Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Open Source and GSF - the "Generic Sensor Format" for multibeam sonars

I am repeating myself... see Generic Sensor Format (GSF) Meeting (Sept 2008).

What makes open source software successful is a community that contributes back to the code base to make it better. Val is making a huge step towards that for the multibeam Generic Sensor Format by working on a sidescan addition to the format and posting about how to use GSF: A GSF Primer. Val even called for a code review. Yesterday, 5 of us sat down with Val and the code to give it a look. Many eyes for review is a great thing (unlike design by committee, which typically makes everyone equally unhappy).

That said, I worry about people using GSF as an archive or interchange format for multibeam sonar data right now. Here are some of the issues, some of which can be fixed and others that are intrinsic to the design. There needs to be open discussion and I argue that the original data (pre GSF) and the code that generated that data need to be archived.

First, the name implies that it is a "generic" format, but if you look into the code. One look at the gsfSensorSpecific struct should put this question to rest. There is a huge amount of information in a GSF file that is not generic. For some vendors, there are even multiple model specific structures (I count 7 for Simrad/EM/Kongsberg). This comes from the rapid evolution of sonars since GSF was first started in the early 1990's (I see a first date of 1994). If we really do want to have a generic sonar format, I think we need to design a series of new messages that cover the basic multibeam and back scatter data returned such that we don't need these vendor specific payloads. How does the MGD77 format need a special case??? This is just x, y, z, depth, gravity, and magnetic field. The 77 means 1977. This format has been around for a long time.

The next thing that is needed is a major code over hall. This would entail distributing a better build system (maybe CMake) that builds proper libraries for all the major architectures. As a part of this, GSF needs a series of unit tests that take a very wide range of sample multibeam files and convert them to a GSF file. Then read these back in and verify that the resulting GSF file makes sense. Even simpler yet, we need code that exercises all of the GSF code base that doesn't need large input files to test it. This unit test suit needs to be public and the non-input-file based code should be a part of the standard build process - aka unit testing. These unit tests also serve a second purpose of providing documentation for how the library should be used. To go along with this code base update, the library should be put into the major linux distributions as a standard package. This will mean that the library can't be called "libgsf" as that conflicts with the libgsf that is the GNOME Structured File library. Gnome is going to trump the sonar library for Ubuntu, Debian, RedHat, etc.

The next code update would be to have functions that can do very basic validation of every structure that is passed around the GSF library. Client code can then call these to verify that they are, at least at a basic level, passing in data that makes sense. There is still tons of room for errors, but if roll is +/- 180 degrees, we should not pass in a roll of 720 degrees. NOTE: roll right now is +/- 90 degrees, which will cause trouble for vehicles under overhangs (e.g. under ice, under ships, or in caves). The no data value for roll is 99.0. That is going to be a problem. I guess we can have rolls that go from -270 to +90 to get around this.

We also need to look at the performance of GSF. A mmap implementation of GSF would likely be much faster. What else can be done to speed up the code? We should discuss the idea of a SQLite standard 2nd file to go along with GSF and other multibeam log files that is similar to what MBSystem does. If is contains the basic metadata and possibly a prebuild index of packets, anything beyond the first pass of a GSF file will go much faster. An example would be pulling the navigation and sound velocity profiles (SVP) from the tail of the prior log file, would be faster if the file was already indexed in a standard way.

A final step of the code update would be to turn on all the major compiler warnings and fix them. At least -Wall for gcc should return no warnings. There appear to be headers that should be included and lots of point magic that works right now, but should be better documented so compilers can check any code changes. Also, the readers and writers should probably be switched to use a set of inline functions that do type checking that wrap the byte swapping and memcpy packing. Is the code totally 32 and 64 bit safe for all execution paths???

A very useful addition would be to package native reader/writer interfaces the common languages used by people who process this kind of data. This means having perl, python, and matlab interfaces. This should be a part of GSF and distributed along side. I know many people who have written their own interfaces to GSF and, while that is instructional to create one, at least one for each major language should be included in the distribution.

Finally, the documentation that goes with GSF needs to be updated. I have heard from several people who have written GSF code that the documentation is not enough to write a working encoder/decoder. Missing from the specification document are a lot of the motivations behind these packets. SAIC has put 16 years of hard work into GSF and learned a lot of lessons that can benefit the whole sonar community. We need to capture this.

It is super important to note that SAIC is only able to work on GSF based on its contracts with the US Navy. Either someone needs to pay SAIC to do some of this work or we, as a community, need to get cracking on this if GSF is going to have staying power. The same goes for MBSystem and other critical software. The lead authors are up to their eyeballs in work. This is a plea for the community to jump in. I try to contribute back as much as possible, but am maxed out. Find any nitch and pitch in. It doesn't matter if your contribution is large or small. Code, documentation, translating documentation to other languages, quality bug reports, building test cases, even just learning the tools and how they work... it's all important.