Advanced mapping tools for close-up views of Earth

It seems hard to imagine life without today’s ubiquitous navigation apps, even for those of us who remember MapQuest (and printed atlases before that). GPS and on-demand directions are just part of your smartphone’s basic functionality – and woe to any brand that spoils that. Just ask Apple.

Apple, Google, and Microsoft all call their maps app exactly that: Maps. But they really should be called Directions, because that’s their primary use. Need to know where something is and how long it will take to get there? The big three have you covered. And the same goes for a bunch of other apps. Even the search features of these apps are focused on finding a specific location and getting directions. But what about everything you need a card for?

Perhaps you are in a border dispute with a neighbor or your local government. Perhaps you want to know exactly how much of a nearby forest has been cleared this year. Or you want something as prosaic as a series of aerial images of your lawn to show how much you’ve improved it over the past few months. These services, and many others, require mapping tools that do more than tell you where to go.

Let’s take a look at three of these more hardcore mapping services, from the US Geological Survey’s LandSat, a commercial company called Planet Labs, and Google too. You might be surprised at what they offer and what you didn’t even realize you needed a card for.

This “2.0” is not just for show. This viewer is a significant upgrade over the previous version, which lacked a familiar zoomable overview. Instead, the images were divided into “scenes” – square chunks 185 km per side – and displayed one at a time. It wasn’t really intuitive.

LandsatLook 2.0 now has an Imagery mode, which you can use to scroll and zoom like a regular mapping application. This mode also provides easy access to different types of images, called “strips”, designed to display specific types of information.

These bands include natural color (what we consider a satellite photo), as well as false color images to show heat, urban areas, and vegetation analysis (the density of trees and other cover plants in an area).

The control to select them is on the far right of the top menu. Click it Bands drop down menu (it says Presets and natural color default) and choose a different preset.

[Related: Google Street View just unveiled its new camera]

You can still view Landsat scenes by switching between Imaging and Scenes in the upper left corner of the Web Viewer. Scenes appear on the drop-down map as overlapping squares.

One of Landsat’s main features is its comprehensive archive, which dates back to 1982. At the bottom right of the LandsatLook viewer, you’ll see a timeline. you can click the time lapse button at the top of this feature to generate a series of images and either watch it play in your browser or download it as an animated GIF.

You can select the number of images included in the GIF by clicking on the Date control in the top menu. Select a departure and arrival point from the calendar that appears, then press Apply. If it does not allow you to select a date before October 2021, it is because you are only seeing images from Landsat 9. You can add images from previous Landsats by clicking on the Satellites scrolling menu. Turn everything on to get footage back to 1982.

The time-lapse button is just a shortcut, by the way. You can see many more options for exporting frames (or time lapses) through the Export control at the bottom left of the viewer. In the same menu bar, you can also set Cloud cover, down to 0%. The viewer will filter pixels from other images to remove clouds.

Google Earth Engine

Google Maps has become a ubiquitous part of life for all but the most stubbornly anti-Google, but the big G also offers a mapping platform called Google Earth Engine (GEE). What is the difference? Earth Engine allows organizations to develop, well, anything they can think of using Google’s geospatial data and technology.

An example that Google likes to cite is Costa Rica’s National Geoenvironmental Information Center (CENIGA) and its early warning system to detect illegal logging. Google provides CENIGA with data from the extensive GEE catalog, and CENIGA’s geospatial team uses radar and visual (i.e. photographic) bandwidth information to track changes in near real time. For a country like Costa Rica that cannot afford a huge department like the USGS, with its own satellites, this is a huge difference in the management of the country’s forests.

[Related: Use Google Earth and Street View to explore the planet from your couch]

However, GEE is not just about country-level data. It’s a platform, which means it can adapt to specific domains, or even specific types of data. For example, you might want to run a program on how mangroves are responding to climate change on your particular stretch of coastline. You can use data from Google and the platform provided by GEE to set up a system that monitors how much mangrove growth expands or contracts as the climate changes. Google Earth Engine is one of those systems where when you ask “what can it do?” the answer is “what do you want it to do?”

A particularly important aspect of GEE is that it is free for non-commercial use, but you will need to go through a few application steps to access GEE for free. From the main app page, click Registerfill out the form and you should be approved within a week.

Planet Explorer and Planetary Basemap Viewer

If you were a Planet Labs customer, you would see items for your various projects here, with the names you choose. Anthony Fordham

When you think of a typical satellite photo, you probably imagine an image taken from orbit with a resolution of several meters per pixel. It’s great for regional coverage, but fine detail? Not really.

For extreme detail, you need a commercial operator, like Planet Labs. The company flies two constellations of imaging satellites. The first, called PlanetScope, is made up of tiny Dove CubeSats that take daily images at a resolution of 30 centimeters (12 inches) per pixel. These are added to Planet’s growing archive. The second constellation, called SkySat, allows Planet to offer its customers images on demand, in a process called tasking.

SkySats are more powerful than CubeSats. Not only do they have a resolution of 50 centimeters per pixel (19 inches if you need imperial conversion), but they can capture up to 90 seconds of video. That said, Planet recommends a maximum of 65 seconds for best results.

[Related: This tiny, trailblazing satellite is taking on a big moon mission]

Of course, this kind of quality doesn’t come free. How much does it cost exactly? Well, it’s complicated. Planet keeps its prices close to its chest. However, we can get an idea of ​​the cost from third-party image providers such as Apollo Mapping. They charge archive packages at $5,000 and task packages starting at $15,000. These are minimum orders rather than subscriptions, and again would be changed depending on the customer.

As for Planet itself, if you’re a student or researcher, you can apply for a basic account, but commercial users must deal directly with the commercial department. We told you it was complicated!

However, you might want to wait for a big order, as Planet is about to upgrade its constellation of satellites to a new platform called Pelican. This will consist of 32 satellites with a resolution of 30 centimeters per pixel. It’s not quite good enough to read license plates, but it’s close. Pelican will also be able to ‘revisit’ (ie capture multiple images) a location up to 30 times per day, and can get you an image in as little as five minutes. Again, at a substantial cost.

To play with the Explorer Viewer in Planet’s browser, you can sign up for a 90-day free trial. It includes “selected examples” of a service called My Hosted Data, which shows how you might want to use Planet Labs data for your own project or research.

About Debra D. Johnson

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