Fifteen years ago we decided to make STK an industry standard by creating a free version of Satellite Tool Kit. That software was designed to provide highly capable and reliable basic analysis and reporting of vehicle trajectories and relative visibility periods between assets. The community embraced that product through more than 40,000 product registrations over the years, helping our company grow and evolve the product into what it is today: Systems Tool Kit.
At the time, offering some of our capabilities for free seemed like a risky move, but it was the right thing to do. We became the “STK people” and our product gained instant recognition and market acceptance. Especially through the late 90’s and early 00’s, PC hardware was fast evolving and 3D graphics, which were previously only available on $25,000+ workstations, were becoming a reality. So, in addition to best-in-class astrodynamics software modules to add on to STK, we had something else unique— super-fast 3D graphics on a PC that showed things moving (and up in space no less).
Our 3D graphics propelled us into solutions (and systems) beyond our original space analysis market—range safety, blue force tracking, RF interference modeling, missile system design and so on. Initially, our users loved to say that the 3D view was frivolous to their research and operations, but they “liked” it because at the very minimum, it was cool. But then they learned our 3D was a little bit different because it was actually useful (and cool). You see, all of our developers came from the industry as well, so it’s not like they did not have a healthy dose of skepticism when it came to 3D as well. Their mission over the past 15 years has been to work like crazy to make sure our 3D is not just pretty pictures. What exactly do I mean? For starters, let’s just say you are getting way more accuracy than you can see with the pixels on your screen, and we are always trying to help you interpolate exactly what it is that you are seeing.
Here’s one of the simplest examples: our Earth is not round, never has been. So when we calculate that footprint intersection on the Earth or figure out the altitude of any vehicle, we are really calculating the right spot and extending those results into all of our subsequent analysis. Does that make a difference for what you see on the screen? Probably not for most cases. But does it make a difference in your results? Almost always. And when you are working on billion dollar systems or using our software for life or death scenarios, we think the extra degree, meter or second or two of accuracy is worth the investment.
Creating an “accurate” 3D globe has always been our number one priority in the 3D world, but another important area has been managing and interpreting the 3D view. Since AGI has always looked at the universe, versus just focusing on the ground or literally a bird’s eye view—we’ve had to deal with some tremendous relative distances and interesting viewing angles—such as looking right down a 1 deg field of view sensor from 35,000 kilometers above the Earth’s surface. So even with the obvious advantages of 3D views over 2D map views or paper analysis, things can still get tricky. Our solution has been the development of a vast array of visual cues and true-to-scale 3D models (more than 500) which allow our users to orient themselves in the scene and “see” the system’s performance.
Our visual cues are really too many to list or describe, but let me try to mention a few broad categories—directional cues such as vectors (standard or user-defined), drop-down lines to indicate varying altitudes, persistent displays to indicate history, color ramps to indicate active or cumulative performance, actual lighting, user-defined light sources, bounding boxes and grids, star maps and clouds.
Now, it is 2012, and your grandmother uses 3D globes and she gets that globe for free. It is a whole new ball game and the novelty of free 3D globes has long worn off. So while it is time for us to join that club, we are bringing extra power to the equation. Our 3D globe isn’t designed to gather information and dominate marketing channels and it isn’t designed to be an engineering sandbox. It is designed to solve real problems right out of the box with or without your customization and with or without our add-on modules for specific detailed analysis such as RF modeling, cumulative system performance, radar analysis, etc.
And now the 3D globe is part of our free version of STK. Change your world and give a useful 3D globe a try.