ST. LOUIS — A technology gap in the autonomous vehicle industry today is access to highly accurate 3D maps of the Earth so vehicles can identify objects and safely navigate in unfamiliar terrain.

Earth observation company and satellite imagery provider Maxar has produced high-fidelity maps for military and government customers, and is now positioning to fill a growing demand for this technology in commercial markets like driverless automobiles, said Tony Frazier, Maxar’s executive vice president of global field operations.

“We’re seeing interest from the auto industry in high fidelity maps to enable autonomous vehicles,” Frazier told SpaceNews at the 2021 GEOINT Symposium.

Maxar opened an office in downtown St. Louis in 2019 to support its main customer, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which is building a new campus here known as Next NGA West.

Frazier said the company is seeing a dynamic geospatial industry ecosystem emerging in the area “that is not just about supporting NGA but also broader consumer applications.” Maxar also is seeking to diversify its business and reduce its dependence on U.S. government contracts.

A key goal for the geospatial industry is to deliver accurate global representations of the Earth as a reference foundation, Frazier said. Maxar has accelerated work in this area following the acquisition of high-resolution 3D mapping company Vricon in 2020. It is creating products that combine Vricon’s 3D technology with Maxar’s high-resolution satellite imagery.

With accurate reference mapping, cars, ships and aircraft can navigate without GPS signals, Frazier said. There are today navigation techniques for a pilot to fly without GPS but they are highly manual processes that require a lot of the pilot’s attention.

Maxar demonstrated its 3D reference mapping recently on a vision-based navigation system used on a Saab Gripen jet fighter aircraft. Saab, a Swedish aerospace company, previously owned 50% of Vricon until Maxar acquired it.  

In the demonstration, a camera on the jet captured a livestream of its flight path. Maxar’s geo-registration software compared the livestream to the 3D model of the area stored on the jet, said Frazier. By matching scenes in the livestream to the 3D data, the system can determine the jet’s precise location, enabling the pilot to navigate without GPS.

Frazier said this was an important demonstration that could pave the way for broader use of this technology

Army contract for 3D global terrain

Maxar meanwhile is advancing 3D mapping technology under a $39 million U.S. Army contract initially awarded to Vricon for a 3D global terrain prototype, or a virtual representation of the Earth that Army operators can access online for training or to plan operations. 

Frazier described the project as creating a “digital twin that mimics the physical world, digitally.” 

The current contract is to build a prototype. Frazier said Maxar is working to complete this prototype and expects to receive a production contract in the near future. 

“We see a lot of the innovation occurring around our ability to offer global accuracy and 3D capabilities,” he said. “We’re seeing that many of the companies that we’re working with are attempting to build more immersive experiences, taking advantage of and augmented reality and virtual reality technologies.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...