referenced activities on earth.”

Geospatial intelligence (Geoint) has played a pivotal role in military operations and in the broader context of human security for decades. From providing critical intelligence in resolving the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 to helping the U.S. facilitate the negotiations that ended the Bosnian war in 1992, GIS military applications have been crucial in ending conflicts that might have otherwise continued for decades longer.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Geoint, however, is how it has evolved over time and taken advantage of new technologies. In addition to examining what geospatial intelligence is, we wanted to look at Geoint through a modern lens and examine how governments and other organizations use GIS Certification courses for Geoint applications today, as well as some of the developments that have made helped Geoint evolve, including:

4 Uses 0f Geospatial Intelligence

  • The role of machine learning and Geoint in disaster response
  • Open geospatial data platforms and food scarcity
  • Interoperability for Geoint applications and data in the military
  • The role of data stewardship in crisis mapping

The Next Generation of GIS Intelligence Applications

One of the most significant trends in geospatial intelligence is the shift in creation and ownership of data. As the United States geospatial intelligence foundation noted, new data sources like OpenStreetMap and Geotagged social media pictures can be leveraged for vital intelligence. However, the availability and open nature of these platforms also presents challenges for the Geoint community, which must rely on data it no longer has full ownership and control over.

1. Machine Learning and Geoint: Managing The Chaos Of Natural Disasters

While it may sometimes seem like the entire world is documented, catalogued and analyzed, there are still many permanent and semi-permanent structures that remain unmapped. One of the main barriers to collecting geospatial data has been the manual and time-intensive work involved; this is especially problematic for instances where landscapes and structures change dramatically (i.e. after a natural disaster).

Geospatial intelligence software, augmented with machine learning, could help to map changes in terrain and structures, making disaster response projects more efficient and more effective. Several organizations are looking toward algorithms to help create more timely and accurate maps. One example is the Spacenet “road detection and routing challenge,” a $50,000 competition to develop an automated method for extracting information about road networks. Crowd sourced data proved to be an invaluable resource in the response to hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, but the successful implementation of machine learning could yield faster and more accurate maps to help emergency personnel find people in need or identify the best routes for delivering supplies.

2. Open Geospatial Data Platforms Helping Fight World Hunger

One of the core challenges in hunger worldwide is the fact that scarcity situations have usually already become dire by the time humanitarian efforts can begin. This is just one of the major challenges that DARPA is hoping to solve through a $7.2 million project awarded to Descartes labs. The company hopes to create a vast geospatial data repository, leveraging sensors, satellite imagery and data from 75 different partners.

In 2017, the company hosted a hackathon, giving developers the goal of addressing food security issues. The resulting projects included:

  • A platform to help farmers share information that would help regions protect crop yields and prevent scarcity.
  • The development of a food security risk index.
  • A fish distribution system for optimizing delivery to regions affected by drought.

Beyond the direct impact of reducing suffering from food shortages, the company suggests that addressing scarcity before it becomes a dire problem could help to avoid conflicts over resources.

3. Interoperability Drives the Future Of Joint Geoint Operations

The U.S. military has been a long-standing user of GIS intelligence to resolve conflicts, protect troops, assess risks and gain information about enemy operations. While not a new trend, the military has addressed new challenges.

One of the most important shifts in the way the military uses geospatial intelligence was the adoption of the object-based production framework. This philosophy focuses Geoint around assembling data together around specific issues, rather than tasking analysts with collecting information from many different sources. This way, analysts spend more time developing intelligence and insights rather than with data management.

This approach is especially valuable in multinational joint operations, where data and gis applications must be interoperable to ensure all stakeholders have access to mission-critical information.

4. Geospatial Data Stewardship as a Critical Factor in Improving Crisis Mapping

Although the visualizations and analyses provided to emergency responders have drastically improved our ability to respond to events likes hurricanes and other natural disasters, it is just one factor in how Geoint has evolved. During the response to hurricane Maria, for example, geospatial data was plentiful but disparate and difficult to use. This led to problems like duplicate deliveries and deliveries that were scheduled, but never made.

One of the developments to arise out of problems like these has been a rise in self-service geospatial intelligence products. For example, fema’s Geo-platform disasters portal provides curated geospatial information and datasets from numerous other apps and sources, providing a key data stewardship role. This effectively gives first responders and Geoint teams a running start in responding to natural disasters.

One of the core themes in all the above Geoint uses is the vast volume of data. As we look toward the future, the ability to manage data at large volumes will continue to be a key theme. However, it’s important to note that the Geoint industry will require expertise both in the analysis and in the preparation of that data. As trajectory magazine noted, data stewardship is often seen as a peripheral function, but it is critical in today’s Geoint world, where the number of data sources and variety of data types will grow exponentially.

How GIS Can be Beneficial to Public Health

In today’s increasingly data-driven healthcare systems, obtaining accurate information for analysis is a high priority. Doctors and nurses want to know as much as they can about the factors that affect each patient’s care, while administrators and public health officials need to keep an eye on population-level trends and maintain regulatory compliance. Spatial data can be a vital asset in achieving all these goals, making geographic information science (GIS) an important part of public health research and strategy.

GEO-health has emerged as a rapidly growing, multidisciplinary field that applies spatial problem-solving to a variety of important questions. Ongoing advances in collecting and visualizing geographic data continue to reveal more uses of GIS specialist certification in public health that range from local initiatives to international collaborations.

By implementing GIS tools and methods, healthcare providers, hospital administration and government agencies gain a detailed perspective on large-scale problems or growing trends. Organizations can analyze locational data and make strategic decisions that save lives around the world, leveraging their findings to direct the effective use of resources and personnel.

Understanding Spatial Factors in Health Challenges

Where people live and work can have significant correlations with their susceptibility to disease or injury. Gathering information about these locations and mapping out potential risk factors may reveal threats to a population’s well-being. Public health GIS data offers visibility into relevant patterns, guiding proactive measures that reduce environmental hazards and achieve improvements in long-term outcomes for patients.

With extensive spatial information and clear visualizations, public health professionals and care providers can prepare for serious threats or spot groups of people that need immediate attention. Teams at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gather a wide range of geospatial details to identify connections with some of the most pressing concerns for U.S. residents. For example, the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion’s Division of Population Health researches issues like:

  • The regional accessibility of specialized medical treatment
  • The incidence of chronic conditions among Medicare beneficiaries across different counties
  • Geographic variations in the average duration of sleep
  • Ties between local drinking establishments and violence or other dangers

Monitoring Disease Transmission

Geographic data has been a powerful means of protecting populations from disease dating back to 1854. Then, English physician John Snow defied common wisdom about the causes of illness when he marked a map of London by hand and succeeded in tracing a cholera epidemic back to a contaminated water pump. Today, tracking and stopping the spread of communicable diseases remains a crucial application of GIS in public health.

The CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention maintains an atlas with charts, maps and tables to illustrate the part played by social determinants in the transmission of infectious diseases. Specialists in geocoding and data linkage from the Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention offer a sense of how race, gender and age may be related to HIV infection in different communities. Meanwhile, the STD Surveillance Network looks for trends in gonorrhea infection, synthesizing geographic findings with other behavioral, demographic and clinical information.

One international Geohealth undertaking set out to map cases of trachoma, the world’s top infectious cause of blindness. This disease causes visual impairment in about 2 million people, many of them living in remote, rural areas of African and Asian nations. The Global Trachoma Mapping Project visualized the problem and assisted in deploying prevention and treatment services to the populations in the greatest need of intervention.

Addressing the Opioid Crisis

The abuse of prescription pain relievers and heroin has grown to epidemic proportions over recent years: The CDC reported that opioid overdoses resulted in 115 deaths a day as of 2016. Bringing together findings from GIS and public health policy solutions helps government officials, healthcare providers and law enforcement manage this crisis.

Using spatial tools, authorities can assemble reports on drug-related issues into clear visualizations. Public health professionals draw on the resulting insights as they direct more resources to areas with clusters of drug arrests and overdoses. Strategic efforts like expanding outreach to at-risk populations and making the drug Naloxone readily available in case of an overdose have life-saving potential.

Fighting the dangers associated with opioid addiction also means educating residents and encouraging them to get involved. Services powered by geospatial databases can:

  • Inform community members of the scale of the opioid crisis in their city or state
  • Offer a simple way of reporting suspected drug activity
  • Direct people to drop boxes for safely disposing of prescription drugs
  • Show what locations in the area can administer Naloxone
  • Provide directions to treatment facilities and needle exchange sites
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