Geomatics and satellite imagery in managing your infrastructure

Jim Huff
General Manager, TELUS Geomatics
Edmonton, Alberta

Ryan Johnson
President, Iunctus Geomatics
Lethbridge, Alberta

Public infrastructures are vital and critical components that can affect the growth and prosperity of any and all public and private sector organizations. They include the roads, bridges, buildings, airports, and underground infrastructure that delivers water to its citizens and water and solid waste products to the treatment facilities. They are used to provide the power, gas and communications systems required to sustain all business. How we manage these increasingly costly and critical elements is a significant challenge.

In public and private sectors alike, managers are looking for ways to provide access to current, accurate data, anytime, anywhere and for less money. For cost-effective, informed decision-making, organizations need to share this common information, in simple, flexible, structured, and easy-to-use tools, able to be run by staff throughout the organization. One such solution is evolving out of the Geomatics industry that can provide many of the required functions, tools and data to manage a wide variety of corporate infrastructures.

The word "Geomatics" has a variety of definitions, but one that gets a lot of airtime is "the art and science of managing spatial data to make informed decisions." The Geomatics industry is one of the fastest-growing in the IT sector, and colleges and universities offering Geomatics degrees around the world are just now understanding the significant benefits a well-designed and implemented Geographical Information Systems (GIS) system can offer.

Infrastructure management is a business process and a decision-making framework that covers an extended time horizon, draws from economics as well as engineering, and considers a broad range of assets. The asset management approach incorporates the economic assessment of trade-offs among alternative investment options and uses this information to help make cost-effective investment decisions.

These are the strengths of Geomatics technologies: a GIS application can manage multiple layers of information from a wide variety of systems to provide a pictorial view of all types of infrastructure data presented into a single picture. The old adage "a picture is worth a thousand words" is never more obvious than looking at the data from an entire organization, layered onto a single GIS application. With the increasingly powerful web-based GIS technologies, organizations can combine data from many systems into the common decision support and data dissemination tool that has the power to redefine many traditional business processes.

The terms "Geomatics" and "GIS" cover a broad spectrum of information with numerous training and educational institutions to service our development needs. In the space allotted for this article, we offer a brief overview of the opportunities presented in using satellite imagery as a primary data source for your infrastructure management systems. Typical questions to ask when building a GIS application to manage a public infrastructure include:

  • Where are my assets?
  • What infrastructure assets do you own?
  • What are your infrastructure assets worth?
  • What is the condition of your infrastructure assets?
  • What is the deferred maintenance plan for your assets?
  • What is the remaining service life of your assets?
  • What assets do you fix first?
While the answers are not entirely conclusive from satellite imagery, much of the information can be determined. What are the benefits of using satellite imagery when there are plenty of other sources of geographic data available, such as aerial photography, field surveys, and paper maps?

For most applications, the simple answer is that satellite imagery is faster, better and cheaper. It may be a clich‚, but it's true. A satellite image is often the most practical way to acquire usable geographic information. Consider these advantages of satellite imagery:

Digital
Nearly all satellite imagery is acquired digitally. This means there is no need for expensive data conversion, scanning or digitizing. With minimal preparation, imagery is ready to load directly into your GIS, image processing or desktop mapping system for immediate use. And because it's digital, satellite imagery can be processed, manipulated and enhanced to extract subtle details and information that other sources would miss.

Fast
In the time it takes a field crew to unload its equipment or a pilot to preflight his aircraft, a remote sensing satellite can map a vast forest or an entire city. And because the satellites are in constant orbits, they are rarely more than a week away from acquiring imagery of your project area. There is very little planning required—place an order today and it can be acquired tomorrow, next week or in three months depending on your schedule.

Inexpensive
For large areas, satellite images are usually less expensive than aerial photography or field surveys.

Global
Satellites are not limited by political or geographic boundaries. Commercial remote sensing satellites are in polar orbits that take them over every location on Earth.

Regardless of whether your project area is on the top of a mountain or the middle of the ocean, a remote sensing satellite can collect an image of it.

While an Enterprise GIS system within a corporation is still quite rare, the technologies are available, viable, and capable of significantly improving our infrastructure management capability. Justifying the expense of these systems and satisfying the number of users required to leverage the benefits clearly requires a web-based GIS system, in addition to incorporating more effective data acquisition techniques such as those offered with satellite imagery providers.

For those who wish to further reduce the costs and risks associated with these types of applications, companies are now specializing in providing subscription access to Managed GIS applications. These types of service providers are able to provide a safe, secure, web-based GIS, capable of managing multiple types of infrastructure with little or no risk at reduced costs. Customers share the benefits of reduced costs for common data types through shared acquisition and the reduced cost of shared design and development. So whether you are just starting to build your infrastructure management system or planning your Enterprise GIS application, technology, industry and academia are ready. A GIS can improve your bottom line.

Jim Huff is General Manager of TELUS Geomatics and a board member of Geomatics for Informed Decisions (GEOIDE), a research network established in order to consolidate Canadian expertise in Geomatics. He can be reached at (780) 493-4207 or at telus.geomatics@telus.com.

Ryan Johnson, President of Iunctus Geomatics, a Canadian channel partner of SPOT Image Corporation, can be reached at (877) 604-2800 or at info@terraengine.com.