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Mapping urban canyons.


Urban areas severely complicate situational awareness and threat identification, requiring a specific, time-consuming intelligence preparation of the battlespace (IPB). Besides, the peculiar human nature of urban terrain combines with today's stringent rules of engagement, which tend to minimise friendly fire and collateral damage risks. Such constraints call for data accuracy and availability in large volume; new solutions which are breaking away from classical geospatial information production processes, leveraging 2D/3D data processing to describe urban complexity.

Urban terrain poses a formidable challenge to military operations. No need to look back as far as Stalingrad for lessons learned; combats in Beirut, Mogadishu, Grozny, Jenin or Fallujah all share a considerable cost and a common finding; understanding the complex, compartmented and obstructed urban environment is critical to ensure the success of operations in built-up areas. Urban mapping is a branch of human geography and is challenging too by its very large, or human scale (1:10 000 to 1:5 000 ideally), whereas most military maps deal with strategic, operational or tactical scales. Beyond surveying population and social habitat, the amount of artificial features range from transportation infrastructures to built-up superstructures, and an increasingly complex network of utilities: water, sewage, power and phone lines, and more recently digital communications, either based on ground cables or radio relays.

Ironically, this massive information exists in documented and often updated formats; it was needed from the start to build any city, for urban planning or cadastre and utility layout. However, this data comes in multiple, fragmented and proprietary sources, from archaeological surveys to power distribution charts, and incidentally, urban paper maps. Digital information for urban applications thus still forms a minor part of available mapping information, compared to land survey or maritime and aeronautical charting; information standardisation and integration about cities are still at an embryonic stage. These shortcomings painfully appear during every disaster relief operation, as recent crises have shown from New Orleans to Bangkok. Each time, responders struggle to aggregate data owned by multiple stakeholders; they are critically short in any military operation in urban areas, whether cities are orderly planned or resulting from anarchic urban growth.


This is probably why most Geographical Information Systems (GIS) vendors propose dedicated tools adapted to urban mapping, from raster edition to digitised paper maps, or vector edition to add additional features. Early modules dealt with cadastre or urban planning applications; newer ones provide advanced tools to produce fine-grain information for navigation, horizontal and vertical planning, or rationalisation of overlapping utility networks. In this process, classical 2D descriptions are giving in to innovative 3D representations of urban information, with a growing contribution of high-resolution, multi-sensor imagery, modelling and simulation, and layers after layers of semantic information, from mere postal data to qualitative features about habitat, business, and residents patterns of life.

IPB for Military Operations in Urban Terrain (Mout) hardly benefit from this increasingly rich information content, though. Since combat or disaster relief operations often develop in poor countries or even failed states, with little or no cooperation from local authorities, modern armies spend a considerable amount of effort to survey, map and describe urban areas of operations in a hardly permissive environment. The long haul of producing up-to-date urban maps for military operations, ill-adapted to operational tempo, is thus increasingly giving way to more automated urban feature description, leveraging recent breakthroughs in payload miniaturisation, multi-sensor processing and big data exploitation. The new capabilities arising from network-centric operations conducted by highly-digitised and connected forces also bring new requirements to accommodate precision navigation, targeting and communication needs.



Urban areas are captured primarily through remote sensing. In peacetime, aerial imagery provides the best compromise between high ground resolution and large area coverage, and can be augmented by ground surveys. In non-permissive areas, satellite coverage, at the expense of multiple revisit, provides accurate capture of urban areas, with fused radar and panchromatic imagery producing medium to high accuracy elevation data. Vricon Systems, a subsidiary of Saab Dynamics, offer such aerial or satellite (in partnership with Digital Globe) mapping services. The Image City Map (ICM) format is the primary way to transform space maps into the base layer of urban maps. GIS tools can then edit maps, creating the relevant overlays for street names, area classification, buildings of interest, public works and obstacles. Additional modules provide bespoke urban feature description, notably computer-aided 3D extrusion to compute and extract building shapes. Esri's ArcGIS City Engine, for example, provides such computer-aided functionalities from imagery, including point cloud conversion from lidar data (a laser radar that produce millions of georeferenced points accurately measured in x-y-z). Luciad's Lightspeed saves pre-processing time by reading data in their native format, and offers a simultaneous, hybrid 2D-3D view, instead of dedicated 3D modules of traditional GIS. Such dedicated functionalities for defence users are proposed in Overwatch Geospatial's RV3D, part of their RemoteView suite; Urban Analyst combines various feature extraction and measurement tools tailored to perform terrain analysis within a geospatially accurate terrain environment. It can be imported from a commercial GIS (Esri's ArcMap) desktop project.


The proven MapIt! Software, from the Sarnoff Corporation, provides a somewhat more generic suite for defence and security applications; it combines imagery and lidar point clouds to generate very high resolution digital elevation models (DEM). The resulting ortho-mosaics and 3D site models supports IPB in urban areas, from intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to targeting and damage assessment. Last but not least, the latest release of BAe Systems Socet GXP (Geospatial exploitation Program, see the first chapter of this Compendium) features the next-generation automatic terrain extraction (NGATE), which uses dedicated algorithms to create precise digital elevation models from imagery. All these bespoke applications deliver advanced results at the cost of expert skills, though.


Producing high-fidelity 3D city models has become a trade in itself, and specialised businesses born out of urban planning requirements are now offering geospatially-enabled products earmarked for defence and security. PLW Modelworks in America, for example, produces detailed 3D models of more than 450 locations in 21 countries, covering either critical infrastructures like stadiums, airports and refineries or entire cities, with before-and-after disaster area models like Port-au-Prince in Haiti or Ishinomaki in Japan. On a more modest scale, Vectuel's Virtual City, in France, has built georeferenced 3D models of cities like Abu Dhabi or critical sites like the Kremlin in Moscow. Such products result from specific contracts which render their output proprietary to the user; but the tools and technology used are GIS-compatible and can meet the stringent requirements of urban analysis for critical missions. Georeferenced 3D data in city models can also support further analysis compatible with information and navigation warfare. Additional, highly specialised software modules can compute radio or GPS propagation between buildings. This aspect of urban modelling is often overlooked in military and security operations; however, poor spectrum planning has resulted in the past in catastrophic failure, as experienced by Russian forces in their first operation in Grozny in 1994, where urban canyons produced masks and multi-paths which impaired tactical radio exchanges. Luciad solutions take this into account by allowing exploitation of large urban datasets (the new GeoPackage open format defined by the Open Geospatial Consortium) on disconnected mobile devices, as demonstrated in their Astute project for Belgian firefighters. Similarly, GPS data in high-rise cities are often degraded by the buildings' glass and metal structures, calling for innovative ways to provide high-accuracy positioning information. Locata Corporation, an Australian company specialising in positioning solutions in poor or non-GPS environment, has demonstrated LocataNet in White Sands missile range for the US Air Force, using a network of ground-based transceivers to allow air combat missions over the range in GPS-denied conditions. The Air Force 746th Test Squadron is expected to draw significant experience in navigation warfare from this project. The denials of service experimented by both American and Russian GNSS constellations over the Ukrainian crisis clearly point position, navigation and time (PNT) signals as a single point of failure in future information-centric, network-enabled operations, calling for increased attention paid to navigation warfare in areas where positioning information is either degraded or suppressed.



The legacy process of producing validated geospatial information from skilled users and expert tools before dissemination in-theatre is ill-adapted to the human resource and operational tempo in the current theatres of operations. This finding has led to an initial stopgap measure, which consisted in fielding in-theatre geospatial production workshops to support soldiers. It was still deemed ill-adapted to unit-of-action requirements for persistent surveillance and near-real time extraction of terrain features for immediate tactical exploitation.

The solution has come out as a development of the first deployed persistent drones in Afghanistan and Iraq. Platforms like the General Atomics MQ-1 Predator and its sensor delivered full-motion video (FMV) feed to ground stations, and portable terminals such as the L-3 Rover (see Armada 1-2014). In parallel, America began to equip modified business aircraft to carry high-resolution imaging payloads, such as lidars. This was the aim of the US Army Geospatial Centers Buckeye programme which has revived combat mapping since 2004. The Buckeye pioneered the collection of high-resolution 3D (HR3D) imagery over (air) permissive areas of operations, combining 10cm colour imagery and one-metre post spacing lidar into unclassified data, shareable at coalition level. The resulting, human-scale HR3D feed was immediately grasped by special operation forces to plan and execute delicate, small-scale direct action missions in urban areas. Obstacles, cover, concealment, weapon placement, ingress and egress routes, became available out of near-real time geospatial information about urban targets. Deep urban canyon understanding enabled by this high-resolution colour imagery and accurate elevation data acted as a game-changer in the non-traditional ISR and counter-insurgency warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq. Buckeye and its associated suite of lidar exploitation and terrain modelling software quickly proved able to serve military intelligence, special operations, and topographic/geospatial communities at national and coalition levels. Its 3D foundation layer, built by Applied Imagery, supports the most demanding urban terrain analysis, such as sniper/counter-sniper operations or detailed road clearance against road bombs. After more than ten years in operation, Buckeye has been responsible for mapping most population centres and lines of communications in both countries. In early 2014, as American forces began to withdraw from Iraq, the entire Buckeye dataset was given to the new government, a much-appreciated gift in the renewed fighting against radical Islam in northern Iraq by mid-year.


The full-motion video feed delivered by traditional drone sensors is either in wide-field of view or higher-resolution narrow field of view; it produces a frustrating "looking through a soda straw" effect that is ill-suited to a large, complex urban area, where the user loses context rapidly. The solution was offered by latest wide-area persistent surveillance programs; Sierra Nevada Corporation's Gorgon Stare delivered to the US Air Force for its Reaper drones in a first increment is a podded sensor system from Exelis combining nine cameras. It began operations in Afghanistan in March 2011, despite poor initial operational assessment during Air Force testing at Eglin in Florida, followed by on-the-fly improvements. The 16[km.sup.2] area surveyed by the Gorgon Stares visible spectrum and infrared sensors can be broken simultaneously into multiple spot surveillance vignettes and despatched to ten users on the ground equipped with portable ground terminals networked to the Gorgon Stare ground station. Advanced on-board compression and storage hardware and software packed by Mercury Federal Systems in the unmanned aircraft pod overcame the traditional limitations of on-board processing and air-ground communications bottleneck. Gorgon Stare Increment 1 has since logged nearly 12,000 flying hours over Afghanistan terrain. The follow-on Increment 2 passed initial operational capability in July 2014, adding a four-fold increase in area coverage and a two-fold one in resolution. The optronics sensor, delivered from a joint Darpa and BAe Systems Argus technology development, combines with the largest infrared sensor array to date (delivered by Exelis), enabling a single drone to monitor a 100 [km.sup.2] area for several hours. The resulting scene fuses 368 camera images, creating a 1.8 billion-pixel composite video image at twelve frames per second. Increased imaging performance allows users to find smaller targets over larger areas. Dissemination uses commercial standards (e.g. JPEG 2000 for image compression, or GeoPDF for inclusion of imagery and its metadata in digital documents). The Buckeye and Gorgon Stare programmes have acted as force multipliers; they can let future theatre commanders expect near real-time coverage and mapping of the largest urban areas from a single aircraft.


The increased availability and accuracy of HR3D data have brought three-dimensional mapping technologies to the tactical level, allowing deeper understanding of the complex urban environment. These technologies call for new ways of visualising information to produce better situational awareness. Draping imagery over elevation data, which used to be the way to represent 3D features in 2D, is reaching its limits in urban terrain combining topographic and human features. New applications can render 3D data in a dynamic and immersive way to better fuse physical and semantic information, an attractive advantage in visualising urban environments. These applications can produce various 3D supports, turning maps to holograms.

Holographic maps are the main output of the US Army Tactical Battlefield Visualization programme, using technology from the Texas-based Zebra Imaging. Such representation of urban terrain bridges the gap between geospatial community and tactical users, since untrained personnel can understand a complex environment without particular map training. Zebra Imaging's hologram maps can be printed, with 3D rendering triggered by a source of light (e.g. a flashlight) over the film-like map. Viewers don't need any glasses to read the 3D features and can take the custom-made holographic maps with them in the field. The next step is going to see real-time 2D/3D display, allowing real-time data to be fed into the hologram.


Another new technology being explored to leverage HR3D fused with other information overlays (such as C2-related tactical situations, space volumes, or sensor footprint) is being investigated by Thales under its 2014 innovation projects initiative. Released during the company's TechDays in March in Paris, it was shown during Eurosatory as Battlespace Vista, an advanced concept technology demonstrator (ACTD) focusing on air-land integration in Afghanistan. Merging Thales integrated C4I technology with commercial software, Battlespace Vista displayed immersive and interactive information fusing terrain, tactical situation, and semantic information about own and enemy forces, down to the soldier level. Northrop Grumman Information Technology are also investigating similar solutions at a lower technology readiness level, having patented a method combining located video streams with geospatial information.

With these latest breakthroughs fed by technical and operational advances, urban terrain is now reaching a higher level of representation, bringing peculiar situational understanding to non-geospatial experts in a fraction of the time and effort required to build legacy urban maps. Urban and tactical features are just starting to merge in order to present a thematic, layer-based situation to answer mission-driven requirements at a very high scale. This step will pave the way to integration of ever richer urban information coming from civil and military sources, producing a very high fidelity rendering of all the constraints of urban landscapes.

Caption: US Army servicemen examine a holographic map of an Iraqi city. Innovative ways of representing urban areas are demanding new sensors and high-resolution 3D data (Zebra Imaging)

Caption: A satellite overhead view of Falluja, Iraq. Space maps are the primary feed of urban mapping, but a small contribution to the description of the human and physical complexity of cities (Digital Globe).

Caption: Visualising complexity: a combat route planning displayed against multiple constraints in city displaying line of sight from one of the convoy's vehicle viewpoint. Digital geospatial solutions provide both proven and innovative tools to exploit multiple geospatial formats in a hybrid 2D-3D environment (Luciad).

Caption: Raw lidar data read natively in Luciad Lightspeed at a very large scale. Lidar data is the best source of urban 3D mapping since it can capture the smallest artificial features which hamper line of sight and vehicle mobility (Luciad & GeoEye).

Caption: Gorgon Stare's platform and payload provide a proven solution to rapidly generate accurate urban geospatial information from massive volumes of wide area surveillance data, while delivering pinpoint reconnaissance of urban areas to Army and special forces deployed forces (Sierra Nevada Corporation).

Caption: The Argus-IS wide area surveillance payload imagery shows a quantum leap in the command of urban terrain. The latest increments of Gorgon State leverages the latest hardware and software improvements from DARA and BAe Systems (DARPA).

Caption: The Vigilant Stare airborne sensor payload combines the latest improvements in day and night motion imagery sensor integration with intelligence bandwidth management to serve multiple deployed users in near-real time (Exelis).

Caption: 3D data come from a variety of sources; the Battlespace Vista ACTD combines intelligence and situational awareness in an immersive and interactive environment, where a complex scene can be slaved to the user's point of view for maximum situational understanding and decision support (Thales).
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Publication:Armada International
Date:Feb 1, 2015
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