Mapping the World in 3D — with Drones?
Erin Green posted on October 26, 2015 |
UAVs to be equipped with reality capture software for 3D surveying and mapping.

As controversial as they are, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are quickly becoming a viable tool in many industries. In fact, these UAVs (or drones, as they are commonly called) will soon be able to see and map the world in 3D using reality capture software.

Reality capture refers to the use of technology as a tool in capturing and documenting reality in 3D. It is primarily achieved through laser scanning or photogrammetry, which is the practice of stitching together a set of images taken at multiple locations and angles to create one 3D model.

The information gathered in reality capture is often stored in point clouds — which, because they contain millions of individual points of information, can be massive files that are difficult to manage.

This is where the reality capture drone comes in.

UAVs like this one by Aibotix will soon be used in 3D mapping and surveying. (Image courtesy of Hexagon/Leica Geosystems.)

UAVs like this one by Aibotix will soon be used in 3D mapping and surveying. (Image courtesy of Hexagon/Leica Geosystems.)

When Bentley Systems, which specializes in software for the design, construction and operations of infrastructure, bought 3D modeling company Acute3D, it already had plans for the application of Acute3D’s software.

Acute3D, a small French start-up, is known for its Smart3DCapture software, which happens to be the core of Autodesk 123D Catch. Acute3D’s software is unique in that rather than capturing its information as a relatively disorganized point cloud, it generates its information into what it calls a “reality mesh."

This mesh is built similarly to geometric engineering models so as to align itself with real-world context through photographs. It produces a form of photogrammetry that can generate 3D representations from photos taken with a digital camera, whether it’s highly specialized or a regular smartphone, without the need to stitch a batch of photographs together.

This method of creating a mesh of information also enables the software to scale its representations anywhere from a single building site to an entire city, which makes the use of photogrammetry plausible for large-scale 3D mapping.

Once mounted on a drone, this technology would be able to capture large plots of land in a speedy and cost-effective manner. The captured 3D maps could then be used as observations of existing conditions for design and building information modeling (BIM) to ensure accuracy in both fields.

Bentley Systems recently announced that it will be teaming up with Leica Geosystems for exactly this purpose. Drones are to be fitted with Leica’s RCD30 Oblique camera for 3D urban mapping. They will also be equipped with Acute3D’s ContextCapture software, which is designed to produce high-resolution 3D models from photographs without human intervention.

These reality capture drones, capable of easily rendering flat photographs into 3D models, will have the ability to collect information on a scale previously thought difficult or impossible. Reality capture software is an efficient means of data acquisition that requires minimal on-site time and, paired with the portability of a drone, it could soon be a valuable tool in the way we map our world.

For more information, visit the Bentley Systems and Leica Geosystems websites.

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