10+ Surprising Geospatial Technologies

Data Organized on Map

I’ve spent years in the geospatial arena, so I’m a bit of a geospatial technology geek. But now it seems like the rest of the world is increasingly interested in this technology too.

You may remember the old latitude and longitude numbers that you learned about in school. Perhaps they didn’t seem very useful or relevant to life at the time, but these coordinates are now tracked constantly with our various GPS enabled gadgets. It’s becoming increasingly common to use coordinates to define the location of data collected, a person, landmark, and more. We can add even further accuracy by recording elevation and point in time.

I would like to describe some of the components that fall under the umbrella of geospatial technology. You might find some surprises!


First, let’s discuss some of the tools used to collect geospatial data.

1. GPS

Global Positioning System (GPS) technology is the software and equipment needed to provide the location of things on the planet. This is most often done with the use of special satellites but is often augmented by other methods like WiFi signals. There are even technologies in use that determine location by looking at the stars.

2. Field Sensors

Field sensors are electronic devices that are placed to collect information about weather, soil, or other environmental conditions. These data collecting devices could be anything from a camera to a cell phone. During collection, the data is tagged with geospatial information, so the location of the event is known and can be mapped.

Overhead Imagery

My next geospatial category is overhead imagery. This includes all the imagery from aircrafts and satellites.

3. Visual Overhead Imagery

Visual overhead imagery includes what you see in Google Maps and Google Earth when you use the satellite function. This imagery could be collected via satellite or aircraft, and the technology used involves cameras, aircraft, satellites, global positioning systems, altimeters, and microwave transmission equipment. Today, even video is collected overhead by Planet Labs.

If you don’t own an airplane or satellite, can you collect visual overhead imagery? Yes! It doesn’t have to be expensive. Some hobbyists and students are cutting their teeth on low-cost imagery collection using kites and balloons.

Balloon mapping of Lake Borgne, Louisiana (Cartographer: Stewart Long/publiclab.org)

4. Hyperspectral Overhead Imagery

Hyperspectral refers to the waves of light that are beyond human sight. Engineers have developed sensors that can gather these waves from space, but it can also be done from aircraft. The data is then transformed into a visual representation through analysis and processing to create hyperspectral overhead imagery.

This type of geospatial technology has some surprising uses. Over at the US Geological Survey (USGS), they have used hyperspectral overhead imagery collected via satellite to detect the presence of arsenic in the leaves of ferns. Further analysis led them to aid in locating arsine gas canisters buried in Washington, DC. For more information, check out the full dissertation entitled _Remote Sensing Investigations of Furgative Soil Arsenic and its Effects on Vegetation Reflectance_.


Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) is a technology that uses an airborne system to measure distance by shining a laser to the ground and measuring the reflected light. This yields a very accurate contour of the earth’s surface as shown in the image of the Three Sisters below.

LIDAR image of the Three Sisters volcanic peaks in Oregon (DOGAMI)

LIDAR can also measure objects on the ground such as trees and houses. This type of data is used to determine elevation and is often used when processing other imagery to improve accuracy.

How do autonomous vehicles “see” where they are going and what is in the way? LIDAR, of course! Plus, it’s even used in various industries to make 3D models of buildings and topography.


So now that we collected all this imagery, how do we use it?

6. Imagery Processing Systems

The overhead imagery produced from satellites and aircraft is not perfect for human viewing in raw form. So we use imagery processing systems to help automate the manipulation of images and data collected. This collection of computer systems makes the images and data useful to us.

Most images are taken from an angle and must be adjusted or warped. Imagery processing systems assign each pixel a geographic coordinate and an elevation. This is done by combining GPS data that was collected with each click of the camera.

Often this process is called orthorectification. To see a simplified illustration, take a look at this orthorectification animation from Satellite Imaging Corporation.

7. Geospatial Mapping

Geospatial mapping is the process and technology involved in placing information on a map. It is often the final stage of geospatial processing.

Mapping combines data from many sources and layers it onto a map, so conclusions can be drawn about the data. There are different degrees of accuracy required in this process. For some applications, showing data in an approximate relation to each other is sufficient. But other applications, like construction and military exercises, require specialized software and equipment to be as precise as possible.

In an earlier post, I wrote about creating maps with D3. The goal was to build a heat map to display the count of documents for each place name as shown in the image below.

Data Organized on Map


Let’s explore the some of the applications of all this geospatial technology.

8. Geospatial Marketing

Geospatial marketing is the concept of using geospatial tools and the collection of location information to improve marketing to customers. This is often a subset of geospatial mapping, but this application combines data about customers’ locations. This can help determine where to place a store or how many customers purchase from a particular location. For example, companies can use data about where people typically go after a ballgame to determine where advertisements should be placed.

Another widespread application of geospatial data in marketing is using the IP addresses gained from customers browsing websites and viewing advertisements. These IP addresses can be geographically located, sometimes as specifically as a person’s house, and then used to target advertisements or redesign a website.

9. Location-Aware Applications

Location-aware applications are a category of technologies that are cognizant of their location and provide feedback based that location. In fact, if an IP address can be tied to a location, almost any application can be location-aware.

With the advent of smart phones, location-aware applications have become even more common. Of course, your phone’s mapping application can display your location on a map.

There are also smartphone apps that will trigger events or actions on a phone when you cross into a geospatial area. Some examples are Geofencer and PhoneWeaver.

Additionally, the cameras on smart phones can collect the location of the phone when taking a picture. This is imbedded within the picture and can be used by Facebook, Picasa, Photoshop, and other photo software to display locale information on a map. (You may want to disable this feature if you would rather not have people know where you live.)

10. Internet of Things

The Internet of Things (IoT) is the category of technology that includes electronic objects that connect to the internet and transmit their location. This is a broad and emerging area of geospatial technology that will add even more location data to the world.

IoT could contain objects like cars, fire alarms, energy savings devices like Nest and Neurio, fitness tracking bands like the ones from Jawbone or Nike, and more. For these IoT applications and devices to work optimally, they need to know your location and combine it with other information sensed around them.

Nike+ FuelBand (Peter Parkes/flickr.com)

11. Geospatial Virtual Reality

Virtual reality that makes use of geospatial data is another emerging category. This technology will allow for an immersive experience in realistic geospatial models.

Geospatial virtual reality incorporates all of the technologies listed above to put people into the middle of simulated real-word environments. It’s already been implemented with new hardware like the Oculus Rift, which is a virtual reality headset that enables players to step inside their favorite games and virtual worlds.

Oculus Rift (Sebastian Stabinger/commons.wikimedia.org)

Show Me the Data!

At the base of all of this technology is data. Increasingly, we have to invent more ways to store geospatial data in order for it to be processed and analyzed. The next steps of geospatial technologies involve attaching geospatial information to all data collection and then processing and filtering the massive amounts of data, which is known as big data.

This is my list of surprising geospatial technologies that matter today. It started out as a top 10 list, but evolved to 11 because I just couldn’t leave out geospatial virtual reality. It’s so cool! Feel free to add your suggestions of geospatial technologies in the comments below or as a pingback.

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