Rensselaer researcher awarded DARPA funding to improve terrain maps

October 31, 2005

Troy, N.Y. - A Rensselaer researcher has been awarded $845,000 in federal funding to create improved computer representations of terrain on the surface of the Earth and beyond. The research could have a variety of both military and civilian applications, from strategically positioning soldiers to placing radio towers on the moon.

"I'm studying better ways to compress the massive amounts of terrain data now available from radar and laser scans of the Earth's surface," says W. Randolph Franklin, associate professor of electrical, computer, and systems engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and principal investigator for the project, which is funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Current methods often produce unacceptable terrain maps, giving rise to errors that are clearly visible in any commercial mapping product, according to Franklin. For example, one common mapping software renders Niagara Falls as a gentle slope, while another has 50-foot elevation contours crossing a shoreline.

The program funding Franklin's work -- called Geo*, for GeoSpatial Representation and Analysis -- exists because effective support for military operations requires better ways to represent Earth's surface. A specific focus is on the need to improve navigation of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

"I will be researching and developing three different terrain representations," Franklin says. "I will also be studying some important applications of terrain data." One application is geared toward identifying the best sites to position a group of soldiers to allow them to see as much terrain as possible. Such a technology could also have civilian uses, such as in placing cell phone towers or locating visual nuisances where they would be the least visible.

"A far-out application for radio towers would occur when the moon or Mars are settled," Franklin says. "Both have no ionosphere to enable long-distance radio, and the moon has no stable satellite orbits for potential communication satellites." He suggests that ground-based radio relays, visible to each other, could be the best way to communicate on these surfaces.

DARPA is the central research and development organization for the Department of Defense (DOD). It manages and directs selected basic and applied research and development projects for DOD, and pursues research and technology where risk and payoff are both very high and where success may provide dramatic advances for traditional military roles and missions.
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About Rensselaer
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, founded in 1824, is the nation's oldest technological university. The university offers bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees in engineering, the sciences, information technology, architecture, management, and the humanities and social sciences. Institute programs serve undergraduates, graduate students, and working professionals around the world. Rensselaer faculty are known for pre-eminence in research conducted in a wide range of fields, with particular emphasis in biotechnology, nanotechnology, information technology, and the media arts and technology. The Institute is well known for its success in the transfer of technology from the laboratory to the marketplace so that new discoveries and inventions benefit human life, protect the environment, and strengthen economic development.

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

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