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Federal agencies addressing the geodesy crisis

November 1, 2023  - By

In my last column, I highlighted the announcement made by the National Geodetic Survey (NGS) of the recipients of the NOAA FY 23 Geospatial Modeling Competition Awards. As shown in the image below, NGS awarded approximately $4 million in grant funding to four institutions for projects that will research emerging problems in the field of geodesy, develop tools and models to advance the modernization of the National Spatial Reference System (NSRS), and help address a nationwide deficiency of geodesists.

Image: NGS

Image: NGS

I had the opportunity to speak with Juliana Blackwell, director of the NGS, about the geospatial awards. I asked her how the grants will help NGS in its development of products and services as well as the implementation of the modernized NSRS.

“The geospatial modeling grant is an opportunity to expand our abilities within NGS to address research challenges, diversify the tools we provide, and multiply our future workforce,” Blackwell said. “I’m excited about the competitive and collaborative nature of the grant and the chance for NGS to work with a variety of academic institutions.”

NGS awarded the grant funding to four institutions including Oregon State University, Scripps Institute of Oceanography, Michigan State University, and the Ohio State University. Looking at the summary of the awards, there appears to be some overlapping interest between grantees that could lead to a diverse set of solutions to a problem or task. I will report on specific tasks and outcomes as more details become available.

I was pleased to see that grant proposals included developing new geodetic tools and operating procedures for working with the new, modernized NSRS. Hopefully, these universities will engage the geospatial user community when developing new tools so the tools will be useful during the implementation of the new NSRS.

Summary of the Geospatial Awards (Image: NGS)

Summary of the Geospatial Awards (Image: NGS)

Besides providing funds for the geospatial grants, NGS is collaborating with other federal agencies to address the geodesy crisis. This collaboration, denoted as the “Geodesy Community of Practice (COP),” includes four agencies — NGS, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and United States Geological Survey (USGS). The co-chairs of the group discussed the group’s actions and goals at the Hydrographic Services Review Panel (HSRP) fall committee meeting held in Silver Spring, Maryland, on Sept. 27-29.

Geodesy Community of Practice. (Image: NOAA's Hydrographic Services Review Panel)

Geodesy Community of Practice. (Image: NOAA’s Hydrographic Services Review Panel)

The HSRP involves four NOAA offices: three National Ocean Service (NOS) program offices -NGS, the Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services (CO-OPS), the Office of Coast Survey (CS), and the University of New Hampshire’s Joint Hydrographic Center and Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping. More information and the presentations from the HSRP meeting can be obtained here. The purpose of the committee is to review and provide NOAA with independent advice on their products and services.

(Image: NOAA's Hydrographic Services Review Panel)

(Image: NOAA’s Hydrographic Services Review Panel)

I attended the three-day HRSP meeting as a virtual participant. As previously noted, NGS is one of the NOS offices that’s part of the HSRP. As the Director of NGS, Blackwell participated in the 2023 fall HSRP meeting. A majority of the meeting discussed the geodesy crisis. In my opinion, this is due to Blackwell’s efforts to highlight the importance of geodesy to NOAA products and services.   

The presentation by the co-chairs of the Geodesy Community of Practice highlighted a few articles that have brought the geodesy crisis to the attention of the geospatial user community. Anyone keeping up with my columns knows that I have been highlighting the geodesy crisis and programs that advance the science of geodesy (July 2020, November 2022, December 2022, and April 2023). The geodesy crisis white paper is posted on the American Association for Geodetic Surveying (AAGS) website. 

(Image: NOAA's Hydrographic Services Review Panel)

Image: NOAA’s Hydrographic Services Review Panel)

The Geodesy COP established working groups to address topics that are important to all geospatial users. All the agencies are supporting the working groups which should help create more effective and efficient solutions to technical geodetic issues.

Image: NOAA's Hydrographic Services Review Panel

Image: NOAA’s Hydrographic Services Review Panel

A goal of the Geodetic Community of Practice is to train future geodesists. The advancements in satellites and computers have enabled geodesy to expand into many different disciplines Geodetic science and technology now underpin many sciences, large areas of engineering (such as driverless vehicles and UAVs), navigation, precision agriculture, smart cities, and location-based services. Major U.S. companies, such as Google and FedEx, as well as the automobile industry, precision farming companies and mining companies also need more accurate geodetic models, tools, and algorithms. Therefore, these companies also need trained geodesists to perform important research on topics that address their specific geodetic requirements. I highlighted this in my July 20, 2020, GPS World First Fix article. To address the geodesy tradecraft, the COP includes providing professional government assignments. That said, many industries that rely on accurate and consistent geodetic information should also provide professional geodetic assignments.   

Training future geodesists. (Image: NOAA's Hydrographic Services Review Panel)

Training future geodesists. (Image: NOAA’s Hydrographic Services Review Panel)

I asked Blackwell how she thought the U.S. government’s Geodesy Community of Practice will help NGS and the geodesy crisis.

“The Geodesy Community of Practice is in the beginning phase right now with the collaboration among federal agencies with geodetic missions, NOAA/NGS, NGA, NASA, and USGS,” Blackwell said. “There is already a benefit in sharing research, workforce, and operational needs and leveraging our resources. I envision expanded engagement with academia, private industry, and other government agencies as the community of practice matures.”

In my opinion, the Geodesy Community of Practice’s integrated working groups consisting of individuals with different backgrounds and skills addressing geospatial problems will help to advance the field of geodesy. I believe that integrated and collaborative organizations create the best geospatial solutions; the Geodesy COP is an embodiment of this concept.

Of course, as I have stated in many of my columns, I like to remind everyone that “geodesy is the foundation for all geospatial products and services.”

About the Author: David B. Zilkoski

David B. Zilkoski has worked in the fields of geodesy and surveying for more than 40 years. He was employed by National Geodetic Survey (NGS) from 1974 to 2009. He served as NGS director from October 2005 to January 2009. During his career with NGS, he conducted applied GPS research to evaluate and develop guidelines for using new technology to generate geospatial products. Based on instrument testing, he developed and verified new specifications and procedures to estimate classically derived, as well as GPS-derived, orthometric heights. Now retired from government service, as a consultant he provides technical guidance on GNSS surveys; computes crustal movement rates using GPS and leveling data; and leads training sessions on guidelines for estimating GPS-derived heights, procedures for performing leveling network adjustments, the use of ArcGIS for analyses of adjustment data and results, and the proper procedures to follow when estimating crustal movement rates using geodetic leveling data. Contact him at