The model building power of LiDAR is still in its infancy, but judging by the explosion of hardware adoption, that won’t be the case for long. Today’s hardware does a good job of capturing a precise 3D reality from the air, from mobile platforms, and from stationary tripods from different perspectives and for different purposes, and the software is catching up.
The amount of model building, and even visualization of this data, is rather weak today given the demands this data places on computer hardware and software, but that’s slowly beginning to change. There are tools now that help compress this data to manageable sizes, to extract valuable information automatically into a modeling environment, and to store the data in a database for ongoing utility. It’s easy to see that the hardware will continue to improve to ease 3D data capture, and that modeling and manipulating this data will also improve. The rise of LiDAR-based 3D models will have a profound effect on all infrastructure professions, and will strain the current divide between GIS and CAD software and practitioners.
Recent LiDAR hardware release have leapt forward in terms of portability and lower price points. This natural progression for cheaper and smaller component parts bears true across all hardware niches, and seems accelerated now due to the hardware’s promise and application. The demand has meant considerable profits for manufacturers in an otherwise depressed surveying tools market, that has been largely impacted by the global slowdown in construction.
Given that this market is poised for even stronger growth adoption, we can expect more competition on both price and portability, which will further accelerate adoption. Surveying firms are the first to see the benefits for using these tools and selling both the data and services. Integrated engineering firms are also adopters. One can expect that large design firms will become adopters of the technology, while perhaps not possessing the tools and expertise in-house, certainly as top commissioners of the data.
Visualizing the Data
Software tools are finally catching up in terms of being able to store and visualize large point cloud datasets, but there’s definitely room for improvements. When we’re looking at a visualization that approaches reality for a city scale model in our urban areas, there is a wild expectation for an interactive and realistic rendering. We want to be able to browse the model more intuitively, and to view the surroundings with the realism that is possible with LiDAR, including colors, textures, and precision.
There is still a great deal of progress needed in the fusion of LiDAR data with other data sets, and with the integration of LiDAR into CAD, GIS and BIM. Conceivably, the detailed realities captured by these tools would become a more intuitive starting point to base all design upon, and would provide a more automated layer within these tools in a similar fashion that imagery provides a valuable backdrop for 2D map views. The challenge of integrating and fusing 3D views is daunting, but progress is certainly being made. The ability to both adequately display and analyze models at multiple scales is the ultimate vision.
Converging on the Model
The CAD community is driven largely by visualization, because the process involves the design and creation of objects. The GIS community largely deals with analysis in abstraction, but could benefit greatly by being able to visualize and simulate with much greater realism. As momentum grows for a model-based approach, LiDAR stands to gain greatly from both software platforms as it’s the tool and data set that stands in the middle of the battle, promising to greatly enhance and simplify both.
The line between the two software tools has been drawn largely around visualization capabilities. There is a ways to go in both in terms of visualization tools, but a lack of available 3D data has been the largest choke point for more realistic models. With LiDAR gaining ground, it aids the convergence between both CAD and GIS. Expect a heated technology battle between the vendors who have tools in both or either camp as the stakes are very high for how business gets done, and there is a huge global market interested in the more efficient workflows that will come as a result.
The adoption rate of GPS provides a good recent spatial technology parallel to what is happening with LiDAR. In the mid-1980s, I saw my first GPS aboard a sailboat, and marveled at the technology and the improvements it made for navigation. At that time, the price point finally was attainable at $3,000, but the systems were slow and less than reliable, and they were relegated to applications where they really shifted the game. Fast forward to today, where GPS receivers are everywhere, with greatly improved precision and reliability, and an almost-invisible ubiquity within our everyday devices. A similar twenty-year growth path is likely with LiDAR to the point where every avid handyman might have a capable LiDAR 3D data capture device in their tool chest, with model capture as a precursor to every home improvement project.