SAN FRANCISCO — When researchers wanted to comb through 85,000 high-resolution satellite images to identify promising sites in their ongoing search for the hidden tomb of the ancient Mongolian emperor Genghis Kahn, they enlisted the help of thousands of volunteers by turning the task into a grown-up project similar to the popular “Where’s Waldo” children’s books.
Volunteers were given online access to satellite images and asked to highlight roads, rivers, modern structures and anything else that looked unusual. They were then shown what other volunteers spotted in the same image and invited to follow blog posts written by researchers who traveled to various sites looking for hidden tombs.
That project, which was initiated in 2010 by researchers at the University of California, San Diego, National Geographic Digital Media and DigiTar Inc. of Boise, Idaho, has not yet located Genghis Khan’s tomb, but it helped researchers find dozens of previously unknown burial sites and led to the creation of Tomnod, a company devoted to harnessing the power of large groups of people to perform satellite imagery analysis.
On April 8, DigitalGlobe Inc. announced its acquisition of San Diego-based Tomnod. The move is part of DigitalGlobe’s effort to find new ways to use the massive amounts of high-resolution satellite imagery the Longmont, Colo.-based company’s spacecraft capture daily. With its January acquisition of GeoEye Inc. of Herndon, Va., DigitalGlobe’s fleet expanded from three satellites to five. That expansion improved the company’s ability to capture an increasing array of new, high-resolution images and augmented its extensive archive, said Stephen Wood, vice president for analytics at DigitalGlobe.
However, the expansion also presents challenges, including the need for DigitalGlobe to find innovative ways to “mine and make sense of all that data,” Wood said. In addition to developing techniques to crowdsource imagery analysis, Tomnod created algorithms capable of collecting input from large groups of people and combining that data to solve specific problems. Tomnod used crowdsourced imagery analysis to assist rescuers searching for missing hikers in the Peruvian Alps and to monitor fighting in and around the Syrian capital Damascus.
While crowds of people can assist in examining satellite imagery, the job of using that imagery to solve complex problems requires multiple steps. Experts on a certain city or region, for example, might assist in identifying prominent buildings or pinpoint the location of crowds of protesters in satellite imagery. Then, computer programmers find ways to compile the information provided by experts and present it in a format that later can be used by people trained to analyze satellite images. By combining useful data derived from crowds with computer algorithms and many other sources of available information, satellite analysts can develop products that meet the needs of individual customers, Wood said.
Another challenge facing DigitalGlobe is finding new customers for satellite imagery. DigitalGlobe and GeoEye have done a good job serving large government customers who possess extensive experience working with remote sensing data, but “we have to do a better job of making this technology accessible to everyone else,” Wood said. “We have to make it less technical.”
Many potential customers may be unfamiliar with the benefits they could obtain from satellite imagery. As a result it will be DigitalGlobe’s job to “explain, evangelize and show the utility” of satellite imagery to shed light on a wide variety of environmental, societal and economic issues, Wood said.
At times those various issues are tightly interwoven. That was the case when DigitalGlobe began providing imagery to assist local officials and aide organizations working to help the local population during flooding in Thailand in 2011. Shortly after providing imagery to first responders, DigitalGlobe began receiving inquiries from businesses concerned about the ability of manufacturers in the region to produce computer hard drives, Wood said. While DigitalGlobe’s first priority is to provide information to first responders, the firm often finds multiple customers for the same imagery, he added.
DigitalGlobe did not disclose the price it paid to acquire Tomnod and said in an April 8 website posting that the purchase “is not material to our financials.”
With the acquisition of GeoEye, DigitalGlobe’s fleet includes the WorldView-1, WorldView-2, Ikonos, GeoEye-1 and QuickBird imaging satellites. The company announced plans in February to complete construction of its WorldView-3 satellite for an anticipated launch in 2014. DigitalGlobe also plans to finish construction this year of GeoEye-2, but to keep that satellite in storage on the ground until it’s needed to meet growing demand or replace an orbiting spacecraft, according to the Feb. 4 announcement.