Navigation Powered By Declassified Missile Tech (And Maybe Apple) Makes Sci-Fi Real

Navigation, thanks to a bunch of innovations, is about to get futuristic in a way Star Trek’s Mr. Chekov would be impressed with … and Google isn’t necessarily along for the ride.



A big rumor has Apple buying 3-D mapping firm C3 Technologies. If Apple’s acquisitive habits teach us anything, we can expect C3’s tech to be quietly subsumed into Apple, re-engineered, up-rated, and bolted into its hardware as a future killer feature. C3’s schtick is to take declassified missile math and use it to generate 3-D models of terrain and buildings (from a sequence of aerial photos) that make Google’s Street View look like child’s play. The way we use our devices to navigate could soon change in ways that rival science fiction.


Apple’s been buying different mapping tech firms for a couple of years now, but C3 Tech–if it’s truly been bought by the Cupertino firm–may be the jewel in the crown. With original participation from Saab, which has interests in defense technology, the system takes a stream of ground photos acquired by an aerial asset (like a plane, helicopter, or UAV) and converts them, via algorithms once used as part of a missile image processing tech, into a super-accurate 3-D representation of the actual topography of the ground. Essentially it creates, in very quick order, a hyper-accurate 3-D comptuer model (complete with images) of terrain and city streets in the same way Google has to drive a car down the street with a host of cameras and sensors spraying lasers and whatnot at nearby buildings. And where Street View approximates 3-D elevations, and misses inner courtyards and other details from the imagery, C3’s system apparently gets it all right … down to a potential resolution of five inches or so.

It’s hard to say how astonishingly impressive the results are–you’ll have to watch the video to see–or how much it could transform navigation on an iOS device. With a swift aerial survey, Apple could generate its own reference maps of pretty much everywhere in the world, at a level of detail that’s not been seen before, and wire the results into a mapping solution. But the firm has been patenting 3-D mapping recently, and has imagined all sorts of novel uses for the system: Including a real-view versus 3-D reference view platform that solves one of those nagging problems of navigating somewhere you’ve not been before–which landmark really matches up with what your absract GPS display is telling you to do?


We know Apple’s got all sorts of location-based services planned, and it’s started to deliver on some of its long-researched capabilities with the new Find My Friends feature. But we also know the firm has been trying to collect real-time traffic data, which tells us it’s actively trying to integrate its navigation and location systems. With a tech like C3’s aboard, real-time traffic data and Siri could combine to create what would have to be the world’s most intelligent (and voice-activated) personal navigation solution for cars. And with Siri working smartly by voice synthesis, if you were a pedestrian it could–conceivably–soon tell you which way to turn as you negotiate streets, perhaps describing the landmarks audibly.

Dashboard Lasers

At the European Satellite Navigation competition a company called MVS-California won a prize for its True3D head-up display system. It’s a physical hardware solution that’s built into a car’s dashboard and projects, using a clever laser-driven system, data onto the inner glass face of the windshield. Think of it as a car-based version of the HUD that fighter pilots have long been using. But True3D can do nifty volumetric-like 3-D effects that include popping text labels atop relevant sites through the windshield, and drawing a “cable” down the road ahead that represents the route you’re supposed to follow when your GPS is taking you to a location.


The device has been patented … which should come as interesting news to Pioneer, which has recently revealed a very similar-sounding system that it actually plans to bring to market next year.

From these developments we can tell that, independant of what’s happening in the smartphone navigation world (and amid the collapse of the dedicated-unit in-car GPS market), in-vehicle navigation is only going to get cleverer and more useful, as it helps us tackle some of the remaining flaws in using existing GPS tech to navigate from place to place.

Where’s Google?

Google’s mapping solutions are excellent, and without Maps, Earth, and StreetView perhaps the general public wouldn’t be as excited by the innovations described above. Indeed Android’s built-in turn-by-turn navigation solution is often touted by anti-Apple speakers as one of the big advantages of Google’s smartphone platform over Apple’s.

Google has recently revealed it’ll be charging, in a limited way, for access to its Maps API–essentially trying to monetize it by charging a license to companies that use its database to make money for themselves. It’s all about needing to secure Maps “long-term future by ensuring that even when used by the highest-volume for-profit sites, the service remains viable.” 


And yes, Android has a majority of the smartphone market so its Maps solution is perhaps the most immediately used one. But if Apple really does ditch Google and apply its own mapping solution, with a high level of innovative tech that it seems Google can’t currently match, perhaps Apple can pull off the same sort of coup as it has with Siri–a voice control app that is in some core ways similar to the service Google currently offers, but which easily surpasses Google’s system and offers future innovation paths all of its own.

Getting From A To B Tomorrow

The advent of GPS completely shook up every previous system of working out how to get from A to B, whether as a pedestrian, car driver, or even pilot. But a quick glance at the currently available tech shows that there’s plenty of scope for innovation to take digital navigation truly into the next paradigm–particularly when it comes to relating reality to the digital data, and in terms of cleverly visualizing it all. From a number of fronts, it looks like that’s about to happen.

Chat about this news with Kit Eaton on Twitter and Fast Company too.


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I'm covering the science/tech/generally-exciting-and-innovative beat for Fast Company. Follow me on Twitter, or Google+ and you'll hear tons of interesting stuff, I promise. I've also got a PhD, and worked in such roles as professional scientist and theater technician...thankfully avoiding jobs like bodyguard and chicken shed-cleaner (bonus points if you get that reference!)