PHILMONT RANCH, N.M. — The latest sophisticated techniques in 3-D data collection have been used to "map" a complete topographical picture of the Boy Scouts of America's Philmont Ranch.
With its expanse of rugged terrain that includes mesas and high mountain peaks, the ranch near Cimarron, N.M., was a perfect challenge for the folks at Northrop Grumman, which has an extensive and active geospatial and information systems division.
It didn't hurt that the corporation has plenty of former Scouts who jumped at the opportunity to pay tribute to the organization or to the ranch that helped carve out some of their most formative years — in either their own young lives or the lives of their children.
When the idea of mapping Philmont was first brought up, it quickly escalated from a casual thought voiced aloud to a project widely embraced, morphing into a life of its own.
"It was interesting, kind of wild to see the outpouring of support from folks," said Sean Love, Northrop's geospatial business development director. "I was the cat herder, fielding all the phone calls because there was so much interest."
Love, a native of New Mexico, attended Philmont as a young Scout, and said he has never forgotten.
"It was, without doubt, one of the best experiences of my life."
He still has his handbook from back in the day and remembers the map and compass that were his tools in his orienteering instruction.
When a program manager who had mentored an Eagle Scout at the ranch showed Love his "pretty basic line map" from Philmont, Love said it brought it all back.
"It was the same map I used out there in 1986 when I was a kid," he said. "And it was like, 'We have these airplanes, the knowledge of how to do this data collection. ... We thought it would be cool to do a brand new map."
The division decided to embark on the geospatial project to test the full range of its mapping capabilities and to give something to the Scouting organization in honor of its centennial birthday.
The effort, which played out in late 2009 and early 2010, included ground trooping the ranch to get a closeup look at what was involved and doing aerial runs using the company's fleet of planes.
Love said there were a bevy of employees who eagerly volunteered at the chance to return to Philmont and get nostalgic over weeks spent camping, hiking, horseback riding or mountain biking at the 214-square mile ranch.
"That's part of the adventure there, this basic map and compass they give you when you're a kid. It's a little bit freaky, but it's really fun once you are done, because you know you did it yourself."
For its project, Northrop's planes tapped infrared sensors and did imagery measurements though light detection to gather high-resolution data that was processed at its facilities in Alabama and Florida.
They took that and built upon GIS information already used by Philmont staff to come up with a full "picture" of the terrain.
"It was a perfect area to test out our sensors, to do flights like we do," Love said. "With its completely flat mesas without vegetation to the tremendously large mountains with tons of vegetation — it is a great area for geospatial nerds like myself to play in."
For such unfettered access, Love said Northrop Grumman made a deal with the Boy Scouts that the data would not be made available to the public or to take away from that basic map and compass experience.
"As someone who has been there, that would take away some of the mystique," he said.
Philmont, instead, plans to make use of the data in such arenas of managing land use activities such as logging, erosion detection and control or monitoring reclamation projects associated with a 2002 devastating wildfire.