Maps State-of-the-Art Navigation Looks to the Future…and the Past
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State-of-the-Art Navigation Looks to the Future…and the Past
“Take a left by the McDonald’s, go past the old Burma Shave signs, look for the big oak tree and take a right. You can’t miss it.”
If you’ve ever gotten turn-by-turn directions from someone, you know they work perfectly…until they don’t. Maybe you’ve turned at the wrong McDonald’s (there are so many!), or maybe the oak tree was uprooted in last week’s storm. You miss one stoplight, go a bit too far before you realize it, and pretty soon you’re completely lost, with no way to get back to a familiar landmark.
That’s where the in-car navigation system takes us a big step forward. Global Positioning Systems (GPS) are based on a network of satellites circling the earth that can pinpoint exactly where you are at any moment. In combination with digitized maps, the navigation system can tell you exactly how to get there from here, wherever “there” and “here” may be. They’re also used in day-to-day business – for example, making sure your package gets to its exact address. And they can be a life-saving feature of your local emergency response team, helping them locate a crisis quickly and accurately. These are feats that would have seemed like science fiction a generation ago; to many of us, they still feel futuristic.
But a little-known secret of high-tech digital mapping is revealed here: it depends on old-fashioned legwork – make that wheelwork – by a couple of people in a car, collecting data as they drive the roads.
On the Road Again…and Again…and Again…
The company that supplies road data to your in-car navigation system, to the Internet mapping sites of MapQuest, Google, and Yahoo, to truck fleets and the U.S. Army, is Chicago-based NAVTEQ. To create their database they begin with existing maps, charts, and satellite images obtained from the Census Bureau, local governments, and other sources. They digitalize this data, bring it all together…and then the fun begins.
Based in field offices around the world are more than 600 NAVTEQ geographic analysts. All together they drive millions of miles a year, in two-person teams, collecting information known as “navigation attributes.” What’s the speed limit on this stretch of road? Can you make a left turn at that intersection? Is this still a one-way street? Where is the entrance to this public building? What do the road signs say? There are more than 200 of these attributes that teams collect – in addition to verifying the data they have, looking for new roads, and noting changes to old ones. While one team member drives (slowly!), the other feeds the data into a laptop computer connected to a GPS that is concurrently tracking their route.
Geographic analysts are on the road virtually every day. Back in the office they compile the new data and update the database. NAVTEQ provides its clients with the data, updated regularly, and companies like Google and OnStar put it to use in Internet map directions and navigation systems. Companies use their own algorithms – sophisticated mathematical formulas – to map the route you request. In many cases, it’s not the shortest route but the quickest, so the algorithms figure in a number of the navigational attributes NAVTEQ collects, such as road speeds, stoplights, and toll plaza.
Currently, most in-car systems are getting this information from data stored in the program of the in-car system, not from real-time data feeds. So they can’t include up-to-the minute information on road repairs, accidents, and rush-hour traffic jams. But state-of-the-art navigation systems – in cars, mobile phones, and other devices – are beginning to provide real-time information, offering more routing alternatives and views much closer to what you see through your windshield. Get a sneak preview of what lies ahead in The Field Museum’s Maps: Finding Our Place in the World.