Navigating by the Numbers


Imagine a future in which jet fighters can navigate and land on aircraft carriers autonomously and search-and-rescue teams can pinpoint a person's exact location even in the remotest spots on or below the Earth. This is fast becoming a reality thanks to research and development in the field of geomatics, the science of the production and management of spatial information. Geomatics has been developing quietly for the last 3 decades. It covers a wide array of research, from the more traditional surveying and mapping to newer fields like geographical information systems (GIS) and global positioning systems (GPS).

Computer software plays a key role in making sense of this flood of data. Software is used to assimilate, manipulate, and present data to create a picture of an area's geographical and environmental characteristics. Building a career in GPS, in particular, relies heavily on being able to design software that improves the technology, as the University of Calgary's Elizabeth Cannon has demonstrated in her research.

"Software can come in many different forms; it can simulate data, it can incorporate your algorithms, or it can be used for statistical analysis of your results--it's really a geomatics tool that can be used from end to end," says Cannon, a professor of geomatics engineering at Calgary and an expert in the research and development of satellite navigation tools used by land, marine, and airborne vehicles. "Everything on Earth has a location attached to it, and geomatics engineers measure and map that," explains Cannon. "Software simply is the tool of choice in our tool kit that allows us to test and develop newer and better methodologies."

The Role of Software

According to Cannon, software is an integral part of geomatics and is the foundation for all current GPS work. A large component of her team's research is based on software design; she claims, however, that none of her students are software engineers but are, rather, geomatic engineers who capitalize on the analytical power that computers can offer.

"The creation of the software is not in itself the aim of a student's research," Cannon points out. "The software is the tool to be able to test their new algorithms, to determine what they developed makes sense and works with their data."

One major application Cannon's group is working on involves the U.S. Navy's aircraft carriers. Choppy seas and short runways are dangerous for pilots trying to land multimillion-dollar aircraft. The Navy wants to be able to land its jets safely on an aircraft carrier while on autopilot, even in dangerous conditions.

"It's a very small site, and they need accuracy of the aircraft relative to the carrier to about 30 centimeters," says Cannon. "Where we come in is to design the algorithms that use GPS and other sensors to be able to provide that type of positioning accuracy."

Cannon says that users are looking for higher levels of accuracy and better performance in suboptimal situations. This especially applies to cell phone users. One of the hottest fields is the development of GPS technologies embedded in cell phones. The challenge today is to be able to use GPS indoors in weak signal environments. "GPS was never intended to be used indoors. It's a line-of-sight technology, so if you don't have a direct line of site to your satellite, then you're in trouble," maintains Cannon. GPS-enabled phones will be the wave of the future, and Cannon is working hard to make it work sooner rather than later..

Grad Fortunes

Cannon's work with GPS goes back to 1984 when she was still a graduate student and only about six global positioning satellites were in orbit, compared to two dozen today. Canon's focus throughout her career has been on developing new algorithms and methodologies to improve navigation accuracy to the centimeter level. "We like to say that accuracy is addictive," says Cannon.

Early on she recognized that her research and software had applications in both industrial and academic environments. "As a graduate student we often don't realize that what we're doing might have commercial value," she reveals. After she presented her thesis research and the software she developed at an overseas conference, Cannon was surprised by a letter from a company that wanted to license her software. Cannon remembers her initial reaction to the offer: "I never even thought somebody's actually interested in what I'm doing, and they even want to pay for it!"

Making the Sale

Once the domain of government agencies, GPS technology has evolved far beyond its military origins. It supports civil, scientific, and commercial functions and has spawned a booming market for GPS products and services.

Cannon's team, which includes her husband and fellow faculty member Gerard Lachapelle, is at the forefront of GPS algorithm development. With high demand around the world for new methodologies offering higher accuracy and better precision from GPS receivers, organizations such as aircraft and car manufacturers have come knocking. With such potential for commercial success, Cannon and her university partners began licensing their software in 1989. Today their world-class product line has grown to include seven different GPS software packages that are being commercialized through a university subsidiary, University Technology International. Marketed internationally to more than 200 agencies, these state-of-the-art products bring revenues upward of several million dollars per year.

For Cannon's industry partners one benefit of the relationship is that the company doesn't have to create its own software and keep it up-to-date. By purchasing a software license, companies can concentrate on building around the core software engine. "It also allows them to stay very current, since we are on the leading edge," explains Cannon. "Because all of our research gets incorporated into our newest software packages, they know they're getting the latest and greatest."

Cannon stresses that although it was tempting to go it alone and open a separate business, going through the university just made sense given her lifestyle. Cannon handles the technical side and leaves all the trappings of running a business to university administrators.

On the academic side there is also an advantage to this arrangement: Cannon's graduate students who work on the software are recognized as co-inventors, so they benefit not only by having the work on their résumé but also financially, through licensing fees. "It's really a win-win situation," says Cannon.

Corporate Window

For graduates of the geomatics program, knowledge of software generally ends up being a major asset when entering the corporate world, in or out of the geomatics field. But it takes more than just software skills to make a career.

"You have to understand what part of the wheel you are, and you have to make that cog--your cog--as efficient as possible," says Robert Harvey, a GPS software engineer at Sirf Technology and former master's student of Cannon's. "Then eventually you're making the whole wheel as efficient as possible, and that's a valuable skill."

Harvey felt that his bachelor's degree in engineering physics would not, by itself, land him a job, so he enrolled in the geomatics program at the University of Calgary seeking a well-rounded practical experience that would pave his way into industry. With a geomatics degree in hand he found that his possibilities for employment were wide open, with his choices including land surveying and software development. "When you have a degree in geomatics, you can have a field position to all the way to being a developer of firmware at the design level," says Harvey.

Work in geomatics software doesn't limit you to work in that field. The programming skills that can be picked up in geomatics are universal and can be applied to almost any industry. "If you got tired of GPS, with the skill set of embedding programming you can go off and do other programming, like cell phones and Bluetooth, wireless LAN, or anything like that," says Harvey.

Harvey designs embedded software for chip sets for miniature electronics. Embedded programming is designed specifically for processors that have low memory and battery power that are very popular with consumer electronics such as wireless PDAs and smart cellular phones that have positioning systems incorporated. Working in Silicon Valley, he sees it being the fastest growing job segment in the entire geomatics sector.

Five years out of Cannon's team Harvey is happy to work in industry and feels that his opportunities are wide open, thanks to his programming skills attained during his studies.

"Having good software knowledge is good, but having this and solid knowledge of the technology that's trying to be developed--that's a very powerful combination," he says.

Andrew Fazekas is Canadian Editor at Next Wave and may be reached at

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