How digital maps are built

On a hot Tuesday afternoon in Airoli, Navi Mumbai, far away from the hustle and bustle of the city, I find myself in a rather uniquely modified car. In our line of work, cars are usually modified with an intention to either eke out more performance or to jazz-up the looks. But not this one.

The Honda CR-V petrol trundles along at a modest 60kmph and looks pretty standard, save for seven high-resolution cameras attached to the roof. A man sits in the passenger seat with a keyboard and a pen tablet on his lap, closely monitoring the screen attached to the centre console. The car’s movement on the road is represented by a map on the screen, which he occasionally populates with notes, along with the feed from the cameras. The man is a Local Map Operations Analyst for Here Technologies — a mapping and location services company — and I’ve joined him on a mapping drive to understand first-hand how digital maps are built.

Who’s Here?

Here Technologies is globally one of the biggest digital map providers for the automotive industry globally, with 100 million cars sourcing their map and content since 2010. In India, the brand works with automakers such as Maruti Suzuki, Hyundai, Daimler, Land Rover, Ford India, Volvo and Toyota. In fact, the Hyundai Venue offers real-time traffic navigation and live local search in collaboration with Here. Originally founded as NAVTEQ in 1985, the company was rebranded as Here by Nokia in 2012; and later in 2015, it was bought by a consortium of BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi for USD 3.1 billion.

Raw data collection

The drive forms the core of the data collection and Here Technologies’ fleet of over 300 cars covers a distance of almost 2.2 million kilometres globally, every year. In India, Here has around 18 multi-cam vehicles that drive about 60-80km over 7-8 hours every day.

Two crew members operate the mapping car. One drives and the other — a Local Map Operations Analyst — monitors the progress on a screen and enters attributes like speed breakers, no U-turns, etc via a keyboard and a pen tablet.

Apart from the drives, Here also uses satellite imagery, drone imagery and data obtained from governments; but one of the most important sources is the one derived from millions of smartphones (via network service providers) and cars, as they’re driven around. So that’s how Here can determine, for instance, whether a street is a one-way street or not.

Data processing and publication

Once the data is gathered, the company has various tools (about 20-25 of them) which basically help assimilate all the information and get it into a massive database. This database can run into terabytes and is being curated over the last 30 years and it continues to grow. It is important to constantly keep the data refreshed.

To process the data, the company is sharpening its focus on automation through machine learning. In fact, it has a few processes in place wherein its algorithms can automatically identify, extract, code and publish some of the raw data unsupervised. The rest of the data requires manual intervention/validation before it’s checked for quality and finally published.

The car

While the company is currently using the fourth generation of Here True Cars that are equipped with LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) globally, in India the company uses multi-cam vehicles (seen here), since LiDAR mapping is not allowed from a defence standpoint. These cars are equipped with a Differential Global Positioning System (DGPS) — which is more accurate than standard GPS — a Gigabit Ethernet Camera and a CPU with 3TB of storage. Cars equipped with LiDAR, on the other hand, can capture more intricate details useful for high-definition maps.

The road ahead

The company plans to improve its map release frequency from weekly/bi-weekly to daily and is working to offer features such as hazard warning, weather warning and car-to-car communication as well. The concept of being lost then could perhaps be unheard of in the future.

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Printable version | Oct 30, 2020 7:55:27 AM |

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