NASA Spinoff

Technologies Render Views of Earth for Virtual Navigation


The highly accurate 3D-rendering capabilities of the TerraBlocks engine are demonstrated in this exo-centric aircraft view near Mt. Fuji, Japan, generated for an in-flight entertainment application.
TerraMetrics now markets its TruEarth satellite imagery and terrain data product line—incorporating the NASA source data from Stennis along with other NASA satellite sources—coupled with its SBIR-developed TerraBlocks terrain-rendering and display engine.

“TruEarth was developed in partnership with NASA,” says Greg Baxes, president of TerraMetrics. “Our goal was to use that data in TerraBlocks, but it also has standalone commercial viability.”

The company offers TruEarth in 1-kilometer and 15-meter collections. (The measurements indicate the approximate area covered by each pixel in the imagery. In the 15-meter product, for example, each pixel covers an area 15 meters by 15 meters.) The company verifies the accuracy of the data and processes the original source imagery into its TruEarth natural color form to accurately reflect the appearance of the Earth’s surface.

While the TruEarth products have been used extensively in flight simulation and even in movies, television, and animation, most everyday users of the technology encounter it online: The TruEarth 15-meter collection forms the base layer for Google Earth. The imagery is used for views on Google Earth and Google Maps ranging from the global level all the way down to the detail seen when flying about 20,000 feet above the Earth; at greater magnifications, other imagery and data from Google vendors are laid over the TruEarth imagery to reveal details like buildings and roads.

While TruEarth helps Google by providing the global map many use to determine directions or just for virtual exploration, the imagery also can be combined with terrain elevation data and used in the TerraBlocks engine for flight deck displays. This requires a critical level of accuracy that goes beyond that of online mapping programs. “The terrain can’t just look pretty,” says Baxes, “it has to be displayed precisely and with absolute global positional accuracy relative to the aircraft.”

TerraBlocks is unique in its field, Baxes explains. “As far as a photorealistic rendering of the Earth in a flight application, TerraBlocks stands on its own,” he says. The technology utilizes a compression technique and terrain-block-based processing methodology that stores worldwide satellite imagery and terrain data in a compact, multiresolution form—reducing information that can exceed 4 terabytes down to more manageable sizes—while still allowing real-time access to the data by the TerraBlocks engine during flight. TerraMetrics has two patents on the technology, which is now in use for flight simulation applications as the company works to expand the innovation into commercial avionics, along with smartphones and tablets, using its embedded version of the TerraBlocks engine.

Baxes says TerraMetrics’ NASA partnerships have yielded significant benefits.

“NASA has the charter to look way into the future. Partnering with NASA has allowed us to understand where the future is headed and apply our innovation and technologies in that direction,” he says. “The seed money that we were able to apply to our research and development will pay vast dividends as far as meeting general public and commercial sector needs.”

The company has also worked on another SBIR project with Stennis to enable refinement and optimization of the processing means for overlaying scientific data on 3D geospatial browsers like Google Earth, allowing visualizations useful for everything from climate change research to emergency management. And with the help of TerraMetrics’ NASA-derived technology, the Agency continues to explore the future of flight displays. Arthur notes technologies like enhanced vision—combining synthetic vision with an array of sensors to provide comprehensive situational awareness—which could enable advances like windowless supersonic aircraft. Such possibilities are not unrealistic, Arthur says.

“You just never know how these things might spinoff,” he says. “Fifteen years ago, would anyone have envisioned having the Earth on your smartphone in your pocket?”

TerraBlocks™ is a trademark of TerraMetrics Inc.
TruEarth® is a registered trademark of TerraMetrics Inc.


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