Mobile Mapping Grows Up

It’s amazing how mobile mapping has matured over the past three years. I recently attended the International LiDAR Mapping Forum 2012 in Denver as a vendor representative for Topcon Positioning Systems. My first experience with ILMF goes back to 2009. Attending this year’s conference provided an opportunity to take a perspective of events and changes since that time. Mobile mapping is concluding its emergence as a new technology and taking its place among the established LiDAR collection methods.

In 2009, mobile mapping technology was just beginning to gain visibility as a valid data collection methodology. Many of the mapping and engineering firms that were already using airborne or static LiDAR were engaged in business case analyses to determine if mobile mapping was a profitable venture. Fast forward to 2012 some of these same firms have acquired a MMS, and are now considering the purchase of a second system. A few of the more specialized application service providers have acquired multiple systems and are now considering adding more advanced second generation systems.

The ILMF conference is a great setting to get an overview of all that is happening with LiDAR technology. The agenda offers a broad pallet of educational offerings. For those involved in research and standards, there were dozens of high level technical presentations. The Basics to LiDAR tract provided newcomers with a comprehensive overview of currently available systems. Discussion of software workflows demonstrated how these solutions could be applied to real world applications.

From a hardware vendor’s perspective, part of the value of attending a conference like ILMF is gauged by the number of contacts with existing and potential customers. This year I had the opportunity to speak with dozens of people who were actively working on real-world mapping and engineering projects. While their requirements and applications were different, all of them wanted to learn more about mobile mapping and how this technology could expedite their specific workflows.

The impact of ILMF continues to expand beyond North America. This year, representatives from four companies in Latin America traveled to Denver specifically for the conference. One of these companies, XYGO (formerly Dmapas), purchased a Topcon IP-S2 system in February 2011. I had the great opportunity to speak with Alfredo Escobar, CEO, in person. Adding mobile LiDAR to the company’s service offerings has created many new application opportunities and enabled substantial expansion of their scope of business.

Hardware systems enable the rapid collection of mobile mapping data, but software is critical to making productive use of 3D point clouds and imagery. Three years ago, software was primarily designed to manage data from airborne and static LiDAR sensors. There were few. if any, software tools for mobile LiDAR.

Many software companies have realized that they need to provide tools for mobile LiDAR. Recent developments offer advanced capabilities for data providers and consumers. Semi-automated extraction routines for specific applications, such as rails and power lines, are now available. While we still do not have fully automatic feature extraction for LiDAR (unless I missed it), current evidence indicates it is right around the corner.

One final word about ILMF it’s also a great place to meet with industry peers and clients in a relaxing, out-of-office atmosphere. Throughout the year, we communicate mostly by e-mail or phone. You can’t beat an old-fashioned, face-to-face, sit-down conversation to solidify personal bonds that can’t be optimized through electronic messaging.

If you are seriously involved with the development or deployment of mobile mapping LiDAR, ILMF is one of those must do events to add to your yearly schedule.