Can High-Resolution Imagery Resolve the Ararat Mystery?

Geospatial SolutionsTo the scientific mind, it is easy to see a natural, geological formation when looking at the “Ararat Anomaly” on Turkey’s Mt. Ararat: a lava flow, or perhaps some sort of rock dome. But it is undeniable, at least for the layman, that the shape suggests a ship underneath the ice and snow (albeit one of modern design with tapered bow and stern, not the rectangular barge shape often ascribed to Noah’s Ark).

The myths and legends — or the facts, if you’re a believer in the Qur’an or the Bible’s Old Testament — surrounding Noah’s Ark have persisted for thousands of years. The debate has raged nearly that long about the existence of the Ark, the location and identification of Mt. Ararat, and even whether or not the Ark landed on that particular mountain.

There have been a number of expeditions to Mt. Ararat over the centuries, but many have run afoul of the weather, the geology, and the political and religious intrigues of the region — the area of the Anomaly itself has never been explored on foot. That’s why the Anomaly’s history dates only to 1949, when a U.S. Air Force reconnaissance plane took photos of the area from a mile away and an altitude of 14,000 feet, capturing a large, linear shape protruding from a glacial ice cap at the southwest edge of the western plateau of Mt. Ararat. Defense analysts determined that the object, whatever it was, had been partially exposed by an avalanche.

So perhaps it’s only fitting that GIS science and satellite technology have picked up the quest for Noah’s Ark. Military and spy satellite imagery and aerial photography — both official and declassified, as well as rumored and apocryphal — have fueled the search. But it is modern commercial imagery that is currently leading the way, thanks in large part to the efforts of researcher Porcher Taylor.

Commercial Birds Take Up Where Spy Sats Left Off

Taylor, an associate legal professor in the University of Richmond’s School of Continuing Studies, first documented his efforts for Geospatial Solutions in June 2006. For him, the search for the Ark is a hobby, albeit a serious one; he describes himself as “an armchair satellite archaeologist.”

He was driven at first by rumors of Corona satellite images of Ararat taken in 1974, and later by his work in the ’90s with George A. Carver Jr., a former CIA deputy for national intelligence. Their efforts lead to the declassification of the 1949 aerial photos of the anomaly. Although Taylor’s requests for the 1974 satellite images, among others, are still pending, commercial satellite imagery and GIS technology may make them moot, he said.

As Taylor relayed to Geospatial Solutions two and a half years ago, two commercial satellites — IKONOS and QuickBird — shed some light on the Ararat Anomaly, flying missions on his behalf. The images depicted an elongated, symmetrical structure approximately 1,015 feet in length, but image analyst Rod Franz was unable to detect anything hidden under the ice and snow.

Ararat Anomaly
A panchromatic electro-optical image of the Ararat Anomaly, taken by the QuickBird satellite.

In his latest attempt to find a conclusive answer, Taylor had the images analyzed by Christopher Barnes, an associate professor of digital signal processing at the Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Barnes recently finished a project for the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) on unsupervised image data mining — applications that autonomously detect, classify, and identify features, objects, and scenes in image data flows and archives. The underlying technology involves building a heterogeneous database of indexed, expertly analyzed images; the algorithm at the heart of Barnes’s technique queries that database based on pixel content. It is, in essence, image data mining.

“That’s the most exciting application, and it can be used for autonomous attribution, feature extraction, and Web searching of images,” Barnes explained. At Taylor’s request, Barnes applied the same technique used in his NGA project to create an unsupervised hierarchical segmentation analysis of the electro-optical panchromatic image of the Ararat Anomaly provided by QuickBird.

Subjecting the image to a first pass of analysis using Barnes’s algorithm provided a coarse level of analysis to define segmentation. During subsequent passes, the number of segmentation classes grew with each pass; each pass represented a segmentation level. The idea was to see if there were segmentations unique to the anomaly when compared with the area around it, Barnes explained.

The sigma tree parameters of the segmentation analysis included:

  • 37 x 37 pixel block texture analysis
  • more than 58,000 training blocks
  • 8-level sigma tree
  • 4 nodes at each level.

The end result was a uniqueness map of the anomaly. Barnes’s analysis seemingly reinforces what Franz found in 2006: the anomaly consists of linear structures that are long and smooth. The orientation and linear nature of the structures that persist through the various segmentations is rather uncommon, but they could very easily be geological in nature, he said. “I can say that this part of the image looks similar to the other parts,” he said, comparing the various segmentations. The resulting uniqueness map reveals many unique areas within the anomaly, but they are not completely segmented out.

Ararat Anomaly Segmentation Analysis
Christopher Barnes subjected the image to multiple analyses to define segmentation classes, resulting in a uniqueness map of the anomaly.

Christopher Barnes subjected the image to multiple analyses to define segmentation classes, resulting in a uniqueness map of the anomaly.

As a scientist, Barnes — perhaps understandably so — wasn’t prepared to commit to anything beyond that. “I think it looks like a really good snowboarding site,” he quipped, noting again that the anomaly is smooth, elongated, and curved.

Taylor is encouraged by Barnes’s analysis. What struck Taylor about the QuickBird photo is that the anomaly seemed very distinguishable from the surrounding terrain; now Barnes’s analysis confirms that it is. “It is intriguing to me, from a layperson standpoint, that you can see these patterns,” Taylor said.

Another geography professional that Taylor consults with, Farouk El-Baz, is skeptical that the Ararat Anomaly is anything but a natural formation. El-Baz is a research professor and director of the Center for Remote Sensing at Boston University. Although he has acknowledged that Barnes’s analysis is intriguing, he told Geospatial Solutions that he doesn’t see anything to suggest that it is was made by anything but Mother Nature.

“Usually when you have people talk about something over the course of many millennia, there may be a hint of reality behind that,” El-Baz said, noting that many people, including both religious and scientific experts, have sought to find evidence of Noah’s Ark on Ararat. “There is a lot of folklore behind this notion,” he added.

Nevertheless, from a technical view, everything El-Baz has seen of the Ararat Anomaly up till now can be interpreted as natural features. “I would not at all point to anything there that is man-made or out of the ordinary. Everything I see I interpret as light, slopes, and the effects of shadow.”

El-Baz is no stranger to satellite archeology. He co-authored a book on the subject, Remote Sensing in Archaeology, and has used remote sensing and satellite imagery analysis for two archaeological projects in Egypt, in addition to teaching those skills to others. “They are certainly are very useful techniques,” El-Baz said. “But one must be careful to interpret what one sees; light can play tricks, especially when it comes to shadows,” he cautions.

The More We Look

Taylor is neither troubled nor disappointed by the skepticism of experts; rather, he appreciates their scientific approach. “My goal is simple, to make the anomaly more discernible . . . transparent to the dispassionate, critical eyes of scholars like Dr. Barnes and Dr. El-Baz,” he said. He wants the evidence to decide whether it’s worth making an expedition to the site — a journey that could determine whether the Ararat Anomaly is the Ark, some other man-made structure, or just an unusual formation of rock, ice, and snow. Even if it proves to be the latter, that would be okay by Taylor, he said; he just wants to find out what it is.

As Taylor himself readily acknowledges, the likelihood that such a large wooden structure could retain its shape while buried in glacial ice for millennia is highly unlikely. Nevertheless, the more the site is imaged, the more provocative it becomes. “I’m just intrigued that the more we look . . . the more it looks like a boat,” he said.

“I’m deeply indebted to the likes of Chris Barnes, a world-class scientist and scholar in his field,” Taylor continued. “I’m humbled, quite frankly, that someone of his caliber would take a look at the sat imagery and do a computerized pattern recognition.” He is grateful to El-Baz as well, he said, noting that El-Baz has taken the time to review all of the imagery and analysis that Taylor has garnered on the Ararat Anomaly over the years.

Taylor is also excited about the higher resolution that can be achieved with the latest generation of commercial imaging satellites such as GeoEye-1, the successor to IKONOS that was launched September 6. He has approached GeoEye about flying another imaging mission over Ararat; DigitalGlobe, which launched the successor to QuickBird, Worldview-1, has already accepted his challenge.

Barnes agreed that the better resolution these satellites offer can only serve to better quantify the Ararat Anomaly. His algorithm and approach aren’t constrained by data dimensionality; a finer spectral content and more resolution for a localized analysis would enable him to further segment images, he said. Barnes also would like the opportunity to use Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) imagery, as well as color images from the likes of GeoEye-1.

“This is only spatial analysis, as it’s a panchromatic image,” he said of his segmentation analysis of the IKONOS image. “I’d be interested in throwing [the segmentation algorithm] at a color image.”

Editor’s Note: As explained at length elsewhere on this site this is a news story written by me for another publication. This originally appeared on Questex Media’s Geospatial Solutions website; that publication has been folded into sister publication GPS World, where the original story can still be viewed. Questex holds the copyright, of course.

Missing the Boat to Finland

ION 2008 News Coverage:

Jeff Chappell Blogs

GPS WorldWell, as I write this, Day 4 of ION and related happenings is behind me: my feet hurt, I’m tired of hotel and tradeshow food, I finally missed the boat this morning – literally; and I’ve got all manner of position, timing, and navigation minutiae whirling around in my brain. And there is a love bug in my hair (seriously – it’s apparently the time of year that they, uh, live up to their name, shall we say, down here on the Georgia coast).

The end of events like ION always seems to result in information overload. Whose card is this? Which company/product do these notes pertain to? Did I file a story/blog on that yet? Did I upload the copy for today’s newsletter?

So rather than try and sort it all out here, I’ll just pick one thing from today and run with it, and save the rest for later. Has the time come for the software GPS receiver? Depends on whom one asks, and it also depends on what you are doing with your application that requires GPS. Regardless of how you feel about it, the topic has garnered a lot of attention at ION this year. Among this morning’s tracks here at ION was one for new products; one of the one’s that drew the most attendance was the first one of the morning, where Stefan Söderholm, chief research officer for Finland’s Fastrax, discussed the company’s software GPS receiver, which it first introduced last spring.

Now, I have to come clean here; I talked to Söderholm after the fact, because I got to the convention center just as his talk came to an end and the next presenter came on. I missed the boat taking people across the river here from Savannah proper to the convention center – the guy in front of me was literally the last one they let on as I came running up – so with some colorful language I set out to find a land taxi. I figured the software GPS presentation might be generating some buzz, and didn’t want to miss it (I wouldn’t have, if I hadn’t stopped to get espresso this morning; what I can I say? I’m spoiled).

As I got there, even though the break wasn’t for another hour, people were already wandering down the hall discussing the merits of software GPS. I walked into the session just as the next presentation began, and the room was still pretty full. However, with each hardware presentation afterward until the break, more and more people seemed to leave; that’s too bad, as they missed some interesting presentations, among them NXP’s single-die receiver module and Navteq’s single-channel receiver, which can achieve a horizontal positioning accuracy down to 30 centimeters.

Who Says There’s No Buzz?

But it’s the software receiver concept that seems to have the buzz, at least what buzz there is this year. Söderholm said that the company had received a heavy amount of interest at ION, particularly since it unveiled an RF front-end, the IT900, to go along with its software GPS receiver.

So why would you go with a software GPS? “The reason to go with a software GPS is of course price,” Söderholm said. If you’ve got existing RF hardware in your product already, it’s a simple matter to integrate. Even if you don’t, RF chips are pretty cheap these days; when it comes to semiconductors, it’s about as commoditized as you can get. The IT900 has apparently helped raise interest in the software receiver for Fastrax, as it, combined with software receiver, offers up a tidy and cost-effective solution for low volume applications.

There is a lot of interest from the always cost-sensitive consumer side, naturally, but Söderholm says there has also been a lot of interest from the makers of development boards, the people who are designing products for others.

What of the MIPS, you ask? The processor demands on many devices these days are small enough that it can be tasked with the calculations that GPS positioning needs, says Söderholm; Fastrax can match the performance of any embedded GPS hardware, it says.

This would naturally make software GPS ideal for PNDs, which are pretty much doing just mapping and GPS, as well as portable media players and other multimedia devices. While the hardware in the standard mobile phone isn’t up the task, and probably won’t be for at least a few more years, according to Söderholm, your average smartphone has enough beef in its processor to do the job without noticeably affecting performance, so that is naturally a market that Fastrax is eyeing.

What’s cool for the development people interested in software GPS is that parameters are easily changed. Need more or fewer correlators? Change it – you’re not stuck implementing the design in hardware. Even if you are designing a product that will have a hardware GPS receiver at it’s heart, it’s easy to see how a software GPS receiver would come in handy for development. I’m not an engineer, but it seems to me this would be good approach for multi-GNSS products as well, for both test equipment and product development – especially considering that the multi-GNSS world is still in its infancy.

So, as an ION GNSS that has had some complaining that there’s no gee-whiz stuff going on, those doing the grumbling should look Fastrax over. Only time and the market will tell if software GPS is ready for prime time, but the Fins make a pretty good case.

Editor’s Note: As explained at length elsewhere on this site, this is a news story/blog entry written by me that originally appeared on GPS World. GPS World and parent Questex Media hold all of the rights. You can still see a copy of this story at GPS World.

Crowded Aisles and Feelin’ Good with GLONASS

ION 2008 News Coverage:

Jeff Chappell Blogs

GPS WorldSo the economy may be bad – perhaps even down the toilet, judging from the news coming out of Wall Street and the U.S. Treasury Dept. – the Federal Reserve selling bonds to raise money can’t be a good sign; I don’t care what excuse its bean counters offer. Listening to the BBC on the drive down to Savannah on Sunday, one would have thought it was October, 1929, all over again, and I suppose it may turn out that way in the end. But the economy doesn’t seem to have hurt this industry as of late, if the attendance at ION is any indication. Of course, the repercussions from the Wall Street meltdown, if any, will take time to be felt.

Today was the first day the exhibit floor was open, and the number of people walking around in the aisles and stopping by the GPS World booth, was, well, surprising, at least to me. If anything, it seems busier than last year’s event in Ft. Worth, Texas. And this is in spite of Hurricane Ike playing havoc with airline routes throughout much of the U.S. on Sunday and beyond. A few other exhibitors I talked to today made similar observations, although being an editor, I have to admit: I’ve never had a marketing person at a tradeshow or conference admit that booth traffic was down. I’ve had executives tell me that, but not marketing types – but I’m inclined to believe them in this instance. The aisles were busy, in spite of some high-caliber papers being presented today.

The Russians are Coming! And They’re Bringing CDMA GLONASS

One would never guess that relations between the U.S. and Russia were politically chilly at the moment, but then that’s politics and this is business (and rocket science). Politics doesn’t necessarily always have a chilling effect in these situations. Remember a few years back when that U.S. spy plane had to make an emergency landing in China after it clipped a Chinese fighter plane in Chinese air space? I remember talking with a number of different semiconductor executives at that time whose companies were doing business in China – I was an editor for a semiconductor trade pub at the time – and it was business as usual; their Chinese colleagues were even joking about the incident, even as the rhetoric between Washington and Beijing got pretty heavy handed.

No one is making jokes here when it comes to the Russians and GLONASS, in spite of the obvious puns that one could make with the fact that this year’s ION is being held in Georgia – but then that would perhaps be in poor taste. I’d take a shot at it myself; I love a bad pun and let’s face it, there is potential for some real zingers here, but, um, given the economy, I’m even more fond of my job than usual, and would like to keep it.

So moving on, Russia seems to be more eager than ever to be a part of the global GNSS community, if one can judge by the country’s presence here at ION in Savannah. In the same day I saw presentations from both Sergey Revnivykh of the Russian Federation’s PNT Information Navigation Center, who spoke at the CGSIC meeting, and Yury Nosenko, deputy head of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscomos), who gave one of the ION GNSS plenary speeches. And lest you think they just popped in for the day, I spied Nosenko on the show floor today, walking past the GPS World booth.

Both struck similar themes in their presentations: the Russian Federation considers GLONASS critical to its PNT infrastructure, and as such, is investing in GLONASS, and it has plans to continue modernization of its constellation. It is even looking at incorporating CDMA signals on future satellites, although both Revnivykh and Nosenko emphasized that Russia wanted to maintain backward compatibility with its current FDMA-based fleet. You can read all of the details here in my fellow GPS World editor Richard Langley’s blog; I won’t bother to reinvent the wheel, as it were.

Rather, I’ll talk about the intangible things the two men discussed, principally that Russia now realizes that GLONASS isn’t – nor should it be – a standalone GNSS system, that compatibility and even interoperability with other GNSS is crucial for GLONASS. Revnivykh even went so far as to suggest that the next-generation GLONASS K birds, the one’s that will use CDMA, could be interoperable with GPS and GALILEO in the coming decades.

“In the future, no civil user will use just one system,” Revnivykh said. Multi-GNSS receivers will become standard equipment, “and we will support this in our systems,” he said. Nosenko carried this idea even further, suggesting that in the future global and regional satellite-based navigation and timing systems would all be interoperable, and to the equipment user on the ground, it would be seamless.

Maybe it’s because I’m a child of the Reagan years and remember the Cold War before it was a matter of history, but given the recent events in the Caucus lately, i.e. Georgia, and the West’s ensuing reaction, I was frankly kind of surprised to hear the deputy head of Roscomos talk about interoperability, and, well, if you’ll pardon the cliché, how we all need to just get along, because that will be best for the end user.

But it’s not just the Russians talking about this. Of course, all of the end user groups want this. Heck, we’d love an open standard for timing and navigation signals, and a sky chock full of satellites – American, Russian, Chinese, European, whatever. But of course, it’s not that simple, either politically or technically. But a lot of people involved in the nuts and bolts of both GPS and Galileo think that compatibility is a must and that even interoperability is a worthwhile goal, even as they scratch their collective head over the technical issues. Even word on the street is that China is talking now about opening up Compass to civil and commercial use.

Who knew GNSS could be so feel-good and warm and fuzzy? Hmmm … now if we could just get all the GNSS folk in our respective countries to run for political office …

Editor’s Note: As explained at length elsewhere on this site, this is a news story/blog entry written by me that originally appeared on GPS World. GPS World and parent Questex Media hold all of the rights. You can still see a copy of this story at GPS World.

That Updated Galileo ICD is Great and All, But …

ION 2008 News Coverage:
Jeff Chappell Blogs

GPS WorldThe GNSS industry wants to know what’s going on with Galileo, namely its Open Service Signal In Space Interface Control Document (OS SIS ICD), its future specifications, and so forth; it’s chomping at the bit, so to speak, to start designing equipment for it and making some oats off of it. But it’s getting a little skittish, worried that Europe is dragging its feet and that in the end, the ICD might not be so O, as in open and open for business.

Europe, on the other hand, suggests that it hold those horses for a bit, because it’s taking things one step at a time. After all, it’s got a lot of sticky politics to wade through still, and besides, Galileo is evolving in a different manner than GPS did.

That’s the panel discussion titled GNSS Market Access Issues that came at the end of this morning’s CGSIC meeting, all conveniently wrapped up in a Georgia pecan nutshell. While there was some brief discussion in the question and answer session afterward regarding China’s Beidou/Compass, it might as well have been titled “Debate Galileo’s ICD.”

As Mike Swiek, GPS Industry Council executive director, pointed out – rather tactfully, if directly, I might add – the industry at large has some questions about lingering issues, issues that could potentially be hurdles to future Galileo product development. Namely, is Galileo going to be fully open for commercial use and development? Are there going to be licensing fees involved? Is Europe going to play favorites?

Swiek suggested that the industry understands that Galileo is in its infancy, and as such is still evolving. But with lingering doubts and questions over these issues, it begins to factor into the cost of development, he said; it could potentially affect Galileo’s adoption in future product designs. “We hope we can get answers so the business of Galileo can proceed,” he concluded.

John Pottle, marketing director for Spirent’s Positioning Technology division, echoed the concerns Swiek voiced. “Our customers are looking for the certainty that Mike mentioned to go ahead with Galileo,” he said.

So what about all that, Europe? Huh?

As Paul Verhoef pointed out, he’s a good sport to knowingly walk into this set up. “Ambush,” I believe was the word he used, actually. Verhoef is the head of the Galileo unit for the European Commission and the joint GPS/Galileo Working Group B co-chair.

He noted that while Galileo is compatible with GPS, and to some extent interoperable, they are two different systems, and Galileo is evolving in a very different way from that of GPS. No small factor in Galileo’s evolution is that all of the sovereign nations that make up the European Union have a stake in it, to one degree or another, particularly now that it is being funded by EU taxpayers. The politics

Verhoef also said that Galileo can’t entertain any development strategy at this point that would hasten its development that would close the door on all possibility of generating revenue stream for its operators in Europe – one of thos hurdles – perhaps the biggest one – as Swiek delicately put it. Verhoef also went on the offensive a bit, asking, albeit rhetorically, if there had never been any favoritism shown to U.S. industry in the development of GPS? Or if there were any non U.S.-based participants in the development of GPS Block III?

I’m guessing no, since no one chimed in to answer this, or otherwise correct the implication.

“There’s quite a number of issues here,” Verhoef said, adding that Europe is willing to listen and discuss the myriad issues. But the GNSS might not want to hold its breath. “We’re doing it step by step, at the moment,” he concluded.

So I’ll conclude with my two cents, which, given the state of the U.S. economy, is probably worth about $0.002, actually. Can you blame Europe for wanting to hold onto the possibility of turning a buck – er, euro – from Galileo? Granted it may not be even be remotely realistic in the long run, but can you really hold it against them? Think about how GPS proponents have had to fight tooth and nail in the past to get and keep funding from Congress. It is rocket science, and rocket science is expensive, after all.

Editor’s Note: As explained at length elsewhere on this site, this is a news story/blog entry written by me that originally appeared on GPS World. GPS World and parent Questex Media hold all of the rights. You can still see a copy of this story at GPS World.

Open Source Comes to GPS

ION 2007 News Coverage:
Jeff Chappell Blogs

GPS WorldBetween military applications and the business that continues to grow exponentially around GNSS and GPS in particular, intellectual property is of paramount importance in this industry — especially considering that the root of or the reason for every product is the reception of RF signals freely available to anyone on the entire surface of the planet.

But that hasn’t stopped the open-source software movement from coming to GPS applications development.

Attendees here in Ft. Worth, Texas at the 20th annual ION GNSS show today had the chance to hear from Ben Harris of the University of Texas at Austin. Harris, an engineering scientist at the university’s Applied Research Laboratories, is the dedicated evangelist for GPS Toolkit (GPSTk). Harris spoke as part of the presentation track on new product announcements. UT’s Applied Research Labs, along with its Space and Geophysics Laboratories, sponsors GPSTk.

GPSTk, which actually isn’t all that new, having been around for several years now, is an open-source library and suite of applications for the satellite navigation developer community — “to free researchers to focus on research, not lower-level coding,” as its Web site states. Or as Harris put it, “you shouldn’t have to re-invent the wheel to get to your research.”

Jeff Chappell at ION on behalf of GPS World. (where we didn't have a big photography budget)Open source as a concept for software development has been around for a some years. As the non-profit Open Source Initiative puts it, open source is a “development method for software that harnesses the power of distributed peer review and transparency of process. The promise of open source is better quality, higher reliability, more flexibility, lower cost, and an end to predatory vendor lock-in.”

Built around the C++ programming language, GPSTk primarily consists of two pieces, the afore-mentioned core library and the suite of applications. The library includes functions such as GPS time, ephemeris calculations, atmospheric delay models, position solutions, mathematics and an application framework. The applications suite includes basic transformations, observation data collection and conversion, file comparison and validation, data editing, ionosphere modeling, and autonomous and relative positioning.

Some engineers might recognize the underlying GPSTk code; much of it traces its roots back to UT Austin’s involvement in the GPS Monitoring Station Network (MSN) project; UT Austin Applied Research Laboratories have provided life cycle engineers for the project since 1985.

Everything in GPSTk is available freely under the GNU Lesser General Public License. “You can take the application code and modify it to your heart’s content,” Harris said.

While GPSTk has been around awhile, the project’s core team recently established a wiki for the project’s documentation, Harris said. A typical wiki, it is a collaborative Web site with content that can be edited by registered users at the project’s site, www.gpstk.org. Future plans call for porting specific user manuals into the wiki.

The latest version of GPSTk, 1.3, which became available this past summer, can be downloaded Sourceforge.net, a Web site that serves as a host for myriad open source software projects.

Editor’s Note: As explained at length elsewhere on this site, this is a news story/blog entry written by me that originally appeared on GPS World. GPS World and parent Questex Media hold all of the rights. You can still see a copy of this story at GPS World.