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Rensselaer Alumni Magazine Winter 2005-06
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Improving Terrain Maps

Terrain Map

A depiction of 60 people viewed from above, each at the center of a circle that represents his field of vision.

A Rensselaer researcher has been awarded $845,000 in federal funding to create improved computer representations of terrain on the surface of the Earth and beyond. The research could have a variety of both military and civilian applications, from strategically positioning soldiers to placing radio towers on the moon.

“I’m studying better ways to compress the massive amounts of terrain data now available from radar and laser scans of the Earth’s surface,” says W. Randolph Franklin, associate professor of electrical, computer, and systems engineering and principal investigator for the project, which is funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Current methods often produce unacceptable terrain maps, giving rise to errors that are clearly visible in any commercial mapping product, Franklin says. For example, one common mapping software renders Niagara Falls as a gentle slope, while another has 50-foot elevation contours crossing a shoreline.

The program funding Franklin’s work exists because effective support for military operations requires better ways to represent Earth’s surface. A specific focus is on the need to improve navigation of unmanned aerial vehicles.

“I will be researching and developing three different terrain representations,” Franklin says. “I will also study some important applications of terrain data.” One application is geared toward identifying the best sites to position a group of soldiers to allow them to see as much terrain as possible. Such a technology could also have civilian uses, such as in placing cell phone towers or locating visual nuisances where they would be the least visible.

“A far-out application for radio towers would occur when the moon or Mars are settled,” Franklin says. “Both have no ionosphere to enable long-distance radio, and the moon has no stable satellite orbits for potential communication satellites.” He suggests that ground-based radio relays, visible to each other, could be the best way to communicate on these surfaces.

Christian Vogt, M.S. ’04, from Liechtenstein, and Col. Clark Ray, Ph.D. ’94, assisted in the research.

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