Modern Cartography - History, Tools & Applications

10 Nov.,2022


Aerial Remote Sensing

Modern Cartography Tools

Today’s cartography tools have taken mapmaking to new heights, mostly in terms of detail and accuracy, but sometimes quite literally.

Mapmaking can employ a huge variety of methods and tools. Here we'll cover a few of the most common tools: aerial photography, sensors, GPS, satellites, and GIS.

Aerial Photography

Folks have been trying to get cameras into the sky for as long as those same cameras have existed. Early attempts at aerial photography included balloons, kites, and even rockets.

In 1860, the oldest surviving aerial photograph was taken by James Wallace Black, tethered in a hot air balloon 2,000ft above Boston.

Phantom 3 Drone

Read more about the fascinating history of aerial photography here.

Modern aerial photography now relies on advanced technology like helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) - more colloquially known as drones.

Able to reach impressive heights and controlled by hand-held remote, drones are are fantastic tool for aerial photography. Especially for GIS mapping, large-scale, consistent visual records make surveying and change detection a breeze.

Though drones are still fairly expensive, the barrier to entry is low enough that organizations and even most individuals can participate.


Sensors detect events, changes, and physical characteristics of a given area by transforming stimuli (sound, light, heat, or motion) into electrical signals.

Those signals are collected and then transmitted to another device, usually a computer. Put simply, sensors collect data about the Earth's surface.

ZephIR 300M wind lidar device [Source]

Examples of sensors include:

Seisometers: Measure ground motion

LIDAR: 3D laser-based aerial mapping

Sonar: Detecting objects under water through sound propagation

In terms of modern cartography, sensors contribute to the design and creation of detailed, high-fidelity maps.

Because sensors can detect and log huge quantities of accurate data regularly, they are often used in change detection projects. Essentially, creating one map of an area, waiting for a specified amount of time, creating another, and then comparing for discrepancies.


The Global Positioning System (GPS) is a series of over 24 satellites that orbit Earth regularly, each transmitting a unique signal.

GPS receivers intercept those signals and perform trilateration (distance based measurement between various points): enabling a highly accurate system of navigation.

Trimble Geo7x [Source]

Primarily used for navigation in aircrafts, cars, boats, and mobile phones, GPS is also the primary tool for land surveying.

Digital cartography has enabled the ubiquity of GPS systems. Users can employ GPS to track everyday trends like traffic, mark coordinates for landmarks, chart a path from one location to another, and find their own location within a map.


Satellites serve a variety of purposes — from spying on foreign adversaries, to tracking weather and improving cell service, or as mentioned above - enabling the GPS network.

In terms of map making, satellites enable consistent, large-scale updates of Earth’s surface.

Think about modern applications like Google Earth or cloud GIS tools. These all rely on satellites for accurate geospatial data.

Satellites have increased the speed and range at which mappable information can be collected. Surveys that once took months can now be done in minutes.

By continually capturing footage of the Earth’s surface, satellites have enabled the creation of thousands, if not millions, of maps - used in agriculture, forestry, utilities, earth sciences, regional planning, and much more.

Geographic Information Systems (GIS)

Sensors, GPS, and satellites are methods through which to collect data.

These devices are quite advanced. However, as a general rule they lack the ability to display, organize, and manage the data they collect.

GIS provides the ideal solution.

GIS is location-based software used to view, organize, visualize, and analyze geospatial data. GIS helps users wrangle their data, enabling a better understanding of positionally based patterns and relationships.

Legacy GIS platforms, originating in the 1980’s, provide tools for high-level scientific analysis and data visualization. These programs are most often desktop based and require local installation - though some do offer mobile applications.

In the last decade, cloud GIS systems have started to become more prevalent. Cloud GIS systems don’t offer the same level of deep scientific analysis; however, they are significantly more mobile friendly - enabling users to take GIS with them wherever they go.

See how GIS has transformed key industries in our blogs on utilities, oil & gas, construction, urban planning, and telecom.