To help ensure the success of their missions in sensitive areas, the French armed forces use highly accurate digital geographic products (in the form of maps and vector databases). These interoperable products, accessible from any terminal, provide topographic data and information on potential obstacles on a variety of different scales (country, region and city).
These state-of-the-art tools are being produced under the Geomaps contract, which was awarded jointly to Thales and Airbus in 2016 by the French National Institute of Geographic and Forestry Information (IGN). The two industry partners are acting as industrial prime contractor, with responsibilities ranging from analysis of the requirements of military staff to quality control on the map products supplied.
Thales and Airbus had already joined forces on the previous contract awarded in this specialist area under the Topobase programme. IGN, acting on behalf of the French defence procurement agency (DGA), renewed its trust in the partners to continue to draw on the invaluable know-how and experience they have built up over the years in this highly demanding field.
Human expertise at the heart of the project
Production of the maps is a complex process involving several different stages:
- Ground image acquisition: very-high-definition images are supplied by Airbus’s Pléiades satellites, under the Geosocle contract awarded to IGN and Airbus. These images provide the raw data for the maps.
- Definition of areas to be mapped: this is done by the French joint command centre.
- Preparation: this stage involves checking that poor weather conditions have not made satellite images unusable, and that images have not become obsolete, for example as a result of a bomb strike. Operators use meticulously verified sources, both confidential and public-domain, to identify sensitive sites such as military or government facilities, schools and power plants, and to corroborate the information contained in the images.
- Map generation via photo-interpretation: all of the elements in a given area are extracted via photo-interpretation, in accordance with predefined data entry rules. This work requires specialist expertise and must be meet very precise calibration requirements. Specialist operators produce the graphic elements that will appear on the map – road networks, river systems, buildings, cities, etc. – on the basis of data extracted from the image. Importantly, rivers are represented differently depending on their width, giving an indication of the size and type of obstacle that soldiers on the ground are likely to encounter. Other potential obstacles, such as poor-quality roads, bridges under construction, embankments, etc. are also indicated on the map.
- Qualification: a final check is performed on the vector database obtained.
- Mapping: the vector objects are translated into symbols, and transferred to a digital map.
Thales and Airbus have pieced together a Europe-wide ecosystem of specialist SMEs to deliver the best possible outcomes for the project. Geomaps now involves a total of 120 personnel, including the Thales and Airbus teams working out of Thales’s Vélizy site, most of whom are geography experts.
Because even though the process is driven by technology, it is human know-how that guarantees the quality of the end product. Only with the right expertise can the right choices be made to ensure that maps are highly accurate, yet clear and easy to use.
Reducing lead times: a key challenge for the next few years
“Feedback from military users of our maps has been very positive,” says Fabien Coquillard, Thales’s Geomaps project manager. “We have also presented our maps to the Multinational Geospatial Co-Production Program (MGCP), an international geographical body, whose representatives have praised the work that France has done.”
One of the MGCP’s key missions is to enable its 32 member countries, including France, to share their maps. This collaboration is an effective way to optimise costs and, above all, to reduce lead times for the supply of maps to operational forces.
This is important, because maps generally take between 12 and 18 months to produce, thereby increasing the risk of data becoming obsolescent. And although Thales and Airbus have managed to reduce this lead time by optimising work processes, the method has its limitations.
Two solutions offer the potential to deliver a step change in this area:
- Updating maps rather than creating completely new ones, an option that is increasingly favoured by IGN. Maps can be updated using an industrial process which can be automated to save time.
- Artificial intelligence (AI): the ability of AI to automatically detect and interpret elements such as buildings, road systems, etc. make it ideally suited for photo-interpretation. If the technology is proven in practice, it may be among the new requirements specified for the next Geomaps contract.
Other new components of the future contract, including human geography (data on population, religion, economic status, etc.), 3D mapping, etc., are already the subject of study programmes by Thales and Airbus.
The maps of the future will therefore be even more comprehensive, accurate and easy-to-use. Thanks to their ability to draw on the latest technologies as well as a team of experts with years of experience, Thales and Airbus have what it takes to meet this challenge.