Google Earth’s high quality satellite images are thanks to technology that was developed right here at the University of New Brunswick.
Since UNB’s Dr. Yun Zhang created the PanSharp image fusion technology in 2001, the research and the university have remained on top of the field, with Google taking advantage of Zhang’s groundbreaking work.
“Google directly uses high-resolution satellite images produced by our image fusion technology to improve their products. After 15 years we remain the leader in this field thanks to PanSharp,” Zhang said.
The PanSharp technology works by fusing a low-resolution colour photo with a high-resolution black and white photo. The resulting image is a high-resolution colour photo, something Google requires for technology such as Google Earth.
Zhang’s research into image fusion technology began during his PhD studies, but after teaching image fusing in one of his undergraduate courses, it became apparent just how much more work needed to be done in the field.
“The classroom fusion results were very bad. Originally, when I did my PhD, I thought the image fusion problem had been solved,” he said.
In 2000, Zhang joined UNB as a professor. By the following year, he was already making big changes in the field of image fusion technology.
“I dedicated my research to this area and developed a method which can combine images to produce a high-resolution colour image.”
The software, dubbed PanSharp, was so successful that Zhang and UNB administrators decided to patent it.
Zhang took the image results to a conference, where companies began to recognize the potential of PanSharp.
In 2003, a leading global provider of high-resolution satellite images called DigitalGlobe acquired a PanSharp license. The license is still used by the company today.
Google proceeded to replace its old images with DigitalGlobe’s high-resolution images, which were created with UNB PanSharp. Most of the high-resolution satellite images used by Google coming from DigitalGlobe.
UNB is known worldwide due in part to the PanSharp technology. Before licensing PanSharp to DigitalGlobe, the company didn’t know about UNB. Now the university is on the minds of world leaders in the image fusion field.
“Three or four years later I attended a conference where the chief technology officer of Google was a keynote. I approached him after the speech and he immediately knew UNB,” Zhang said.
Zhang originally believed the licenses UNB issued would be in use for five years or so, by which point other developers would have caught up with his research. No company or developer has done so in the last 15 years.
“No one has better software than this,” he said.
Zhang is a world leader in the topic and reviews image fusion technology for academic journals. Even up to the fall of 2015, researchers were still trying and failing to reproduce PanSharp’s quality results.
“It’s good to know from a recent comparative study that up to now, this is still the best image fusion technology in the world.”
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