Just a few years ago it was a novelty to see a car sporting a sat-nav unit. But since then it has become almost ubiquitous, either as an optional extra or in the form of a portable unit stuck to the windscreen.
With falling prices and improving functionality the humble map is increasingly gathering dust in a cupboard at home. According to Tele Atlas, the UK’s biggest supplier of digital mapping information to the sat-nav industry, its popularity will increase. And the technology is set to improve further, with better reliability and more features.
“Sat-nav has kicked off in the UK over the last three years or so,” says Sheila Kotecha, Tele Atlas’ marketing manager.
“Portable sat-nav is the hot topic of the day and the market is going beyond the car.”
The market is growing fast: Tele Atlas saw its before-tax revenue rise 19% year-on-year in the first quarter of 2007.
Portable navigation unit sales are rising the fastest – from 2.3 million sales in 2004 to an expected 18 million this year and 30 million by 2009. Consequently in-car units are also becoming more affordable in order to compete, and Tele Atlas expects to see sales to rise by 10% in 2007.
Creating and maintaining accurate maps
Great sales are all well and good, but sat-nav is only as effective as the maps are accurate. Tele Atlas realises that unless it can keep its database up to date, people will lose faith.
“Maps have come a long way,” says Allan Rasmussen, the firm’s director of database operations.
“People are starting to rely on them more and more so the quality needs to be right.”
Mr Rasmussen says the way they gather information continuously develops.
“It’s not about building a process once and repeating what you’re doing,” he says.
“The market forces us to continuously improve the way we perform and build our database.”
Tele Atlas’ work is a process of data sourcing, validating that data and then adding it into a database which is then sold to service providers – the firms whose names you see on the units.
“We try as much as possible to use existing sources,” Mr Rasmussen explains.
“If there’s already information out there from the likes of Ordnance Survey, local authorities and so on we try to use them. We have more than 50,000 sources worldwide and we have to have a good network to get them together. There are public files, aerial photographs and of course our customers who use the maps every day and report areas that need improvement.”
Sometimes, however, the existing sources just aren’t enough.
“If you use information from existing sources there’s no need to go out,” Mr Rasmussen says.
“But sometimes we do. We drive nearly two million miles a year using around 200 vehicles, including 22 mobile mapping vans.”
Mapping vehicles follow a course sent out to a computer by Tele Atlas HQ. The vehicle is covered with cameras pointing in every direction, which are monitored by a passenger. The larger vans are converted mobile homes, and the teams, often couples, can be out on the road for weeks at a time. They usually follow the sunshine, as poor weather means poor visibility for the cameras. Smaller vehicles are also used for narrow and minor roads.
As well as basic road layouts there is more information that needs to be recorded, such as the type of areas surrounding the road being mapped.
“We’re generating 100 million images per van per year,” Mr Rasmussen says.
“From the images we can derive sign post information and measure things such as road width, building heights and things like that. We’re improving our accuracy all the time and we now have multiple verification against different sources.
“Once a week we take a copy of the data and send it off to offices in Ghent where it’s checked, labelled and backed up. Then we send the information off to our partner in India to process. Then the new data is compared with the existing data to see what changes have to be made.”
There are 700 digital cartographers at work in New Delhi and Hyderabad, as well as 100 software developers. “Our process has been sped up by technology,” says Mr Rasmussen.
“Because we bring the data to the office people can go over it, over and over again.
“All the information comes in and we capture the geometry, the basic information. Then we start to put in information such as street names, land types, road classification and what conditions the roads are in. We follow with more advanced features such as traffic levels, turning restrictions and house numbers.
“Then, finally, the database is released in different formats to partners who start to build products using it.”
Detecting change in the road networks is vital. Tele Atlas, including its partner organisations, has 1,200 people working in 20 countries on creating and maintaining the maps.
“15-20% of the road network is changing on an annual basis,” Mr Rasmussen says. “We need to make sure we collect that information as soon as possible.
“Tele Atlas covers Western Europe, a lot of Eastern Europe as well as the Middle East and Africa. We have maps of six million miles of road.
“We focus on where we see most people are travelling and where people are living. Then we use additional sources to make sure that information in rural areas is also of a high quality.
“We’ve made about 84 million updates since 2001.”