For some years, Esri has run an Imagery Summit over the weekend prior to the International User Conference in San Diego. This attractive combo was disrupted by covid, but, as the pandemic abates, at least amongst the vaccinated, Esri held a live event at its Redlands, California headquarters. LIDAR Magazine was delighted to receive an invitation. The meeting attracted 80 participants, plus almost 1000 online.
The result was two intense, fascinating days amidst eclectic, informed attendees. The program included, of course, a number of Esri product updates and case studies, interspersed with keynote presentations and short interviews by Kailey Mongeon, Esri’s imagery partner manager, with the four sponsors: Airbus, Leica Geosystems (part of Hexagon), Maxar and Nearmap. Microsoft was also a sponsor.
The conference was hosted mainly by familiar Esri faces Beau Legeer and Kurt Schwoppe. Beau introduced one of the themes of the conference, “re-connect”, and it was apparent that attendees were relieved and delighted to be together again. Jack Dangermond’s opening words (both Jack and imagery director Richard Cooke joined us for the first day) echoed the re-connect theme and he commented, “We’ve lost a whole chapter of our lives.” He introduced the first session, “Sustainability at scale”. Geospatial professionals have graduated to the “adult table” at the feast where we try to save our planet, i.e. we have come beyond just providing geographic information and being an enabler. As I listened, I was also viewing a story in the online press to the effect that West Virginia has gone all in for coal – how do we succeed against such conviction? Jack commented on his 350,000 customer organizations and more than 10 million users, with 31% of revenue reinvested in R&D – surely we can do something? Of course, he gave numerous examples of successful initiatives – urban progress in Brandenburg, SCAG, Escondido; PG&E’s 18,000 field workers; 2.2 trillion views of the Johns Hopkins covid dashboard; and many others – and drove home the point that it’s no longer enough to be quietly competent behind the scenes. He quoted his friend E. O. Wilson, “We only have a short time to decide our future. We are in a race to save our living environment.” The stage was set for a keynote by Dr. Lucas Joppa, Microsoft’s chief environmental officer. He said he had some optimism – shared with Esri enthusiast Dr. Jane Goodall – in the power of youth to overcome the problem. How do we maximize our influence?
Richard Cooke repeated the mantra of the importance of imagery and underlined the massive technical innovations – in terms of both acquisition and processing of imagery – since he had begun work on the ENVI suite many years ago. Imagery can facilitate “good science” by grounding analysis in reality, without which any account of the planet’s fragility has no credibility. He introduced the new ArcGIS Image product line, about which we would hear a great deal (go.esri.com/arcgisimage). In the Esri style, his presentation was complemented by focused demos. The quality and dedication of the Esri team is a characteristic that keeps coming to mind, no matter how many Esri events one attends.
Dr. Steven Brumby, CEO of Impact Observatory, took the stage and explained that his start-up was able to use artificial intelligence and Sentinel-2 imagery (450,000 scenes) to make a land cover map of the whole planet, at 10 m resolution, in a week of wall-clock time using the “planetary computer”, i.e. a pot pourri of left-over compute time on various systems worldwide. Esri is assisting with making this available for viewing. Jack drew the audience’s attention to how remarkable this really is. The message from the session was that we have copious image acquisition and processing capacity to meet demands for information – at scale and very rapidly. There is no excuse for us not to drive solutions to the planetary crisis. Can we?
There was a delightful moment in the Q&A when an audience member reminded us that 45 years ago Esri had made land available on its campus for the construction of a Montessori school, a fine segue for Jack to remind us that Esri supplies software free of charge to schools and non-profits, including 17,000 schools in the US. Microsoft, said Lucas, has other ways of helping, e.g. grants to companies trying to cut carbon emissions. Just as Bill Gates and Paul Allen wanted to put a computer on every desk in the 1990s, so Jack wants every company to be powered by GIS.
The keynote after lunch was Dr. Amy Luers of Microsoft, “Planetery intelligence for sustainability in the digital age: five priorities.” She was good and had worked at the Obama White House. Her talk was thought provoking, with practical steps forward. Her message was that the science and technological foundations to solve the problem exist, “But the transformative potential won’t be realized without overcoming social, economic and institutional barriers.” Like coal in West Virginia.
The next presentation was, for me, one of the best at the Summit. Heidi Kristenson from the Alaska Satellite Facility (ASF) in Fairbanks talked about SAR. She made an astounding announcement. With Esri’s help, an Image Server has been set up in the Cloud so that Esri customers can generate and publish, from ArcGIS Pro, products from Sentinel-1 SAR data. As new data arrives, updates are made, of both ASF’s HyP3 (Hybrid Pluggable Processing Pipeline) and Esri’s components. The data covers the whole Earth. Wow! Heidi looked forward to NASA’s 2023 launch of NISAR, a NASA-ISRO L-band SAR mission.
Kailey’s interview with Maxar complemented this. Not only are Airbus and Maxar working on new constellations, at the other end of the spectrum Nearmap provides high-resolution urban imagery, with frequent reflights. Meanwhile, more and more imagery and lidar is becoming available through the Hexagon Content Program. Whatever our challenges, availability of imagery is one of the lesser ones!
I picked up a couple of points from the ensuring panel discussion. While we are all excited by all the fresh imagery, we also need access to historical imagery to enable time series studies. And there are those who would like more hyperspectral imagery along the lines of EO-1 Hyperion and AVIRIS. Others would like to see more spaceborne lidar to supplement ICESat-2.
Those of us who matured geospatially some decades ago remember that every project required flying and processing new imagery (film, of course). Today’s model is “acquire once, use many times”. Esri’s view is that its customers need content, so it wants to help. Peter Becker thus gave a presentation, in his inimitable, fast, fluent and immensely knowledgeable style, on the Living Atlas. The extent of the offerings almost beggars belief and they are burgeoning! Steve Brumby assisted in this segment and noted the major role of deep learning. This is something we are all aware of, but it is now pervasive throughout remote sensing and plays a major role in Esri’s products. Using deep learning needs some knowledge and experience, and for some applications the acquisition of training samples is laborious – but there is no question whatsoever that transformative.
The first day ended with a field trip. Nico Bonnafoux and Jeremiah Johnson took us outside to watch a UAV photogrammetric survey of their Esri’s new Building E, which is almost ready for occupation. One of the missions was designed to identify possible faults in the building’s solar panels. The results were presented the following day. We also learned about a large UAV project Esri had completed in Telluride, Colorado. There was obvious enthusiasm for carrying out UAV-photogrammetry projects in the Esri environment.
For many in the audience, the next presentation was the most important – Peter Becker on “Esri imagery products: a roadmap”. Peter covered ArcGIS Image as well as the more familiar products. Integration of nFrames SURE software proceeds apace. The audience was dazzled by the depth of this 40-minute talk. In the Q&A, Peter praised Esri staff and claimed that the velocity of software development during covid had exceeded that before the pandemic.
Vinay Viswambharan’s description and demonstration of Esri’s deep learning capabilities were excellent. While both the theory and the practice of deep learning can be demanding, the Esri implementation makes it much easier The session explored, however, another theme of the conference – trust. How can you be sure an image is what it is toted to be? How do you know that it hasn’t been cleverly doctored? Certainly, these issues demand debate.
Esri solution engineer Brian Connolly covered Oriented Imagery catalogs, then, together with Kate Hess, provided the final session of the Summit, an account of Esri’s processing of imagery and lidar flown by Fugro to extract geographic information for the whole island, for example building footprints, powerlines and landslide risk. This was a showcase of Esri’s considerable lidar capabilities. The software ingests data in LAS, LAS and ZLAS formats as well as i3s from the Cloud. Indeed, the ease of working in the Cloud, provided it is well orchestrated with compute power adjacent to data stores, was another theme of the conference. Esri’s lidar capabilities continue to grow. The Redlands firm is offering holistic workflows to lidar professionals who prefer to work in the ArcGIS environment.
In recent years, the management of the Imagery Summit has been competently and calmly carried out by Esri veteran Steve Snow. We learned, however, that Steve has been critically ill. Thankfully, he’s on the mend and plans to be in charge again for the Imagery Summit immediately preceding the International User Conference in San Diego in July 2022.
Thank you, Esri, for inviting us to re-connect. We’re glad we did! Esri is growing its lidar and SAR capabilities and our goal is to increase the magazine’s Esri content so you are up to date with them.