NGA Mapping Expands to the Digital World

Geospatial and digital-modeling experts are working to craft detailed and up-to-date three-dimensional simulations of real-world spaces

The ancient science of mapmaking is in the midst of perhaps its most rapid and dramatic shift ever, as experts push the field toward multiple new frontiers at once.

One such frontier is electronic: Geospatial and digital-modeling experts are working to craft detailed and up-to-date three-dimensional simulations of real-world spaces—including granular information about materials and weather conditions.

“The potential benefits of 3D GEOINT promise a new way of visualizing, analyzing, and interacting with data in an immersive, dynamic, digital twin of the world,” said Todd Johanesen, director of the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) Foundation GEOINT Group, which acquires, curates, and verifies the building blocks that underpin the NGA’s maps. Johanesen’s remarks came during a keynote address to kick off GEOINT Foreword — the unclassified, science and technology day preceding USGIF’s GEOINT 2023 Symposium.

Mapping’s other emerging domain is interstellar: the NGA is crafting a framework for mapping the lunar surface that is comprehensive, detailed, and current. The moon is just the first phase of the project; the NGA is pursuing the project with an eye toward applying its solution to other planetary bodies such as Mars.

It adds up to a seismic transition for mapmakers—but one that the NGA is embracing. The key to the combined effort is the creation of complex, highly specific, and updatable 3D models of physical space called digital twins, Johanesen said.

The earth-focused version, called the Foundation Digital Twin, enables Johanesen’s Foundation GEOINT Group to “become a data-first organization relying on automation and integration of Foundation GEOINT content to provide consumers with an immersive digital experience.”

The notion of a digital twin isn’t new—their deployment is fast becoming a standard in the construction industry, for example. So what makes the NGA’s effort extraordinary is not only its incorporation of the technology but the scope of its application. Johanesen said the agency’s digital twin ultimately aims to encompass the entirety of the globe, “from the seabed to space.”

He said the agency also is striving to maintain its model with real-time updates, facilitated in part by the use of artificial intelligence to instantly reflect changes to the real-world environment that necessitate updates to the digital twin.

The digital twin “is an opportunity to expand our offerings to our consumers and package them in a way that provides unparalleled responsiveness, recency, and flexibility,” Johanesen said.

In addition to providing actionable real-time intelligence, the Foundation Digital Twin (FDT) also has huge potential as a training tool. It could, for example, enable warfighters to prepare for missions using highly accurate and detailed simulations of the environments and conditions they will soon encounter in the physical world.

Supporting that sort of application is among the NGA’s goals, said Johanesen—in part based on stakeholder feedback.

“That’s usually the first thing that they say, is that they really want it to reflect as much as possible the real world, so that when people are training they have real-world effects and real-world results so that when they’re in the mission space executing their mission, it looks and feels the same,” Johanesen said.

That level of verisimilitude is still a way off for the lunar project because the necessary foundational data and network of sensors have yet to be collected and deployed.

Those limitations are a testament to the centuries- and decades-old earth-bound mapping work that undergirds the NGA’s terrestrial digital-twin project, because those modeling capabilities depend on reliable data sources such as the World Geodetic System 1984 Reference Frame. That framework, overseen and updated by Johanesen’s team, provides the underlying context for all positioning and navigation.

So as Johanesen looks forward to new challenges and frontiers, he also takes care to appreciate the work that has enabled these futuristic projects.

“I have witnessed all of this transition and evolution first-hand. It’s inspiring for me personally and professionally to have been a part of where we were, and where we are now,” Johanesen said. “I’m equally excited to see where we are going. The movement to a data-first organization will be equally, or maybe more challenging than previous transitions. It will require new thought, innovation, and open minds, but it is an essential transition and one that should be made with pride of both vision and heritage.”

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