Geospatial Technologies

Have you ever been a backseat driver, fishing through a road atlas to find the right direction? Or maybe you've been turning around on the spot to try and get your Google Maps to show you which direction you're facing. If this sounds like you, you've been using geospatial technologies. 

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    Once upon a time, paper maps were the main source of geospatial and geographical information. They'd tell you where things were, how to get from place to place, and even helped militaries win wars. Then technology began to dominate every part of society. Now we have geospatial information and data: we use different types of technologies like remote sensing, GIS, and GPS, often without even knowing it. Geospatial technologies are used for many different things, from Snapchat all the way to military drone movements. But what exactly is the definition of geospatial technologies? What are they used for in geography? What is the future of geospatial technology? Let's take a look.

    Geospatial Technologies Definition

    Geographers would be pretty lost without geospatial information. It shows us the where and the what and is a vital way that geographers can collect and analyze data. Geospatial information, or geographical data, is information that shows locations or geographical features on the landscape, from vegetation or population data, all the way to country borders.

    Geospatial Technologies Babylonian Map StudySmarterFig. 1 - Babylonian map, believed to be the first-ever map of the world.

    Throughout history, dating back hundreds of years, mapping was the main source of geospatial information. In the city of Babylon, thousands of years ago, the oldest preserved map of the world was carved into a piece of clay. In 1570, the first-ever atlas was created, the Typus Orbis Terrarum, famously printed with the quote below.

    Who can consider human affairs to be great, when he comprehends the eternity and vastness of the entire world? - Cicero1

    Now, however, we are living in a technological and digitized era in which geospatial technologies are at the forefront of geographical and geospatial data.

    Geospatial technologies are spatial/mapping technologies that utilize data related to place and space. You will have come across one or more kinds of geospatial technology in your lifetime, whether you're a geographer or not.

    As time progressed into the 19th century, developments in geospatial data began. Aerial photography is a great example of how geospatial data began to modernize. Cameras were attached to things like balloons, to gather geospatial information. In the 20th century, satellites were introduced during the Cold War. Satellites collect geographical information from space and can help provide weather and climate information as well as data useful for military purposes.

    Geospatial data is all about spatial thinking. This is a key skill for AP Human Geography. You're going to be required to know how to analyze geospatial data, including things like scale, patterns, and trends.

    Geospatial Technology Types

    "Geospatial technology" is an umbrella term for a collection of technology types. Let's explore some of the geospatial technology types that are commonly used today. Some of the major types of geospatial technologies are: remote sensing systems, Geographic Information Systems (GIS), and Global Positioning Systems (GPS).

    Remote Sensing

    Remote sensing is the process of monitoring the earth's surface, through the reflection of radiation that is emitted, to collect geospatial data. Cameras and other/sensors on satellites or aircraft capture visual or sonar imagery of the earth's surface or even the depths of the ocean to tell us things we'd never be able to find out if we were obtaining data at ground level.

    Geospatial Technologies Remote Sensing Satellite StudySmarterFig. 2 - an environmental satellite and remote sensing satellite orbiting the earth from the European Space Agency.

    The explanation on Remote Sensing goes into much more detail about how remote sensing works, and some detailed examples, so make sure you give that a read!

    GIS (Geographic Information System)

    GIS stands for Geographic Information System. GIS can collect, store, display, and analyze geospatial data about the Earth.2 GIS is a crucial means of understanding spatial data that can be related to people (such as urban sprawl), the environment (such as forest-cover data), or both (deforestation, for example). GIS data include cartographic data (i.e., maps), photographs (from aerial photography), and other forms of digitized data (from satellites).

    GIS can display various forms of data and relate them spatially. When data are layered into GIS, lots of different pieces of collected data can be extracted to create a map. These layers can be turned on or off. This means one single map could show an area, and include data such as average age, voting preferences, or religion, all on one map.

    Maps can be created for specific uses, for example, for a pilot, a layer showing vertical obstructions may be switched on so that the pilot won't crash into anything.

    GPS (Global Positioning System)

    You might have heard of GPS before, especially when thinking about driving somewhere. GPS stands for Global Positioning System and is a navigation system based on location. GPS uses satellites orbiting the earth to provide spatial and locational information. These satellites send radio signals to receivers on the ground at control stations, and to those who are using GPS navigation data, such as airplanes, submarines, and land-based vehicles such as your car. A GPS device can read those signals and work out an exact location, as long as the GPS device is able to read the signals from four of those satellites. For more details on how GPS works, head on over to the GPS explanation and give it a read!

    Any kind of satellite system that provides navigational, positional, and locational data is known as a Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS). GPS is one of the most prominent examples of a GNSS. It is owned by the US government and the Department of Defense but can be used by anyone across the world. There are other GNSS as well. Galileo is a GNSS system used by the European Union and BeiDou (BDS) by China.

    Geospatial Technology Uses

    The three types of geospatial technology, remote sensing, GIS, and GPS, are used all around the world for different activities, and by all sorts of people (not just geographers!). Geospatial technology is vitally important and without it certain activities can't take place. We'll outline a few uses here.

    Military Use

    Geospatial technology is critically important for military operations. The use of geospatial information can be seen throughout military history. Today, technology has taken the place of paper maps. GIS is a vital part of military operations. Layered GIS maps are needed to show militaries the differences in terrain, where there are populations, and even data about the weather, which could help ground troops, or pilots in the air, for example.

    The use of UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), like drones, is at the forefront of geospatial technologies and data collection. Cameras, GPS, heat sensors, and other technologies can be attached to these unmanned drones (mini-planes, if you like), which can capture images and videos of the surrounding area. The information that drones can collect can be used for GIS mapping. This information gathered from drones is vital for ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance).

    Geospatial Technologies Predator Drone StudySmarterFig. 3 - MQ-1 Predator drone used by the US military

    Environmental Use

    Geospatial technologies are fundamental for geographical data collection associated with the physical environment. Remote sensing can be used for many different environmental phenomena. Images that are produced by remote sensing can help to show how far forest fires have spread, the rate of ocean warming or what the ocean floor may look like, coastline changes, weather tracking (like hurricanes or flooding), volcanic eruptions, or how cities are expanding and land use is changing.

    The environmental data gathered using geospatial technologies allow planning for changes or threats.

    For example, in the case of Florida, we could assess how badly a flooding event might impact the state, where its coastlines need better protection from erosion, and how the state can employ better urban planning strategies.

    Geospatial technologies are used in the fields of meteorology, ecology, agriculture, forestry, and others. Think about each field, and how geospatial technologies could be used there.

    Everyday Use

    It may come as a surprise, but geospatial technologies are not just used by geographers and the military. They are used all day, every day, and all over the world, for hundreds and hundreds of different tasks and activities. Let's look at a couple of examples.

    Sat Nav

    Everyday transport is a great example of how GPS is used. Whether this is someone making a trip in their car using a satellite navigation system (sat nav), or pilots flying an airplane, GPS is vital as a navigational system.

    Geospatial Technologies Sat Nav Driving StudySmarterFig. 4 - Don't forget to turn right! A satellite navigation (sat nav) system helping a driver to find their way.

    COVID-19

    Geospatial technologies are also incredibly important for tracking global health. This can be demonstrated by the COVID-19 global pandemic. Without geospatial technology, the disease would not have been able to be effectively tracked around the world. Geospatial information was used to monitor the outbreak. The COVID-19 dashboard created by Johns Hopkins University is a great example. The use of geospatial technologies, like GIS, has also been used to monitor other viral diseases, such as the Zika outbreak in 2015.

    How do geospatial technologies affect your life? What do you use that might have a GPS or GIS system in place?

    Benefits of Geospatial Technology

    As we have already mentioned, geospatial technologies are used for many different things. Without it, much of our knowledge about the world wouldn't be at our fingertips, and it would be much harder to gather data about our changing planet. Here are the main benefits:

    • Geospatial technology is used at a variety of scales, from finding your friends on your iPhone to military tracking and data collection.

    • It allows us to learn about our world, and for geographers, that is incredibly beneficial.

    • Data can be much more detailed than they would be if the information were being collected at ground level with minimal technologies.

    • With geospatial data in hand, all sorts of planning, preparation, and predictions can take place.

    • Geospatial technologies can be used in every sector, for many different things, and without them, our world wouldn't be the same.

    Future of Geospatial Technology

    Current geospatial technologies are extremely advanced. But that doesn't mean that there isn't room for more development. In fact, this is just the beginning of geospatial technologies, and they will only become more important as our world progresses and develops.

    A great example of this development is how geospatial technologies and AI (artificial intelligence) have been forming a relationship over the years.

    Artificial Intelligence (AI) is the way that technologies are becoming more autonomous. It means that computers are able to do tasks that humans are normally required to do.

    GeoAI (geographic artificial intelligence) is the application of artificial intelligence in the geospatial data sector. The use of AI can aid geographical data by predicting future scenarios or making projections. AI simply advances an already detailed and useful technology.

    Geospatial Technologies - Key takeaways

    • Geospatial technologies have developed over the years, starting as sketched clay maps, to paper maps, to the technological boom, where new geospatial technologies are now dominant.
    • Examples of geospatial technologies include remote sensing, Geographic Information Systems (GIS), and Geographic Positioning Systems (GPS).
    • Geospatial technologies can be used for all sorts of activities, such as military use, environmental use, and everyday use.
    • The future of geospatial technology could move even farther beyond its current autonomy, with AI becoming even more familiar.

    References

    1. Mapping Iceland, Typus Orbis Terrarum, 2017, http://mappingiceland.com/map/typus-orbis-terrarum/
    2. National Geographic, GIS (Geographic Information System), 2022, https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/geographic-information-system-gis
    3. Fig 2, remote sensing satellites (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ers2-envisat-tandem-in-flightbig.jpg), by Jturner20, Licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/).
    4. Fig 3, sat nav driving (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Driving_in_Glasgow_(17405705965).jpg) by Tony Webster (https://www.flickr.com/people/87296837@N00), Licensed by CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/).
    5. Fig 4, predator drone, (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:MQ-1_Predator_P1230014.jpg) by David Monniaux (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:David.Monniaux) Licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)
    Frequently Asked Questions about Geospatial Technologies

    What is geospatial technology?

    Geospatial technology is the technology that deals with location, place, and space.

    What are the benefits of geospatial technology?

    Geospatial technology can be used at a variety of scales and in many different sectors, it shows in-depth data that would be difficult to collect at ground level, and the data can be used for planning, preparation and making predictions.

    What are some examples of geospatial technologies?

    The main types of geospatial technology are remote sensing, GIS (Geographic Information System), and GPS (Geographic Positioning System). 

    What is the future of geospatial technology?

    The future of geospatial technology is open and hard to predict; artificial intelligence is already working its way through geospatial technology. 

    Why is GIS used in geospatial technology?

    GIS allows the collection, storing and displaying of geospatial data, and therefore is a perfect example of geospatial technology.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What is a great example of how geospatial technology began to modernize?

    True or false: with GIS, layers of data can be added and removed from a map.

    What does GPS stand for?

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