Feb. 4, 2019

Schulich team remeasures Alberta mountain peaks, one hike at a time

Professor emeritus Gérard Lachapelle and students seek peak accuracy

Measuring mountains and admiring some of the world’s most breathtaking scenery.

These are two awe-inspiring answers to the question almost every geomatics engineering undergraduate asks as convocation approaches: “Where can geomatics take you?”

We asked too, getting broad answers in return. But then this past summer, three of us were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to gain hands-on experience in global navigation satellite systems (GNSS) through our positions as undergraduate research assistants.

For our trio, Jamie Horrelt, Paul Gratton and Erica Lemieux, the opportunity took us far across southern Alberta, from Calgary’s downtown core, to quiet drives in the countryside.

But the most exciting adventures took us to the highest peaks of Kananaskis Country, on beautiful hikes in the mountains, where we helped change history a few metres at a time by remeasuring peaks in the most accurate way ever attempted.

Using satellite technology to measure the peaks

We were hired by Dr. Gérard Lachapelle, PhD., professor emeritus, to assist with his research on the analysis of low-cost units, raw GNSS measurements, specifically analyzing the data output from units such as Android smartphones and Garmin handheld devices.

While it may have seemed to be just an excuse to hike at work, the mountains truly served as the ideal testing ground for the units, offering both the worst-case satellite signal scenario in steep canyons and thick brush, and the best-case scenario on wide open mountain peaks.

And the data we and Dr. Lachapelle collected is helping to rewrite the topography of many mountains. For example, Cascade Mountain near Banff townsite was believed to be 2,998 metres, but is now known to be 3,006 metres.

Fortress Mountain scramble.

Fortress Mountain scramble.

Research team

Breathtaking scenery

It was extremely convenient for us that the ideal test locations coincided with some of the most striking scenery in Canada.

That is not to say the job was all fun and games. We earned each moment in the mountains. On days we were not collecting data, we spent long hours in the office processing data, developing code, and analyzing the results in technical reports that were discussed at frequent meetings.

There were days when the only mountains were made of data, and sometimes it seemed as though we would never find the bug in our software.

Thankfully, the hours never feel as long, and no problem seems impossible, when you work with a great team on a project that you really believe is valuable and interesting. Each problem that was discovered and solved opened up even more aspects of the units to explore, which kept us motivated.

Shared ideas and guidance

We worked closely together sharing ideas and seeking help and guidance from Dr. Lachapelle, Dr. Kyle O’Keefe, PhD, and Chandra Tjhai and Ali Pirsiavash, both PhD candidates.

Our work was even published in two conference papers and a journal paper, which gave us the opportunity to travel even further, well outside of Alberta to Bristol in the U.K. and Tokyo, Japan.

Jamie gained invaluable experience as a presenter at the International Navigation Conference hosted by the British Royal Institute of Navigation in Bristol.

Paul was able to network with industry professionals and assist in developing our presentation slides as he joined Dr. Lachapelle while he presented at the International Association of Institutes of Navigation 16th World Congress in Tokyo.

These conferences provided more than just a trip to faraway lands. The experiences we gained by preparing for and attending international conferences as undergraduate students were an incredible opportunity that enriched our learning experiences.

The view of Kananaskis Country from South Opal Ridge.

The view of Kananaskis Country from South Opal Ridge.

Research team

A summer to remember

The past summer is one that we will never forget. Regardless of the hiking and travel, the work was interesting, the environment was pleasant, and the knowledge  we gained will be invaluable in our futures as geomatics engineers.

Each one of us would highly recommend geomatics engineering to any first-year student. Opportunities like ours to enrich your education are always available, thanks to the amazing faculty and the great work that they do.