July 29, 2014

Head in the Point Clouds

Sam Pfeifle

Sam Pfeifle was Editor of SPAR Point Group from September 2010 - February 2013.

Now THIS is how you repurpose data

There's often talk in the industry about how useful lidar data can be. Sure, you collect the data for a specific purpose - a clash detection or topo - but then, hey, you've got it on hand should you have a measurement need or some other question down the line. I'm not sure how often this actually happens, as issues of access to the data and proper storage aren't always handled expertly, but the theory is good. And this week I actually found a great example of the theory put into action.

Baillie Windfarm Ltd was looking to site a windfarm at Baillie Hill, in County Caithness, Scotland, but was granted planning permission only with a number of conditions. One requirement was for improvement of public access to the Hill of Shebster and Cnoc Freicedain, which are both scheduled ancient monuments; and for improved interpretation of the cairns. Might they be able to do something for the local heritage as they went about their wind evaluations? Well, sure they could. 

So, in addition to flying the area with lidar to do a topo study for the purposes of their windfarm development, they also teamed with AOC Archaeology Group (they work with firms to manage historic-site-type hurdles), which helped them put together the very cool site A Window on Caithness' Past, a public resource that allows people to examine that lidar data and play amateur archaeologist, picking out old burial sites and the like from the terrain models they created. 

Here's a sample:


Go ahead and play with it here.

Sure, "access" could mean physical access to the locations. But, in this case, the public is being given digital access, which, in a way, is better. No longer do you actually have to be there to examine the cairns. Pretty cool, if you ask me (though I do see how it's not the same and the dangerous precedent this could set if digital access were to somehow be equated with physical access. These are public treasures, after all). 

The lidar was collected at seven points per meter, which allows for beautiful terrain models at high resolution. You can really zoom in. As they note on the site, you can even pick out individual sheep!

Sure, some of the videos are a little clumsily done - with text that's hard to read and features alluded to that aren't necessarily obvious - but it's a pretty good effort overall. I award high marks for creativity, at the very least. 

Hopefully, we'll see efforts similar to this as lidar is collected for all manner of developments. There could even be possibilities for revenue creation if the sites created by development firms become popular enough to make sponsorship an option.

But that's crass thinking: Free the data and the people will follow!

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The buzz about a new historic preservation effort

There are no doubt plenty of altruistic reasons for scanning and documenting historically significant locations and objects: They are preserved for posterity; should harm come to them, they could possibly be recreated; by better knowing our history we are better able to improve in the future. But there is also the fact that the resulting point clouds and models are really cool to look at and play with.

01.30.13.arkhive2That's one of the reasons I loved CyArk's collaboration with Zynga, and why I'm attracted to the cant of a new organization, the ArkHive, launching formally on Friday but live now, dedicated to laser scanning the UK's (and elsewhere's) historically significant sites. "ArkHive is an enthusiasts organisation," the web site says by way of introduction. "The overall vision is to enable everybody to experience the key sites of cultural significance in the development of the human race and ignite the enthusiasm required to understand the past so that people are inspired to take the lessons and move forward."

Yes, enthusiasm. What is it about point clouds and 3D visualization that people respond to? Something unquantifiable, but undeniable. It excites the imagination. A sense of wonder. 

Founded initially by Andy Evans of Topcon and Nick Russill of Topcon dealer and service provider TerraDat, ArkHive has initially published four projects - St. Lythans Burial Chamber, Pen y Wyrlod, Trafalgar Square, and the Island Farm WW2 Escape Tunnel - and has plans in the works for another half dozen. Membership is free, though you need to ask for membership and be approved, and it is technically an unincorporated association, which means they can't do anything as a legal entity or formally raise money or apply for grants or anything. 

Initially, it sounds a lot like a Ham Radio operators club or something. Which is kind of cool, if you ask me. Contributions come in the form of scans or invitations to scan. You can read "the rules" here if you so choose.

In the meantime, check out what they've got posted. I've already learned something, personally. That Island Farm escape tunnel is the site of the largest escape of German PoWs during WW2, when, on March 10, 1945, 72 of them tunnelled to freedome from Camp 198 in Bridgend, South Wales. A little extra research turns up that they were all recaptured by March 16, but I can't believe this hasn't been a movie yet - imagine those five days in the local area, with German soldiers hiding out in every nook and cranny and apparently even children helping root them out. Crazy. 

And here's a great fly through to help stir that imagination further (if you're using crap IE for a browser, it probably won't work):


Where is the ArkHive eventually headed? We'll find out. But, in the meantime, cheers to another effort to get laser scanning out in front of the masses and do a little good work along the way.

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Could you use $15k to preserve some history?

Historical preservation is firmly established as one of the applications where 3D data capture can unquestionably provide real benefits. As history races forward, being able to create near-perfect digital replicas of places and things that will inevitably disappear from the Earth has a priori value. But that doesn't mean doing it doesn't cost money.

So, it's great to hear that storage-maker EMC is bringing its Heritage Trust Project, which provides grants to those using digital means to preserve cultural heritage, into a second year. Last year, CyArk took home third prize (and $5k) for its efforts in documenting Mission Dolores, a project that just was unveiled to the world last week. This year, you've got until November 9 to get your entry in.

Basically, you've just got to go to EMC's Facebook page and like it, and then navigate your way to the entry form, also housed on Facebook. Don't have a Facebook page? Well, time to enter the digital age, folks.

Also, per the rules, "Entrants must be currently and physically located and reside in either the United States, Canada (excluding residents of the Province of Quebec), Republic of Ireland, Great Britain, Japan, South Africa, Chile, or Mexico. Entrants must be 18 years or older to enter on behalf of an eligible organization. Government officials and government owned entities may not apply." Why the Quebecois can't get in on the action, I'm not sure, exactly. You'll have to take that up with the folks at EMC.

After you enter, there will be a period where people can vote for you (after they've liked the EMC Facebook page), and you'll be encouraged to head up that vote-gathering effort. If you think you've got a decent fanbase, and can rally them, this could very well be worth your time. $15k, $10k, and $5k prizes will again be awarded. Certainly SPAR will get behind any 3D data projects that make it to the finals. Might as well go in your pocket as anyone else's. Good luck.

And, as an aside, the more scanning projects that enter the more likely it is that EMC's attention is drawn to the point cloud marketplace. With all the data you guys create, I'm really surprised the storage makers still haven't really done any marketing to you or created any systems tailored to your workflow. Hopefully, it's only a matter of time.

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This laser scanning thing might be catching on with the dinosaur guys

Those of you who heard Philip Manning's keynote address on the use of 3D imaging in his paleontology work at SPAR International (and you can watch it here if you didn't) may have been thinking, "wow, this guy is a real innovator - but this has got to be a pretty out-there application." If so, looks like you're wrong.

Paleontologists' affinity for 3D scanning has managed to make the front page of Yahoo today, with an extensive story posted by LiveScience.com originally. It contains suppositions like the following:

Laser scanning will likely become as common as microscopes in paleontology labs, Fisher said. "Probably the day will come when most labs have access to have a high-quality digitizer," he said.

Perhaps future paleontologists will have to provide hyperlinks to digitized versions of their fossils with every paper they publish, Lacovara said. That will improve the scientific process of verifying others' results, he said.

First of all: Exactly. I love it when people outline perfectly the value proposition of 3D data capture so succinctly: "Think my interpretation of what I dug up is wrong? Well, take a look at the scan and tell me what you see, smarty pants." (Perhaps scientists are more decorous than that - it's hard to say.)

Second, though: We continue to see fields where 3D data capture is an OBVIOUS upgrade on the way things are currently being done. If the way you're making replicas of fossils is by plaster casting and what not, I mean, the scan-to-print workflow has got to just blow your mind, right?

Maybe there's still a cost hurdle to overcome. Not everyone can just run out and buy a laser scanner, a bunch of software, and a 3D printer and start cranking out dinosaur robots (seriously, read the article, that's what Kenneth Lacovara at Drexel wants to do), but when you consider university budgets nowadays, what's that package cost? Maybe the tuition of four kids for a year? I think most universities could probably make it happen relatively quickly. 

So, why hasn't there been a run on scanners thanks to universities with paleontology departments? There's probably still some education that needs to be done. Even this Lacovara story is relatively old news (ABC wrote up basically the same story back in February, before Manning even gave his talk at SPAR), but that doesn't mean everyone has heard it before. 

Like people in business, many researchers and research departments can get a little too wrapped up in their own research and not exactly peruse all the periodicals and published reports quite as devoutly as they maybe could. But the story will get out, and scanning fossils and artifacts dug up from the ground of all kinds will become commonplace. 

Just give it time.

• Bonus dinosaur story: Phil Manning's U of Manchester colleague Bill Sellers got some pub back in June for using laser scanning (the blue hue tells me he was rocking a Z+F) to better determine the weight of dinosaurs. Turns out they were slightly less ginormous than we thought. Pretty cool. (And, no, there's no truth to the story that laser scanners can help you lose weight, too.)

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Getting down and dirty with laser scanning

One of the interesting things about the historic preservation piece of the 3D data capture market is that it brings new types of people to laser scanning - generally, the archaeologists and historians aren't the surveyors and engineers who first discovered the devices and their utility. And in the case of those scanning ancient Roman sewers, they're not even archaeologists. 

Rather, those who've been tasked to document in 3D the Cloaca Maxima (literally the "biggest sewer") by Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Culturali di Roma (basically, the body in charge of Rome's archaeological heritage) are designers and builders by trade: indissoluble, a company trading in what they call multi-media architecture, designing and creating lots of things, but often very creative trade-fair booths, museum exhibitions, installations and the like.  

I'm not sure how they got the gig, but they were brought in and used a combination of terrestrial laser scanning for the larger main duct and a contraption they call the ArcheoRobot for the tight space where no person or laser scanner could go, equipped with a video camera and some other sensors that let them pull out some 3D information. 

Here's a video they produced with the laser scan data of the main duct:


You can see they were doing some above-ground scanning as well. See if you can figure out what scanner they're using:


That bit about Faro expanding the market? These kinds of firms are the ones that are jumping on the lower price point and the added flexibility/ease of use because of its size. Not to mention that a company who sets up operation like the following image understands the value of marketing, and they want to be able to tout their scanning abilities, I'm sure:


The robot itself is pretty cool, but it doesn't have a scanner on it, I don't think, despite published reports to the contrary. If I'm reading the specs right, I believe it just has an HD camera (or three), and some kind of IMU, and maybe a laser tracker. It's kind of hard to say. I'm going to look into it. 

In the meantime, though, the point is that laser scanning and video technology has brought together the design worlds and the archaeological worlds in a new and pretty cool way. I'm eager to see what indissoluble ends up producing with their data. 

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Is lidar driving a new Gold Rush?

What drives the adoption of new technology above all else? Is it utility or performance or some hard-to-quantify cool factor? Nope. It's money. I know - what a profound realization on my part. But this provides an interesting way to look at the newly popular archaeological applications of airborne lidar.

In the last couple of months, we've had a few stories bubble up to the mainstream surface. First was work Colorado State performed at Sacapu Angamuco, in Mexico, picking out 3,800 archaeological features in eight weeks. Next we heard about Emmy-winner Steve Elkins (he was behind a lot of the Crocodile Hunter stuff) and his lead on the project that scanned a portion of Honduras looking for the lost city of Ciudad Blanca (that link is the press release that started it all). And today I came across this article about a couple of U of Central Florida researchers using lidar to expand their knowledge of the ancient city of Caracol (now in Belize). 

First, let's look at the common denominators so we can set what's getting to be a pretty obvious benefit supplied by airborne lidar:

Sacapu Angamuco: 

Last year, LiDAR enabled Fisher to create a full-fledged picture of the important Mesoamerican capital in greater detail. This included the discovery of several pyramids, ceremonial complexes and thousands of residences and other buildings that no one knew existed in the city.

Ciudad Blanca:

Initial analysis of the LiDAR data indicates what appears to be evidence of archaeological ruins in an area long rumored to contain the legendary lost city of Ciudad Blanca.


The laser images also uncovered tens of thousands of agricultural terraces the Mayans had built to feed the inhabitants of their sprawling city, 11 previously unknown causeways and numerous hidden buildings and structures obscured by dense tropical overgrowth.

Quite literally, lidar is finding archaeologically significant things that no one (well no one currently alive and in communication with the outside world, anyway) even knew existed. Completely lost buildings, pyramids - whole cities!

Think of the value of those discoveries. For the archaeologists, there is, of course, the addition to the overall knowledge-base, which is of course important. But there's also the value of the grants they'll be able to collect, the increased government funding maybe, because of the discoveries they've made. And for a guy like Elkins, who I'm genuinely sure has altruistic intents as well, there is the revenue he stands to make from his media releases (his UTL Productions now owns all the rights to media use of the data collected at Ciudad Blanca). 

If lidar is seen as a path to increased monetization for those already in the archaeology field, that's a good driver for the industry, even if no thinks there's any money in the historic preservation lidar market. 

Taking this line of thought further, though, what's to stop treasure hunters - like the Diamond Divers, maybe - from rigging up lidar systems and searching out their own lost pyramids and temples and what not? Is there a vast undiscovered trove of rare artifacts lurking in the previously just-about-impossible-to-navigate reaches of the Central and South American rain forest? It's kind of likely, right?

Could we see a small run on airborne systems from private companies looking to capitalize on a new way to find hidden treasure (both actual and metaphorical)? It doesn't sound impossible to me... There's gold in them thar forests!

Perhaps it's crass of me to consider the possibility, but I doubt my mind is closest to the greedy gutter. 

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Hey! We know that guy in Smithsonian Magazine!

Despite the fact that I make my living writing for the Internet, I'm still a magazine guy at heart. One of my favorites is Smithsonian, published by the Smithsonian Institution and not for nothing recently "voted the most interesting magazine in America" (by whom, I'm not actually sure, but it's on their cover and I believe it). So, imagine my thrill when, for the first time, I actually knew someone personally featured in its pages.

Actually, you may know him, too. Especially if you joined us for SPAR International in Houston. That's right, it's Vince Rossi, who spoke with his colleague Adam Metallo, about their work in laser scanning and otherwise digitizing the Smithsonian collection in all its vastness (you can read my interview with the pair here). 

Sure, they've been all over the Smithsonian web site, and the National Geographic web site, etc., etc., and they're no secret just seeing the light of day, but only the most interesting stuff makes the magazine - where space is limited and inches on a page cost big money. So it was pretty dang cool to see Vince working away on those whale bones in Chile with is Faro Arm (sort of a bummer that we didn't get to see the big laser scanner in the mag, but oh well). 

Here's the cover and a look at the feature - taken on the wide pine floors of my house, since that's where my subscription comes:

 05.25.12.smithsonian 05.25.12.smithsonian2 

As for the article itself, it's pretty cool. Sure, they write 3D as "3-D," but they also make laser scanning sound pretty sexy. Rossi and Metallo are called "laser cowboys" and the process of digitizing the whale specimens is definitely described in a way that makes it seem awfully useful: "Today, all the whales have been removed and their resting places obliterated. But, using rock samples together with the scans, Pyenson can still explore how the animals died." I'm rooting for the shark attacks. Also, "One particularly important whale cranium is as fragile in places as glass - difficult to store. But soon scientists may be able to e-mail images of the skull to one another anywhere in the world." (Now I understand why they use "3-D" - I mean, they haven't even gotten the memo about leaving out the hyphen in email.)

The Smithsonian, both as an institution and a magazine, is a thought leader. To have this kind of feature really is great news (even if it's in an issue with a giant regal chicken on the front....). Check it out - already the Atlantic has picked up on it, although it's just the web site...

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Coming out of the thermal woodwork

There's a good reason why I didn't say Jonathan Coco and his colleagues at Engensus were the FIRST to layer thermography onto point clouds. I just said they were doing it. I hadn't actually seen anyone do it before, so Coco's work was the first I'd actually seen first hand, but I was fairly confident someone else out there had taken a swing at it. 

And I was right. The Twittersphere told me so. 

First I heard from the Spanish firm GIM Geomatics, which pointed me toward their I+D+i page where they offer up examples of their work integrating multispectral data with their 3D laser scanner. If nothing else, the images are pretty gorgeous:


Then I got a note from David Mitchell at Historic Scotland, who said they've been working with integrating thermal data for a couple of years. Many people have probably heard of their work in Rosslyn Chapel (made famous by Dan Brown and his Holy Grail writings), and you can see here that part of the work was thermography based:

Combining thermal survey data with the 3D model produced by laser scanning will give us a much better understanding of the performance of the building. It can highlight areas where energy efficiency could be improved and reveal potentially structurally problematic areas.

Mitchell also sent along an image from a 19th-century cottage Historic Scotland has refurbished and scanned, then layered on thermal data to make an interactive model for energy efficiency:


I live in an 1870s farmhouse, myself. I shudder to think what a similar image of my place would look like...

Finally, I heard tell that Gifford Engineering, now part of Ramboll Group, was doing thermal work a couple years back. I'm working on tracking that down right now, but I'll take my Twitter-friend James Austin's word for it. 

Of course, it goes without saying that if any of you are doing similar work layering on or integrating other data types with point clouds, lay it on me. I'm always looking for people doing things in new and different ways. 

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Geeking out on Indiana Jones going geek

A small portion of the Internet is blowing up with an article wittily titled, "Indiana Jones goes geek: Laser-mapping LiDAR revolutionizes archaeology," posted on the popular tech site Ars Technica. I've seen the WSJ link to it and plenty of aggregation sites are cutting and pasting the text to try to steal some real estate on the next big search term (people open second browser: "what is lidar?" Yeah, even though there's a definition right on the page. Trust me), which is great for the 3D biz.

Essentially, the article summarizes the work that was first published by Chris Fisher, Stephen Leisz, and Gary Outlaw in October 2011 in PE&RS about their work through Colorado State at Sacapu Angamuco, in Mexico, an ancient city that was active at the time of the Aztecs, but hasn't gotten nearly the press. With the improvements in lidar accuracy, firms like Merrick (who did the collection in this case; Outlaw is their VP of Geospatial Solutions) are now able to fly over sites like these that have grown up into forest and jungle, use their MARS software to remove all the vegetation, and supply archaeologists with data from which they can pick out individual dwellings, altars, pyramids, etc. 

For us in the biz, who understand the possibilities offered by multi-return lidar data, it's kind of like, "duh, of course they can do that," but like any new application of technology, someone out there has to be the first one to give it a go and prove the benefits that it can provide. It's not like anyone can just fire up a plane, fly to Mexico with an Optech system strapped its belly, and start collecting data. Funding must be acquired, proof of concept must be offered up, some sort of tangible return must be postulated. 

One of the more significant lidar-derived finds at Sacapu Angamuco was this previously unknown keyhole-shaped pyramid.

Saying you can pick out an old pyramid with airborne lidar is one thing. Saying you can pick out 3,800 individual archaeological features in just eight weeks is quite another, which is what happened when Fisher, Leisz, and Outlaw put their plan into action. They estimate lidar cut fieldwork costs by a factor of four over "traditional" GPS-based, ground-based methods (and don't even get started on the improvement over measuring tape and the like), meaning they could map in about two years what would have previously taken as much as 10 years. 

Seems like that would be pretty handy. 

Best of all, the public loves both of these things: ancient civilizations and lasers! The story has been up on Ars for about 30 hours or so, and already the comments are flying in and questions are being asked by the general public. And why does the web rock? Well, because Fisher and other lidar experts are already weighing in with answers! It goes without saying, but never has information been able to travel so quickly. 

I love this particular piece of added explanation from Fisher in the comments:

We use program called MARS from Merrick & Co. – the firm that acquired the data for us. It has built-in filtering capabilities. We received the data pre-filtered by Merrick using their own ‘bare earth’ filter. Interesting conceptually is that this removed all the archaeological features – their bare earth is different then mine. We then created a filter based primarily on elevation to restore the archaeological features. It’s imperfect – better tools have been written but they are not available to civilians at this time.  

So, the next time someone wonders why everyone's bothering about the archaeological market (who cares about old stuff?!?), here's a pretty good reason: These academic researchers are clearly intimately involved in helping Merrick develop and fine tune their product. Just think what other applications might want something different than completely bare earth.

I'd encourage everyone in the lidar field to give the comments a read, really. What started out as an article to introduce this concept to a mainstream audience turned into a pretty thorough case study, actually. 

(Oh, and by the way: Why do you think everyone started paying attention to this article in the first place? Yeah, it was that headline. If it had been something like, "Case study: How the use of lidar is helping archaeologists to reduce their fieldwork time by a factor of four," no one would have read it (or far fewer). Just putting in a little pitch there for why writers matter, while I'm at this...)

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Getting deeper for the National Parks and coral reefs with bathymetric lidar

One of my favorite shows to watch lately with the kids is Blue Planet, what has to be the best television production ever to focus on the world's underwater life. To say I learn something with every show is an understatement. Last week, we watched their episode on coral reefs, and I was more than a little fascinated (did you know coral actually attacks other coral that infringes on its territory, using this crazy acid attack?). But also disheartened. Rising sea levels and water temperatures are causing widespread bleaching events and as much as 16 percent of all coral on the planet can be lost in a single year. 

So, I'm glad the USGS is working with the National Parks Service to keep track of these sorts of things and work to slow coral loss (among other environmental efforts). One of the problems with mapping shallow water is that the water is often too deep for bathymetry and too shallow for vessels with multi-beam sonar to safely navigate (safe for the coral and the vessels, both). 

Over the past decade, however, the USGS, Marine Geology Program, and NASA have been collaborating on ways to solve this problem. An article posted not long ago documents those efforts. Essentially, with the Experimental Advanced Airborne Lidar system, plus some innovative processing techniques, researchers are able to use lidar to gather both normal terrestrial data and submerged terrain data in the same flyover, making the data acquisition much more efficient. 

Operating in the blue-green portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, the EAARL is specifically designed to measure submerged topography and adjacent coastal land elevations seamlessly in a single scan of transmitted laser pulses.

Further, they're able to get deeper than you might think - up to 20 meters deep. This allows the National Parks to quickly inventory and observe big swaths of coral reefs:

One objective of the USGS-NPS collaborative research is to create techniques to survey coral reefs for the purposes of habitat mapping, ecological monitoring, change detection, and event assessment (for example: bleaching, hurricanes, and disease outbreaks).

Plus, they can map beach erosion, vegetation growth and encroachment, and all kinds of other things that need monitoring on the land side. It's pretty easy to see how this data would be hugely valuable in efforts to maintain some of the United States' most precious and spectacular environments. 

It's not easy, though. It's not like you can just hand over the lidar data to researchers. Currently, the process involves taking the lidar data and running it through a specially designed conversion process called ALPS to create GIS-compatible map products. That means exporting as ASCII, then converting using GEOID03 and creating 2 km x 2 km GeoTIFF map tiles. This seems laborious and processor-time consuming. 

I think it's incumbent, going forward, that we create quicker paths from lidar to useful information that the managers of these habitats can use to make better care-taking decisions. That won't be easy, either, but I've seen the coral reefs in person, as well, and it's certainly worth the effort.


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