Is Technology Holding Back LiDAR, or Is It People?

Maybe its because Ive spent the last 30 years or so working as a surveyor, or because Ive spent the last 18 years instructing people in the use of CADD and civil software, to me the biggest issue I see with the expanded use of LiDAR is not the hardware or software, but the issue of the paradigm shift for the people working with scanned data.
The power of hardware and software will continue to develop exponentially as it is driven by demand for the technology itself. People however tend to be reluctant to leave the emotional comfort of what they know. This seems to be particularly true among the civil disciplines.

Since the time of the first person to recognize that the earth was not flat, we have struggled with representing the three dimensional nature of our surroundings in two dimensions. We have tried and admittedly with much success, to represent 3D information by way of cross section and profile views. Humans have designed and constructed impressive structures and facilities using these tried and true methods. But given the technological advancements of the computer and 3D surveying and design software we have barely scratched the surface on truly creating even more wonderful designs in a 3D environment.

Back in the late 1980s, when I was a Field Party Chief for the Florida Department of Transportation, they made the decision to go to electronic data collection. This decision was made with great foresight as they did not merely decide to gather survey data electronically, but to have an electronic drawing with a 3D surface model as the end product. The idea was to replace field books which contained everything from control work, topographic sketches and cross section information with digital files that gave a clearer, more comprehensive view of the design survey.

Initially this idea was met with great resistance from both the surveyors and engineers. Because of this reluctance, the initial efforts became a bloody battleground between supporters of the old and new technologies. Eventually the new technologies won out, but they had their casualties. Even though 3D models were created, they were used to generate 2D deliverables such as contour maps, cross section and profile views. This battle was repeated in transportation agencies and civil design firms throughout the world.

We have seen a slight evolution in the civil design fields over time as people who are more comfortable with technologically advanced concepts are taking the place of people who are comfortable with the more traditional means. Surveyors are making greater use of3D data collection incorporating elevation work into everything from topo data collection and control work to survey stakeout. Designers are now creating 3D design surfaces for machine control and earthwork, while 3D modeling of bridges is gaining momentum.

So what does all of this have to do with the advancement of LiDAR technology you ask? While all of this advancement in the use of 3D data is going on, most people still work with the data in a 2D format. The very nature of scanned imagery, that being a 3D point cloud, loses most of its value when viewed in a 2D format and it loses almost all, if not all of its value when used in a 2D format. Scanned imagery gives us the ability to literately immerse ourselves in the data, like never before. It provides a richness of detail impossible to generate with existing survey technologies and allows us to see the world around us as it truly is rather than a pretty good interpretation of what it is.

But for us to take advantage of this, we must first become comfortable working in a 3D environment. While CADD software has been very good at displaying things in a 3D perspective people, especially those in the civil disciplines have not taken advantage of it and thus there has been very little demand for training in working in 3D perspectives. In my seventeen years of instructing people in the use of CADD and civil software, I never once had a curriculum to teach or was requested to put together a class that included working in a 3D perspective. The times I took it upon myself to try and explore this subject, I was met with a range of reactions from reluctance to outright indignation.

We need to move out of our comfortable 2D world into a design environment of 3D. This will require extensive training in both the processing and usage of scanned data in a 3D CADD environment as it is very easy to get lost in a three dimensional model. This is particularly true in a point cloud where you have so many points of the same color and size.

This will take a concerted effort of all those involved. Software developers will have to make it easier to work in 3D. Training curriculums will have to be developed that incorporate not only working in 3D but using and importing scanned data. Finally and most importantly the people who will generate and work with the data, will have to take advantage of the technology available to them, so they can get the most out of the data itself.

Incorporating scanned data into our existing workflows and adjusting those workflows where required will only make us more productive. We will be able to produce better, more comprehensive surveys of our environment, which in turn will produce better designs and ultimately a better world to live in – and that world is a 3D world.