SAN FRANCISCO — Communications electronics firm Harris Corp. has teamed up with the imagery provider MapMart to offer highly detailed digital elevation models to commercial customers. Harris developed the complex algorithms that turn satellite images into high-resolution terrain models to meet the needs of its government customers. The agreement with MapMart marks the first time commercial clients also will have access to the Harris digital elevation models, according to Edward Mushill, manager of geospatial intelligence products for Harris Corp.’s Government Communications Systems Division of Palm Bay, Fla.

In the past, the painstaking process that Harris employees used to compare satellite images of the same site captured from two different angles and determine the elevation at every pixel in the picture was extremely time-consuming. It also made digital elevation models less uniformly accurate and more expensive to produce than the current models, Mushill said. By automating that process, Harris can offer digital elevation models that cover large areas with more consistent accuracy and at a lower price than ever before.

“The capability that we have developed to make those products has advanced to the point that we can produce them in large quantities over large areas at a good price point,” Mushill said.

Even with the drop in price, Harris was not equipped to move products into the commercial marketplace alone. “We don’t have an extensive sales force tailored to the commercial marketplace,” Mushill said. “Most of our people who deal with these kinds of geospatial products are focused on the government market. We never really went after that [commercial] market because we didn’t have a network of distributors to get this product to them or to service them.”

MapMart, however, is an Internet commerce site that specializes in offering geospatial imagery as well as elevation, street and demographic data. Through its web portal, MapMart sells remote sensing products including half-meter resolution GeoEye-1 satellite imagery and 1-meter Ikonos data offered by Dulles,Va.-based GeoEye; 2.5-meter imagery from Spot Image of Toulouse, France; 5- to 56-meter data gathered by the India Space Research Organisation’s ResourceSat-1; and half-meter panchromatic images produced by Longmont, Colo.-based DigitalGlobe’s WorldView-1 satellite.

In partnership with Harris, MapMart is offering customers digital surface models with data points at 1-meter intervals and digital terrain models with data points every 5 meters based on half-meter resolution imagery captured by GeoEye-1. “Particularly for international data, this is more accurate than what was available,” said Rebecca Murray, product manager for MapMart, a division of IntraSearch Inc. of Greenwood, Colo. Digital terrain models, also known as bare Earth models, show only the surface topography of an area while digital surface models include buildings, roads and vegetation in addition to natural features of the terrain.

As a result of the partnership, MapMart will offer the digital elevation models to a wide range of customers including real estate developers eager to understand terrain levels, aircraft training companies that create flight simulations of specific areas and environmental groups monitoring erosion and managing watersheds, Murray said. In addition, the digital models can be used to create fly-through computer programs that give viewers the illusion of traveling over a specific area. Brazilian officials, in their bid to host the 2016 Summer Olympics, used a fly-through of Rio de Janeiro with the proposed Olympic structures included in the landscape. They used elevation data to accurately depict the land area, Murray added.

By using digital elevation models instead of conducting their own surveys, customers are likely to save time and money, according to Mushill. “Take, for example, oil and gas exploration,” he said. “If a company wants to go into a new area, the [digital elevation models] offer a ready-made survey of what the terrain looks like.” Digital elevation maps also will be useful in road building. “Anytime you are doing a highway project in a new area, you want to do flood plain mapping,” Mushill said.

When a company is interested in acquiring a digital elevation model for a specific area, MapMart tasks a satellite to obtain the stereo imagery that is used to determine terrain elevation. For most locations, MapMart can complete a digital elevation model in three months from the order to delivery, Murray said. “If you are trying to task stereo satellite in an area that is particularly cloudy like a Pacific island or a rain forest, that is going to be trickier,” she added.

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...