University of Illinois receives $11.1 million grant for high-resolution maps

The National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois has been landed with $11.1 million grant from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency to create high-resolution topographical maps of the planet.

University of Illinois receives $11.1 million grant for high-resolution maps
University of Illinois receives $11.1 million grant for high-resolution maps

University of Illinois receives $11.1 million grant for high-resolution maps

The National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois has been landed with $11.1 million grant from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency to create high-resolution topographical maps of the planet. The fund will extend the life of the Blue Waters supercomputer by another year.

The EarthDEM project will apply the same advanced mapping and data-processing techniques to the rest of the planet, producing publicly available data that will help scientists better understand the Earth’s surface. The digital models already produced for the Arctic and Antarctic are more accurate than most maps of the western U.S., NCSA Director William Gropp said.

Instead of sending out teams with surveying equipment on the ground, the process uses high-performance computing to transform satellite images into highly accurate 3D elevation models, or topographical maps. “You can actually see aircraft on runways,” Blue Waters Director Bill Kramer said. Google Maps may have pictures, too, but these models provide 3D information about Earth, Kramer said.

The images have allowed scientists to track changes in the landscape and environment in polar areas sensitive to a changing climate – and even find new colonies of penguins no one knew existed. The images also have been used to help disaster-relief teams find areas affected by mudslides in New Zealand, and could help detect seismic activity or rising waters along coastlines, Kramer said.

“It really is transforming the way we’re looking at the world,” Gropp said. The collaboration had its roots in a 2015 presidential executive order to map the Arctic region using new digital techniques applied to satellite images, Kramer said. The only system with enough computing power was Blue Waters, he said.

Kramer was approached by Paul Morin, director of Minnesota’s Polar Geospatial Center, who was working on the project with Ian Howat, director of Ohio State’s Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center. The satellite data was provided by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which is responsible for mapping the world and providing other intelligence to the government.

The agency has been moving toward more open collaborations with researchers outside the “classified world” to benefit society, he said. “They have satellites flying around all the time taking images of the Earth,” he said, so the data already was being produced.

The satellites can take “stereo” images of particular spots on the ground, using two photos from slightly different angles. Blue Waters uses that input to measure the difference in depth for every pixel in those images, Gropp said. “If you do the math right, you can figure out what the height of what you’re seeing is, based on those differences,” he said.