Data Modeling: Will We Always Need to Model Lidar Data?

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Last week I attended the Florida Survey and Mapping Society conference at the Marriott Sawgrass, Jacksonville. During an excellent dinner with friends who are also TopoDOT users, the question was asked, "Ted, what will you do when lidar data just passes into all CAD programs and extracting models isn’t necessary?"

It’s a good question, although I don’t entirely accept the premise. With two kids in college and retirement around the corner, it’s definitely worth careful consideration as I admittedly have quite a bit riding on the answer. So I just thought I’d share my thoughts with you.

I can start by stating my agreement with the "point clouds rolling into CAD" premise of the question. TopoDOT was designed and has been very successful at achieving just that objective. While the majority of TopoDOT customers are still at the data production level, i.e. companies with airborne, mobile and/ or static lidar systems, an increasing number of customers are entirely on the consumption end of data.

These are design, engineering, construction departments receiving data from either inside or outside their companies. So TopoDOT has been very successful at "pulling" this data from the survey/ mapping operations directly into the CAD environments. This phenomenon was not only foreseen, but an objective of the overall TopoDOT strategy.

The larger question regarding the necessity of extraction is actually more difficult to answer. In short, I foresee levels of model extraction consistently "increasing" and "decreasing" in unforeseen ways. One can’t always have it both ways, but I think I’m standing on firm ground. Allow me to explain. Let’s start with the "decrease" in requirements for model extraction.

Let’s consider the relatively simple problem of power line clearances. A construction company might ask for a survey company to extract the vectors modeling the power lines from the lidar data. They will need this information to measure clearances for various field operations. Since they don’t really know exactly where and when they’ll need this information, they request all power lines be modeled. This modeling is a rather time consuming and expensive process.

Contrast this "over-modeling" scenario with the approach of engineering companies who pull point cloud lidar data into their CAD environment. In about 1 minute, the engineering or construction department can find the lidar data needed, extract a cross section and measure the clearances directly without modeling. This approach totally avoids the time and effort associated with power line modeling. This allows lidar data to flow downstream to decision-makers in design, engineering, and construction clearly reducing cost and increasing productivity.

So in this example, my friend was correct. Model extraction is cut to a minimum as is the corresponding TopoDOT usage. However I’m not all that concerned. For every instance of decreasing model extraction, I could come up with a counter-example for increasing model extraction and general measurement activities.

In conclusion, I agree that expensive and time-consuming "over-modeling" will be avoided and productivity greatly enhanced as downstream operations increase their direct use of lidar data for measurements, profile assessment, etc. This will decrease much of the "upfront" modeling activities significantly.

On the other hand, lidar data is rich in information. There will always be a need to extract models with "intelligence", interpret data in new and complex ways, all across an increasing number of applications and scenarios. So I’ll stand by my statement and we’ll continue to do our best to give our customers the tools they need to exploit this information rich data.

Ted Knaak founded Riegl USA in 1993 and in 2011 he founded Certainty 3D, a company focused on data processing software and technology solutions for the laser scanning industry.

A 253Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine complete with images is available by clicking HERE