Mon, 23 Jul, 2012

Military Cartography: From the World of Warfare to Civilian Mapping Technologies

For centuries, military campaigns have relied heavily on a range of cartographic products, and the importance of a map that accurately depicts troop movements, topographical conditions, and other aspects of the surrounding areas cannot be overstated.


Fort Sullivan

In the United States, this type of military cartography came into full flower during the Revolutionary War and maps documenting everything from attacks on Fort Sullivan in South Carolina and the plans for the fortifications and surrounding area around Forts Clinton and Montgomery are seminal documents from this period.


Today, the US military has a number of administrative units that work on creating new mapping technologies. One of the most interesting of these is the U.S. Army Geospatial Center, which is based in Alexandria, Virginia. The Center works on a wide range of products, including digital imagery projects, hydrology mapping initiatives, and large-scale civil works. Certainly one of the most interesting projects available on their site is the “Fact Sheets” area. Here visitors can learn about their work on cultural mapping, and historic photo analysis.


Interestingly enough, a number of private sector mapping ventures draw on technology initially developed for military uses. Over the past few months, both Apple and Google have announced new 3D mapping software packages designed to allow users to wander around major urban areas at a level of detail that is rather impressive. Google Maps for mobile devices allows users to zoom in and out to view intersections, buildings, and other details of the urban environment in cities such as San Francisco and New York.

Google Maps Mobile

Apple gave an early public demonstration of their new application at the annual WWDC meeting in June 2012, and the software includes an integrated traffic view with information about accidents en route, along with the ability to search for over 100 million business locations. The company is calling its 3D mapping feature “Flyover” and the surrounding structures pop up as visitors scroll around the city in question.

Apple Flyover


The development of these technologies has come under close scrutiny as Senator Charles Schumer (D-New York) and his staff have expressed concern  over what they are calling “military grade spy planes” to record the necessary images for such products. In a public statement, Google noted that it does not currently blur aerial images taken by the planes, and that it takes privacy “very seriously”.

Max Grinnell is a writer, public speaker, and college professor who specializes in writing about cities, travel, geography, and public art. His professional website and you can follow him on Twitter @theurbanologist