This profile is part of IEEE Spectrum's Special Report on Dream Jobs 2010.
Rick Armstrong is snuggled up with a laptop in the cluttered space that was once the backseat of a six-passenger Cessna 206. Twenty-five hundred meters below, sun-splashed Portland, Ore., slowly dissolves into the Tolkienesque foothills of Mount Hood. It’s some beautiful scenery. But right now, Armstrong’s eyes are fixed on his computer, which monitors the images that are streaming in from a camera mounted under the belly of the little plane.
Luckily, he doesn’t need to worry about flying. His pilot, an ex–U.S. National Guardsman, expertly guides the plane back and forth in a series of closely spaced lines so as to get full coverage of the territory below—not unlike the zigzagging you might do when mowing a lawn, but on a grander scale. By the end of the day, Armstrong’s laptop will have mapped about 600 square kilometers of land.
After the plane touches down, Armstrong will return his precious cargo—a 160-gigabyte solid-state drive filled with about 7000 high-resolution images of the Oregon landscape—to Urban Robotics, an aerial imaging company in Portland. There, engineers will transform the collected images into 3-D representations of the land that are downright stunning. Using sensor systems and parallel-processing software that it developed itself, the company creates what are known as orthorectified maps, which can be used to measure true distances.
The upshot is that Armstrong, flying in a properly outfitted plane, can in a single day create the kind of detailed elevation and ground maps that used to require weeks or months of processing. Urban Robotics’ customers—which include defense contractors, disaster planners, and power companies—need up-to-date, extremely detailed maps.
Urban Robotics hasn’t suffered from the recession, but its headquarters aren’t housed in sleek steel and glass. Its offices are on the second floor of a charmingly creaky building that seems straight out of ”Deadwood”—complete with exposed brick, huge windows, and ancient wood floors that groan under countless layers of varnish.
A glossy aerial photo of the Three Mile Island nuclear power station in Pennsylvania takes up an entire wall. With the outrageous level of detail, you can almost tell the make of the cars parked in a lot near one of the cooling towers. Breathtaking aerial views of national monuments entice potential clients. Hidden away are the maps commissioned by the U.S. military.
Creating accurate, nicely blended 3-D maps from several terabytes’ worth of 2-D images, automatically and on short deadlines, is an enormously complex task. Doing it right and doing it fast (the company’s specialty) involves a special sauce of image processing, mathematics, numerical computing, information theory, and parallel computing. Urban Robotics—founded in 2003 by two former Intel employees and an ex–U.S. Defense Department scientist—makes its maps using wickedly complicated signal processing and complex camera systems. That’s where Armstrong, a self-described ”inveterate geek,” comes in: He designs and works on the sensor systems. But he looks as though he should be disassembling motorcycles on a reality show; his goatee and untucked shirt match a similarly untucked attitude.
”Everybody I work with took the TV apart as a kid,” Armstrong says, walking into a messy office with floor-to-ceiling windows and filled with electronics gear.