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Drones, lasers, and the future of mapping: Verda Kocabas, geomatics guru, and SAIT Geographic Information Systems program academic chair Q&A


Verda Kocabas, SAIT academic chair for the GIS program, says the field is changing rapidly with the adoption of new technologies.
(Photo by Jesse Boily)

Verda Kocabas, the Academic Chair for the Geographic Information Systems (GIS) program at SAIT, is a geomatics guru, with a PhD in Geography from Simon Fraser University, and a career which includes consulting in the private sector. We spoke on how GIS has a boring name, but is actually mind-blowing, where the field is going, and some novel applications of new technologies:

Where is GIS used?

VK: Everything we do has to do with location. Any company or organization that uses location uses GIS. It’s a system that stores, manages, and analyzes spatial data to help decision makers. To some degree all industries and companies utilize GIS — the applications are limitless — and with technology changing and organizations understanding the power of GIS, [the impact of GIS] is increasing.

How have new technologies affected geomatics?

VK: One is the improvements of computer technology itself. We used to have floppy disks; now we have data centres, we have terabytes and terabytes of data storage, and the computers are now more powerful. What that means is that we can process more data. Ten years ago, you had to wait two days to get a result — now, it takes two minutes.

The other is new equipment, like UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] and drones – they are getting very popular. We are also now getting very detailed images from satellites, which we only used to get from aerial photography (imagery taken from fixed-winged, piloted aircraft). So we have more data, and better data.

The other part of technology is web-based applications, and smart phones. Uber uses maps and location all the time, so it’s a very simple GIS system. You can’t run it without your map, and [having the ability to] calculate the shortest route for the driver.

Laser scanning [using a laser/sensor system to map objects in 3D] has been getting more and more popular. It’s getting easier for users to get data out of laser scanning, and it’s getting more helpful. We used to have larger, half-million-dollar machines, but now we have smaller machines that now only cost $20,000. There are laser scanners that you hold in your hand, shake it, and walk to map an area — and in some applications that’s enough.


A 3D model of Washington, D.C., derived from aerial laser-scanned data
(Image by Jason Stoker)

What are some situations where laser scanning is used?

VK: There are so many examples. One interesting example is in crime scene investigation. It’s so important to document the state of the crime scene to go back to it and analyze it, and the best way is a laser scan. If you have a large crime scene, a UAV might be a solution.

Another example is in building and design. One of our cap stones groups did a project where Rouge restaurant, a very old building, was thermal scanned to understand where the coolest points are. They then combined [that data] with a laser scan of the building, to create a model in 3D. If you’re an architect or a restoration expert, you use that data.

What is your research on?

VK: It’s spatial modeling to predict urban growth. It looks at the next 20 years, and how people like us will pick locations [to live] in the city based on their characteristics and their preferences, and then show how the city will grow in the next 20 years, including across different scenarios. The idea was to help urban planners and policy makers make decisions for the city. 

What do you do as SAIT GIS academic chair?

VK: I oversee the GIS and geomatics programs. One of the reasons I joined SAIT was I wanted to help the future of GIS and geomatics. Students that graduate here are the future. I want to have a hand in that, because our graduates are the ones who are going to change the industry.

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