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Ten Sensors & Systems Predictions for 2016

Much time is spent this time of year looking forward. Sensors & Systems has been doing this for the past nine years now, and we’ve taken another stab with this latest list. We did some reflecting on emerging issues, innovative approaches and technology trends to come up with the following predictions for 2016. On the list are hardware advancements, policy decisions and directions, and a whole lot more inputs to mapmaking.

1. New Reality – This year is set to kick off a whole new level of virtual reality adoption given the wide number of new platforms from major players that include Microsoft (HoloLens), Samsung (GearVR), Oculus (Rift), Sony (Project Morpheus), and more. Given this explosion of hardware with relatively low price points, and the obvious extension of these viewing environments into geospatial application space, this could be the year that virtual reality becomes real. It’s not a big leap from there to augmented reality, and that’s where it starts to get really interesting.

2. Automated Mapping – The rise of machine learning is just getting started in terms of interesting map-related applications. The research team at Bentley Systems recently presented technology that takes street level imagery and classifies road type, turn lanes, curbs and other street-related details. This is an exciting application with a whole new level of attributes that are determined automatically and accurately. We can expect similar efforts that do much to reduce the cost of geospatial data while also improving its timeliness and accuracy.

3. Drones (or UAV, UAS, etc.) – The commercial race is on now that the Federal Aviation Administration has made a great deal of 333 exemptions for commercial drone data capture. Thousands of exemptions have been granted to date, with many focused on aerial photography and surveying applications. With the door open for serious applications, the types of reality capture applications are set to explode, with much more frequent flights. Geospatial software will take some time to adapt to these readily available inputs, and a great many new players will enter the market in this space.

4. Improved Insights – Companies like Orbital Insight and Reality Analytics are forging new ground with big data analysis for automated decision support. They both use artificial intelligence with sophisticated algorithms that tease out patterns and return results from imagery, often with data rather than imagery as the final output. This trend had its start some years ago for military purposes, where it continues to thrive and expand for a situational intelligence edge. These companies and others are expanding the use and application for classification and detection of petabyte scale imagery for increased utility of ever-expanding imagery datasets, including all of the inputs from UAVs.

5. Alternative Positioning – The U.S. Secretary of Defense has been making clear he supports moving past GPS to a distributed network based on microelectromechanical systems or MEMS for position, navigation, and timing (PNT) information. He has expressed frustration with the high cost of GPS satellites, the fact that GPS doesn’t work indoors and under certain conditions. Instead, he sees the Internet of Things as the answer for positioning. With this high-level DOD endorsement, and his past role as undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, this dialogue is likely to spur action. Indoor mapping is the final frontier of geospatial data acquisition and could certainly use this push. It will be interesting to see if there are meaningful inroads in MEMS-based positioning in the coming year.

6. Disruption Wins — The millennials have taken over with a dramatic demographic shift. Doing things in a new way is a hallmark of market success with this generation, so disruption is the word of the decade. Expect more new in the coming year, with further hits to institutions and organizations that cling to business plans of the past.

7. Map Ecosystems — There’s a growing number of sensor-laden managed ecosystems from precision farming to more mechanized mining. Machine control benefits from an accurate map, so this sector will continue to drive field data collection efforts. We can expect more closed loops in this sector where the machines are constantly doing the mapping, and communicating to each other about ongoing change. The constant updates and the massive volumes of data that are collected in the process will provide new big data insights.

8. Government Investment – The 2016 spending bill passed just before Christmas. Early analysis of the outcome shows a nice boost for science, with the USGS seeing a nearly two percent increase, NASA earth science with a more than an eight percent increase and NOAA receiving an eight percent increase. The U.S. Census received a 31 percent boost as it prepares for the next decadal survey. Together, these significant increases will certainly benefit the geospatial marketplace. Notable is ongoing mineral mapping program funding and a rejection of a plan to develop a thermal imaging observation platform.

9. Making Models – In the infrastructure modeling and mapping space, we are seeing an incredible increase in efficiency for converting aerial imagery into realistic models. The automation of photogrammetric techniques is continuing and just in time to take advantage of the advancements that drone-based platforms provide.

10. Monitoring Baselines – The news late this last year that the National Science Foundation had lost confidence in Neon Inc. as the manager of the National Ecological Observatory Network was a bit shocking given that much of the construction phase is complete. Thankfully, the NSF is still committed in this continental-scale observation system and perhaps the injection of a new team will make more of the operational phase of this integrated big data effort. The readings from the sites are already impacting research and science and could certainly greatly aid our understanding of Earth systems.