Automation sets in as geomatics solutions mature

October 16th, 2019, Published in Articles: EE Publishers, Articles: PositionIT, Featured: EE Publishers, Featured: PositionIT

Incremental changes in geomatics solutions on display at InterGEO 2019, the world’s largest geo-industry fair, show a market reaching maturity. Like other digital industries, it is now ripe for automation which brings opportunities to deliver better quality information at greater speed. Industry experts who are ready to embrace it stand to reap automation’s benefits, while those who don’t risk being side-lined.

The annual InterGEO Conference and Expo in Germany, held in Stuttgart this year, brought together 19 000 global geospatial experts and about 700 geospatial exhibitors from across the geospatial-sphere, including hardware, software and service providers. This makes the event a great opportunity to identify new trends taking shape and see the direction the industry is headed in. Experts at leading companies I spoke to agree that these developments will eventually reach South African shores, with the time delay allowing the local sector to prepare itself. Here are some key take-aways and insights from experts at this year’s conference and expo.

Disclaimer: PositionIT’s trip to InterGEO 2019 was sponsored by Hexagon Geospatial, Leica Geosystems, Optron, Trimble, Riegl and Vexcel Imaging, but remains independently written.

This year marked the 25th anniversary of geomatics trade fair InterGEO.

New markets: Geomatics for everybody

Across the board, geospatial solution providers are looking to new markets and clients beyond the traditional geospatial industry by producing easy-to-use solutions that can be applied by novices in new applications. In many ways these simple solutions address markets ignored or under-serviced by geospatial experts. The solutions are also targeted at occasional users, rather than professionals.

Among the best examples of this is Leica Geosystems’ BLK2GO handheld imaging laser scanner, which maps spaces in 3D in real-time (i.e. point clouds) using simultaneous localisation and mapping (SLAM) technology. Lightweight, wireless, sans-tripod, and with onboard processing, the short-range handheld laser scanner is meant for fast digitalisation of buildings and properties, and is aimed at users such as architects, insurance and property companies, and even game developers and film makers.

This does not eliminate the need for high accuracy survey solutions or expertise, but allows for new applications which benefit from mapping that don’t require ultra-high accuracies or survey expertise. At the same time, it is easy to imagine these tools becoming part of the mapping professional’s toolbox to serve a wider client base or produce complimentary datasets.

Technological maturity and automation

As geo-technology and the geospatial market mature, performance improvements are no longer the only focus. Instead, most new geosolutions this year focus on refinements in hardware, software, workflows and even business-models, indicating a market which recognises the core value of data and resource efficiency over specs alone.

An example of this is Trimble’s high accuracy X7 terrestrial laser scanner for professional surveyors. The company focused on improving usability and maintenance with functions such as self-levelling and automatic calibrations, which improve workflow and reduce downtime. Automating routine and complex tasks like these benefit novices and experts alike.

There are also other forms of automation from hardware and software to workflow automation which all make these solutions more accessible and easier to use. Leica Geosystems’ RTC360 3D laser scanner, for example, has automated the scan workflow by adding automatic pre-registration of point clouds in the field using image recognition to determine where scans connect to one another.

There’s also processing automation, such as the automated feature extraction in image processing tools such as Leica’s multisensory workflow tool HxMap, which is used to process the imagery from its newly launched City Mapper 2 hybrid airborne sensor. Imagery processing has advanced by leaps and bounds with the integration of machine learning, and is expected to be advanced further, not only into post-processing tools, but also into on-board sensor processing to improve data acquisition quality.

Automated workflows such as those in CAD software, Card_1 even suggests the best infrastructure layouts for roads, bridges and powerlines. It does this by employing standardised infrastructure categories in combination with geodata such as DEMs and building restrictions/parameters.

Integrated sensors and data fusion

As Uwe Jasnoch, Hexagon Geospatial’s VP for business development, said data proliferation makes data fusion rather than data integration important to be able to act on data in a meaningful way.

The value of complementary data or data fusion is being realised at various levels – both at the hardware level through integrated sensors as well as at the software level with platforms which aid data integration.

Leica Geosystem’s CityMapper 2 sensor combines lidar and photogrammetry for efficient data acquisition.

Consider, for example, Leica Geosystem’s City Mapper 2 which combines 2 MHz lidar and photogrammetry (four oblique and one nadir 150 MP cameras), creating complementary datasets from the get-go. Then there are platforms such as Hexagon Geospatial’s Smart M.Apps which merges data, business workflows, and geoprocessing into a single application. Another platform that received a lot of attention is the U42, which combines various kinds of remotely sensed data (from drones to aerial lidar and photogrammetry to satellite) data in the cloud. Anecdotally, U42 takes its name from the Douglas Adams cult classic novel, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in which the number 42 is “the answer to life, the universe and everything”.

BIM meets GIS

One of the most discussed data fusions is that of building information modelling (BIM) with geospatial information. This fusion is still in its infancy, and where it occurs, it happens mostly at the planning and design phases. Some examples of BIM-GIS fusion can be seen in London’s Cross Rail project and Norway’s national information portal, which started using BIM in July, for street construction. The Netherlands is leading the way, and is already starting to apply the BIM-GIS integration beyond design, in the operational phase.

Trimble’s augmented reality solution SiteVision uses a GNSS receiver with a mobile photo to place models in their real-world context.

BIM has gained prominence for its digitalisation benefits which range from time and cost savings to building to higher specifications. These cost and efficiency benefits (which are easy to realise in construction), along with legislation such as the UK’s BIM Level 2 requirements for government projects, have been driving BIM adoption.

However, BIM is not evenly adopted across the construction sector, as Leica Geosystems’ Jan Hakert explained. Heavy construction BIM adoption, which include machine control and earth works, has been slow even in markets where BIM adoption has been good. This could change in the near future with the help of solutions such as the company’s ConX platform and its interchangeable MCP 80 machine control panel which makes the system reusable in more than 14 different kinds of machine, from graders to rollers to excavators and more. Besides aiding data fusion across machines and making high-end systems accessible to smaller businesses, its reusability allows larger firms to also benefit from using fewer units across more machines.

While the benefits of integrating BIM and GIS might sound obvious, their different starting points, approaches and goals mean there are many technical complexities to overcome by integrating them. Prof. Dr Jantien Stoter of Delft University of Technology best explained these, and showed where the two domains overlap to come together.

The integration of BIM and GIS has been greatly advanced through visualisation solutions, from the high-end 3D desktop models to virtual reality models for immersive exploration of these models. Advancing this integrated visualisation to new levels is Trimble’s SiteVision – a hand-held augmented reality solution which allows for accurate, real-world placement of 3D models. It displays 3D models (accessed via Trimble’s cloud service) on a mobile device, and places them in their real-world context with the help of a GNSS receiver. As with the solutions mentioned earlier, it expands the market of geospatial solutions, in this case from property developers and architect to utility workers and inspectors on construction sites.

Prof. Dr Stoter, however, reminds users that the value of the BIM and GIS integration reaches far beyond data visualisation, and rests in the underlying data and detail such as whether a building has a flat or slanted roof. This type of information underpins large-scale analyses and automation, as well as complex decision making, such as selecting the best roofs for solar PV installations and so on.

Moving indoors and underground

One cannot talk about data proliferation without talking about the shift to indoor and underground mapping, with both high accuracy and entry-level mobile mapping solutions prominently on display at InterGEO 2019. While the construction sector is seeing a greater need for these mapping tools as part of its BIM adoption, mobile mapping’s popularity also reflects smart city and city planning priorities at both a policy level and for private companies. Furthermore, the type of data and ease of use of these tools open it to new users and new markets, and complete and complement the data of other mapping solutions – especially when fusing the data.

Increasing data accuracy, consistency and velocity

As Jasnoch puts it, measurement is not only about accuracy, but about consistency and frequency – it’s important to make sure the data is trusted.

Companies such as Riegl talk about rapid urban mapping, and has developed its new VQ-780II and VQ-1560II airborne laser scanning systems (with a pulse repetition rate of 2 MHz and 4 MHz respectively) to increase productivity for both high-point-density mapping and ultra-wide-area mapping. The company has also added the miniVUX-2UAV UAV-based lidar sensor to its portfolio, which along with its other wave-form lidar platforms, creates a mapping ecosystem for 3D data acquisition at all scales.

Riegl announced various new wave-form lidar products.

Innovation, however, does not stop with hardware and software innovations, and perhaps one of the most interesting developments to follow is Vexcel Imaging’s new business model. The aerial photogrammetry company has launched a high quality and up-to-date aerial image library for Europe, starting its 20 cm data acquisition programme in Germany.

This cloud-based image library will be available via subscription service, and enables organisations and government agencies to save time and money by making it simple to acquire up-to-date, concise, high-definition imagery. It will initially use its UltraCam Condor Mark 1 airborne system, and in early 2020, the program will expand its country-wide contiguous data capture across other European countries and further introduce the acquisition of major European cities at 7,5 cm resolution, using its UltraCam Osprey Mark 3 airborne system. In this way the data acquisition costs are split between various users, while creating work for Vexcel’s own clients using its own mappings systems for consistency at a large scale – consistency allows further applications down the line.

A data ecosystem with processing everywhere

Looking ahead to the geomatics landscape in a decade from now, Esri’s Lawrie Jordan speaks of a data ecosystem which he compares to a complete nervous system. This is clearly taking shape already, but does raise questions as to how new technologies can further advance such an ecosystem, not to mention the burdens on data processing to enable it.

Part of geomatics solutions reaching maturity is using data more effectively and at the most efficient part of the value chain. Cloud processing still receives attention, but more companies acknowledge the reality of capturing and processing big data in off-line environments, and have better accommodated it in their workflows.

Hexagon Geospatial’s Wolfgang Richter sees edge computing as one solution to big geo-data processing.

Hexagon Geospatial’s Wolfgang Richter is already talking about the need for edge processing in geomatics solutions. Edge processing refers to processing happening at the point the data is needed. For some applications this might be onboard the sensor where the acquisition happens, while other solutions might process the data further up the data value chain, such as in a centralised database. This has implications for solutions which rely on data at scale, such as smart city solutions. This philosophy, Richter says, has already been applied in smart city solutions such as in San Francisco, where live transport data from public transport such as busses is fed into Hexagon’s Smart M.Apps and combined with other sensor data.

Drivers and enablers of change

Further disruptions besides those mentioned her are also on the horizon, and experts I spoke to agree that these four disruptors as having the most potential to upend the geospatial industry in the coming years:

Cubesats: smaller satellites in greater numbers allow for greater data capture frequency at the reduce prices.

Improved connectivity and speed: 5G and improved access to cloud computing for faster uploads and processing will most likely be the next breakthrough in geospatial – especially for massive datasets such as aerial photography and to combine complex, disparate datasets.

Refined and improved data processing methods: Edge computing comes to mind, but so too do further advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence, which could allow for more efficient onboard sensor processing and faster data processing.

Batteries: Let’s not forget the humble battery which can greatly extend mobile mapping for indoor solutions as well as UAVs. Riegl’s newly launched add-on rechargeable Li-ion battery, the RBLI 2900, includes three individually removable battery packs (hot swappable) for improved scanner usability, and has taken a step in this direction.

The chancing role of the professional

While most experts and solutions providers are hesitant to speak about the changing role of geospatial professionals, the solutions on show at InterGEO tell a very different story of implications for the profession.

Data acquisition is clearly becoming automated, and automation is making inroads in data processing too. But the geospatial professional is by no means obsolete, and its role might be moving higher up the data value chain. Jasnoch, who provided me with the most articulate idea of the geospatial professional’s role in the future, speaks of geospatial professionals playing a role in aggregating data and mining it for meaning and specific applications in the divulge of data streams.

Understanding why and how geomatics solutions work is important says Jasnoch, but this ability is not needed as often as people might think. Conceptual thinking is often more important in coming up with solutions, and simpler solutions which take care of low-level coding and basic surveying functions gives more time for conceptual thinking and modelling.

On the wave of change

It’s a brave new world for the geomatics sector, which is far less challenging than it is exciting. As more sectors adopt geospatial solutions, there are new applications and potential new roles for geomatics professionals. In all likelihood, based on developments in the past decade, geomatics will expand in horizontal rather than vertical markets, driven by user expectations and simplicity. For those with capex, this surely has to be one of the most exciting times in the geospatial market. For those with creative ideas about optimising these solutions, even more so.


PositionIT’s InterGEO 2019 trip was sponsored by foresighted companies Optron, Trimble, Hexagon Geospatial, Leica Geosystems, Riegl Laser Measurement Systems and Vexcel Imaging. I would like to thank these companies and their teams of experts and organisers for arranging interviews in which experts took the time to share though-provoking insights on all aspects of this exciting sector.

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