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Art & Science: Military Geospatial Engineers and da Vinci


Geospatial engineering is the art and science of applying geographic information to enable understanding of the physical environment for military operations. The art is the ability to understand mission, enemy, terrain and weather, troops and support available, time available, civil considerations and the geospatial information available—including intent of use and limitations—to explain the military significance of the terrain to the commander and staff, and create geospatial products for decision making; the science is the ability to exploit geospatial information, producing spatially accurate products for measurement, mapping, visualization, modeling, and all types of analysis of the terrain (excerpt from ARMY TACTICS, TECHNIQUES, AND PROCEDURES NO. 3-34.80).


A significant part of the geospatial engineer's job requires exploitation of geospatial imagery to create visualizations and extract geographic features for maps. Some of the more common image processing operations range from basic creation of image mosaics and pan-sharpened multispectral products to advanced object-based feature extraction and creation of topographic models (e.g., hill shade and slope models). At first glance, most would agree that these operations fall soundly on the science side of the engineer's responsibilities. However, each has an art aspect that contributes to the accuracy or effectiveness of the completed product. In this way, geospatial engineers are similar to Leonardo da Vinci, blending art and science to complete their intelligence masterpiece.


In creating an image mosaic, the engineer must perform color balancing between images and adjust seam lines to appear invisible. With an image fusion operation like pan-sharpening, image-to-image registration must be ensured to avoid edge artifacts. Automated object-based feature extraction relies upon subjective segmentation of the image into polygonal objects and subsequent classification of these objects through the application of logical rules. Each of these steps draw on the engineer's perception of how the physical environment is represented in the imagery and their skill in creating definitions for separating one object type from another. And topographic modeling certainly demands an artistic touch with the selection of appropriate colors to distinguish high elevation areas from low, to clearly delineate slope classes and identify safe areas (e.g., green) from danger areas (e.g., red).


As the responsibilities of geospatial engineers expand to include the exploitation of hyperspectral data sources, the tendency will be to focus on the science. But successful geospatial engineers will continue to use a da Vincian approach with a sound balance between the art of their geospatial craft and spectral science.