Luiz Paulo Fortes — Putting Brazil on the Map
This geomatics engineer pioneered the use of GPS in Latin America—now he wants to integrate all of Brazil's geoscience data into layers of information available to everyone over the Internet.
SIDEBAR: Fortes' Compass Points
When more than 100,000 PDA-packing census takers walk across Brazil in 2010, they’ll be collecting the coordinates for key features of the landscape while they count 190 million heads.
The scale of this ambitious campaign to georeference everything — which builds on a successful pilot project completed last year — approaches monumental. For geomatics engineer Luiz Paulo Fortes of Rio de Janeiro, it’s the next logical step in harnessing the power of GNSS to make the world a better place.
As the director of geosciences at the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), Fortes oversees geodesy, steers ongoing efforts to completely map his country, and tracks fine details including human geography, natural resources, and the internal boundaries of all municipalities.
During the last 25 years he has pioneered the use of GNSS in his hemisphere. Now he is leading efforts to integrate all the geoscience data into “consistent layers of information” available through the Internet for everyone. These data can also be complemented with statistical information in order to create the National Spatial Data Infrastructure of Brazil.
Fortes says the project is doable because his institute is the equivalent of three major U.S. agencies — the geodesic survey, the geological survey, and the census bureau — rolled into one.
“The geography part of my institute supplies all the maps needed for statistical surveys like the census,” says Fortes, also an associate professor of geomatics engineering at the University of the State of Rio de Janeiro. “We are starting more and more to integrate the position information into the statistical data.”
The potential benefits of melding geoscience with statistical data and displaying it in all manner of maps snaps into focus when you remember that Brazil’s vast agricultural and natural resources include more than half of the Amazon rainforest, often described as the planet’s lungs.
To appreciate the enormity of this undertaking and its relevance to the rest of us, consider the main statistics. In addition to sharing borders with nine of South America’s other 11 countries, Brazil is the world’s 5th-largest country in size and population and the 10th-largest economy. Its 26 states and 5,564 municipalities include uncountable numbers of archipelagos dotting 7,367 kilometers of beaches.
“It’s so hard to get into this university that you have to spend a full year studying specifically for the entrance exam,” he said. The preparatory course met all day Monday through Saturday, with exams every Sunday morning.
Fortes had no idea that the field of geomatics existed until he entered university. “When I found the geomatics engineering department. I became absolutely fascinated by the subject,” he said.
He graduated at the top of his class and went to work as a geomatics engineer at IBGE in 1982. Within a year he was appointed head of the satellite geodesy division, responsible for positioning activities carried out using Transit (NAVSAT), the first operational satellite navigation system and precursor to GPS.
Fortes’ team used Transit in projects where the use of classical positioning methods such as geodetic triangulation and traversing were not possible, especially in the Amazon region. “At that time, our field teams needed to occupy a new control station during at least seven days in order to achieve an accuracy between one and five meters!” he said.
In 1988 they started testing “a very interesting and promising satellite positioning system named GPS.” Fortes became so involved in the field that in 1998 he decided to brave Canadian winters in pursuit of a doctorate in geomatic engineering at the University of Calgary in Alberta. Within a few months of his return to Brazil in 2002, he was appointed associate director of geosciences for IBGE.
Networking Latin America
Three projects stand out as his all-time favorites:
Geocentric Reference System for the Americas (SIRGAS). Fortes presided over this international project for 14 years, starting at its inception in 1993. Two continental geodetic campaigns were carried out, with 58 stations established in South America in 1995. This expanded to include all of the Americas in 2000, with 184 stations.
“The cooperation that was built has helped establish the geodetic infrastructure now used by almost all Latin American countries,” he said. “ I’m so proud of that project.”
IBGE and ALOS Images. Fortes’s institute is the exclusive distributor of images taken by Japan’s ALOS satellite to non-commercial users in Brazil and a non-exclusive distributor to other users in South America. ALOS stands for Advanced Land Observing Satellite, but the Japanese refer to it as “Daichi.” Without relying on points of reference on the ground, Daichi’s remote-sensing equipment collects enough data — by itself — for mapping on a scale of 1 to 25,000.
“ALOS is at least three orders of magnitude less expensive than other commercial images,” he says. “Realistically, I believe it is the only way we can cover the entire country’s 8.5 million square kilometers.”
A Sinking Continent and Climate Change
Fortes was on the research team, and the discovery brought home another example of novel applications for GNSS. As the global grid becomes more complete, scientists will eventually be able to use it for estimating the earth’s cache of fresh water, a key piece of the big puzzle known as global climate change.
Up Next, Real Time
“We are changing to a real time network,” he says, “planning to broadcast GNSS corrections to users in Brazil in order to improve the real time solution from 10 meters down to a decimeter.”
The Incredible Lightness of Teaching
“I confess that I sometimes leave my office very stressed, with my head full of problems,” he says. “After class, I am absolutely light.”
Human Engineering is a regular feature that highlights some of the personalities behind the technologies, products, and programs of the GNSS community. We welcome readers’ recommendations for future profiles. Contact Glen Gibbons, <firstname.lastname@example.org.>
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