Oct. 8, 2019

How four decades of UCalgary geomatics engineers have changed the world

'We’ve entered an era where you will never be lost again'
Geomatics Engineering
Autonomous Vehicle Navigation research with Dr. Naser El-Sheimy, PhD, and student Fritzology Inc

Everyday use of paper maps has given way to satellite imaging and GPS-enabled smartphones as innovations sparked by University of Calgary geomatics engineers over the past 40 years have literally changed our understanding of the world.

“We’ve entered an era where you will never be lost again,” said geomatics engineering alumnus Jonathan Neufeld, BSc (Eng)’03, MBA’15, CEO of TECTERRA Inc. “Think about it. People will live and grow up and thrive and, thanks to geomatics, they will never be lost again,” he said.

It all started in 1979, when Dr. Ed Krakiwsky, PhD, became the first chairman of the University of Calgary’s then Division of Survey Engineering. His first graduating class had a mere eight students and its focus was on surveying techniques.

  • Photo above: Autonomous vehicle navigation research with Dr. Naser El-Sheimy, PhD, and a student. Photo by Fritzology Inc

In the four decades since, geomatics engineering at the Schulich School of Engineering has become a world-leader in capturing, harnessing and commercializing the potential of location-based data – a field that has exploded in demand in our increasingly high-tech society.

“We have the biggest department of its kind in Canada. Our work is recognized worldwide and the demand for geomatics engineers continues to grow,” said Dr. Emmanuel Stefanakis, PhD, department head of geomatics engineering.

“With so many successful graduates working here and around the world, we know that, for our current students, geomatics engineering is a path to a successful career,” he said.

By studying geomatics, you enter a very tight-knit community – one that lives on well after graduation, said Neufeld, who leads a geospatial technology innovation centre that supports the development and commercialization of geomatics technologies.

“I look at the strength and the breadth of the geomatics community in Calgary – with big companies and smaller companies starting up now. There’s an incredible base of location-based technologies that’s grown out of this university. It’s created a whole other layer to the city,” said Neufeld.

Technologies made possible by geomatics engineering have integrated seamlessly into our everyday lives, said fellow geomatics graduate Natasha Spokes, BSc (Eng)’05. Spokes is CEO and co-founder of FarCloser Travel, a company that uses location-based data to help clients plan ideal vacations.

“People don’t realize they are using geomatics technology when they are pulling out their phones and getting directions to their next meeting. It’s being used for so much more. The UN is using location-based tweets to inform decision-making in conflict zones based on keywords. It’s all around us,” she said.

Spokes remembers when geomatics engineers were once consulted near the end of high-tech projects, almost as an afterthought. With the amount of modern data that has a spatial component to it, and the endless opportunities to make use of that data, Spokes said industries are now seeking out geomatics engineers to be at the forefront of their new developments.

“People know now that we need a seat at the table, that we’re not just surveyors,” she said.

Much of the new frontier of harnessing spatial data is being developed here. If you give geomatics professor Dr. Naser El-Sheimy, PhD, a few minutes, he will happily list off dozens of achievements sparked out of the small but mighty group that took on the mantle of the Geomatics Engineering Department in 1992.

  • The first mobile mapping system was developed at the University of Calgary, an idea later used for Google Street View.
  • The first GPS software engine in the world was created here, helping companies develop GNSS receivers.
  • The first GPS/INS navigation software was developed here, helping many companies to develop systems for mapping and navigation applications.
  • The first 3D satellite-mapping engine was developed by our graduates and later acquired by Microsoft for Virtual Earth.

With an ever-increasing number of ways to access, gather and use spatial-location data, the future of geomatics engineering is in harnessing big data and ensuring it is used safely and accurately.

We are used to having information at our fingertips and we need to be careful it is the right information, said Spokes. “We need to be using all this data in responsible ways,” Spokes continued.

“We need to make sure we are collecting an appropriate amount of information and we are sharing an appropriate amount of information. There is an ocean of data and we need to carve it down to an island.”