Where is geospatial technology headed in year 2020

It seems that major innovation affecting the GIS industry happens in waves. In my time at Blue Marble Geographics®, I have seen the advent of LiDAR in everyday GIS, the acquisition and subsequent public release of Google Earth, the growth of open source GIS, and the proliferation of smartphones, which put GPS in the hands of virtually everyone. We are currently riding two separate waves; one for enterprise GIS and one for drone or UAV-data collecting and processing.

Enterprise GIS: data sharing and accessibility

By “enterprise GIS” we mean the ability to share not only GIS data easily and fluidly across an organization but also the ability for those users to conduct analysis on that data even if GIS is outside of their area of expertise. There are large, expensive, “stack”-focused commercial solutions available for this. However, thanks to Google, AWS, and other easy-to-use free or low-cost web GIS tools, products like Global Mapper® are able to enable that process relatively seamlessly with an everyday GIS perspective.

Enterprise GIS will continue to expand as GIS and general software users and managers innovate with the available toolsets they have access to. Many users are seeing that this does not have to be an expensive, overbearing process thanks to the surge in open source GIS and cell phone technology.

A point cloud generated from 3D mesh of 192 drone-captured images.

Drone-captured imagery and data processing

For the GIS analyst or professional surveyor, the more likely place for innovation from technology will be on the drone or UAV data collecting and processing side.

The advent of low-cost drones has been a boon to the average surveyor over the past years. Many surveyors dove headfirst into the process of becoming an FAA certified pilot so they could expand their business or add value to their company by collecting high-resolution imagery with drones. The improvements in the ability of GIS software like Global Mapper and Pix4D to process this imagery into derivative products such as point clouds, orthoimages, and meshes has created a great symbiotic relationship between user and vendor. These GIS professionals are pushing vendors to innovate their software solutions far beyond 2D GIS. It was not that long ago that the concept of automatically processing raster data into vectors was a pipe dream. … Now, that is yesterday.

This area of GIS is enabling the everyday GIS professional to collect better, more compelling data in ways they could never afford to dream of just a few years ago. 2020 will see more ways to process and output various data products related to this area. Look for improvements in 3D products and in the accuracy of data sets in positioning and resolution as well.

Upcoming changes to NATRF 2022

Speaking of accuracy, surveyors and GIS professionals will be able to begin the process of converting legacy data and enabling new data collection to be compliant with NOAA’s National Geodetic Survey’s upcoming change to NATRF 2022.

This new spatial reference frame will replace NAD83 and NAVD88 changing from a focus on latitude, longitude and height in coordinate reference frames (aka coordinate systems to many users) to a focus on scale, gravity and orientation, and their time variations. This new system will reduce errors and increase the accuracy of geospatial data. GIS analysts’ and surveyors’ unique knowledge and skill with highly accurate geospatial data processing will be tested, and required, in order to make compliant datasets. Internationally we will see more government entities embrace time-dependent datum transformation models as we are able to more readily deal with local shifts in the Earth’s surface and makeup.

Accurate data translation is not going away but will silently continue to remain important in the background of everyday GIS. It will be interesting to see how successfully the experts enable the novices to engage in GIS while retaining its underlying scientific power in 2020.

 

Pixels to Points™: Easy Point Cloud Generation from Drone Images

Point cloud generated from 192 drone images using the Pixels-to-Points tool
A point cloud generated by EngeSat’s Laurent Martin using the new Pixels-to-Points™ tool in version 19 of the LiDAR Module. The LiDAR Module tool analyzed 192 high resolution drone images to create this high-density point cloud.

When we have a new product release like the version 19 of the LiDAR Module that comes with the Pixels to Points™ tool, it’s always exciting to see that feature in action for the first time outside of the Blue Marble office. Our South and Central American reseller Laurent Martin from EngeSat was quick to try the new Pixels to Points tool for himself using drone data collected by his peer Fabricio Pondian.

The new Pixels to Points tool uses the principles of photogrammetry, generating high-density point clouds from overlapping images. It’s a functionality that makes the LiDAR Module a must-have addition to the already powerful Global Mapper, especially for UAV experts.

Below, screenshots captured by Laurent illustrate the simple step-by-step process of creating a point cloud using the Pixels to Points tool and some basic point cloud editing using other LiDAR Module tools.

1. Loading drone images into the LiDAR Module

The collection of images loaded into the LiDAR Module must contain information that can be overlapped. The Pixels to Points tool analyzes the relationship between recognizable objects in adjacent images to determine the three-dimensional coordinates of the corresponding surface. In this particular example of the Pixels to Points process, 192 images are used.
The flight path of the UAV and the locations of each photo can be viewed over a raster image of the project site.

2. Calculating the point cloud from loaded images

192 high-resolution images are selected in this particular example. The tool will give an estimated time of completion, which depends on the size of the images and number of images.
The Calculating Cloud/Mesh dialogue displays statistics of the images as they are analyzed and stitched together by the Pixels-to-Points tool.
An alert window pops up when the process is complete.

3. Viewing the generated point cloud

A new layer of the generated point cloud is now in the control center.
A close up of the final processing result with the orthoimage.
A close up of the final result with the new point cloud generated from the 192 images.
A 3D view of the resulting point cloud.
A view of the point cloud colorized by elevation
A cross-sectional view of the point cloud using the Path Profile tool

4. Classifying the point cloud

Points can be reclassified automatically or manually using LiDAR Module tools. Here, the point cloud is reclassified as mostly ground points.

5. Creating an elevation grid and contours from the point cloud

With the point cloud layer selected, a digital terrain model can be generated by clicking the Create Elevation Grid button.
A cross-sectional view of the digital terrain model using the Path Profile tool
Contours can be generated from the digital terrain model by simply clicking the Create Contours button.

A quick and easy process

In just a few steps, Laurent was able to create a high-density point cloud from 192 images, reclassify the points, and create a Digital Terrain Model. It’s a prime example of how easy version 19 of the LiDAR Module and the new Pixels to Points tool are to use. Check out EngeSat’s full article on the release of LiDAR Module.

DroneMapper: Using Global Mapper for UAV Data Processing

Once the GRID generation is completed you have a bare earth DTM which can be exported as a GeoTIFF or any other elevation format via Global Mapper.

DroneMapper is one of the success stories in the fledgling field of UAV data collection and processing. After several decades of experience working in the aerospace industry, CEO Pierre Stoermer was quick to recognize the potential for drones as a viable low-cost alternative to manned aircraft for this purpose. Serving customers in a wide variety of industries and business sectors, including agriculture and mining, Stoermer recognized the importance of efficient data management and processing, both for their internal processes and for the value added products that the company delivers to their customers. This lead Stoermer to Global Mapper for UAV data processing.

CHALLENGES

Like most small businesses, one of the main challenges faced by DroneMapper was finding tools that provide the right level of functionality but that fit within the company’s inevitable budgetary constraints. As with any business expenditure, investing in technology must bring some degree of assurance that there will be a return on this investment. Traditional GIS applications are notoriously complex and cumbersome, requiring an inordinate amount of time and a high degree of training and expertise to effectively operate, which significantly impacts the overall cost of any project.

Without a dedicated GIS technician at DroneMapper, the operation and maintenance of the GIS data processing workflow is the responsibility of the current staff. The selected software must therefore be easy to learn and easy to apply.

DroneMapper has an expanding client and customer base, whose needs and requirements necessitate an efficient data processing platform that can generate deliverables in a wide variety of formats and with varying specifications.

A 3D view of piles in Global Mapper that were measured to give the viewer perception of their relative sizes.

SOLUTIONS

Unlike most companies who, when faced with a technology decision, evaluate multiple software alternatives, DroneMapper found Global Mapper first and has stuck with it. The range of functionality in tandem with the unparalleled format support were enough to convince them that Global Mapper was an ideal solution for their needs.

A visualization of what has been filtered from an initial point cloud and digital elevation model.

This versatile, fully functional GIS application has been steadily gaining an eager and dedicated worldwide following among geospatial professionals. Recent development work has focused on the visualization and analysis of 3D data, especially LiDAR and other point cloud formats. According to Stoermer, “Global Mapper provides an outstanding set of tools for efficiently assisting us and our client base in an affordable manner”.

GLOBAL MAPPER FOR DATA PROCESSING

Global Mapper is at the core of most of DroneMapper’s data processing workflows. The company employs the software’s intuitive 2D and 3D visualization tools to provide initial quality control of ortho-rectified imagery and DEMs.

Further along the production line, Global Mapper is the go-to application for filtering point cloud data to create accurate, bare-earth Digital Terrain Models. These DTMs allow the company to generate customized contour lines that can be exported in shapefile or virtually any other vector format. Global Mapper’s powerful cut and fill analysis capability and volumetric calculation tools are used to precisely measure volumes, providing DroneMapper’s clients in a variety of industries with site-specific intelligence that is essential for efficient project management.

Employing Global Mapper’s powerful raster calculation functionality, DroneMapper is able to quickly and accurately analyze vegetation patterns by generating NDVI grids. This provides an invaluable service to clients in the agriculture and forestry industries.

BENEFITS

DroneMapper’s decision to settle on Global Mapper for its spatial data management allows the company to perform both internal data processing as well as customer services on one powerful and easy-to-use platform. The application’s SDK will also provide an opportunity for future custom development projects and will allow DroneMapper to adapt Global Mapper to more specifically meet their needs.

ABOUT GLOBAL MAPPER

Global Mapper is an affordable and easy-to-use GIS application that offers access to an unparalleled variety of spatial datasets and provides just the right level of functionality to satisfy both experienced GIS professionals and beginning users. Equally well suited as a standalone spatial data management tool and as an integral component of an enterprise-wide GIS, Global Mapper is a must-have for anyone who deals with maps or spatial data. The supplementary LiDAR Module provides a powerful set of tools for managing point cloud datasets, including automatic point classification and feature extraction.

ABOUT BLUE MARBLE GEOGRAPHICS

Trusted by thousands of GIS professionals around the world, Blue Marble Geographics is a leading developer of software products and services for geospatial data conversion and GIS.  Pioneering work in geomatics and spatial data conversion quickly established this Maine-based company as a key player in the GIS software field.  Today’s professionals turn to Blue Marble for Global Mapper, a low-cost, easy-to-use yet powerful GIS software tool. Blue Marble is known for coordinate conversion and file format expertise and is the developer of The Geographic Calculator, GeoCalc SDK, Global Mapper, LiDAR Module for Global Mapper, and the Global Mapper SDK.