On a sunny afternoon in Boston I jumped in the front passenger seat of a TomTom branded, 2015 Ford Escape. But this was not for an usual ride since the vehicle was featuring a full array of high tech gear attached to the roof rack: a Velodyne Lidar camera, a 360 degree camera, two SICK radars, and high precision GPS and GLONASS antennas.
The Velodyne HDL 32E generates a point cloud of 700,000 points per second with a range of 70 meters an a typical accuracy of 2 centimeters. The two SICK radar are covering the dead angles, centered on the ground on the back of the car.
At the same time a “Ladybug“ camera takes a 360 degree view from its 6 lenses with a 30 megapixel resolution every 8 meters.
In addition to a precision odometer was attached to on of the wheels of the car and an inertial measurement unit completed the whole solution.
All of that was connected to a rack of technology located in the backseat: a server to process the data and two 3Tb hard disc drives – one for work and one for back-up. All of that is powered by a generator that is obviously quite different from my usual 12 volt cigarette lighter.
The Mapping van organization
At the wheel is Kevin Foy, Team Lead responsible for the North American operation of TomTom’s MoMa (mobile mapping) fleet. Usually is role is not in the field but coordinating drivers that have been tasked to drive certain areas all over the country.
Mapping roads at a country-wide level requires quite an organization. Snow and rain are your first enemies, then you need to cope with sun: “we are carefully avoiding to drive one hour after sunrise and one hour before sunset to shoot usable 360 views“ explained Foy.
Because of those constraint a significant part of mapping campaigns are done in the summer in the Northern Hemisphere.
The TomTom data collection fleet is quite automated so drivers are riding alone and keeping an eye on both their drive and the whole hardware installed in the car. They drive for about a week, eight to ten hours a day then the car goes to another driver and so on.
Map making: a million updates a day
But mapping vans are just the emerged part of the map making process. From the Boston suburb Kevin Foy drove us to Lebanon, New Hampshire, where TomTom has its North American map development center.
Before TomTom the company was called Tele Atlas (acquired in 2007) and there are still many employees at the site that where initially hired by GDT (for Geographic Data Technology), a company acquired by Tele Atlas in 2004.
About 700 people are working in Lebanon and the rest of the mapping division (1,500 people in total) – apart from field people located in about 40 countries – is located in three global offices: Gent, Belgium (the original headquarter of Tele Atlas), Lodz, Poland and Pune, India.