As exciting as the advent of on-demand access to current, high-resolution lidar is, so are the tools available for ingesting, extracting features, analyzing, and sharing.
“What we’re hearing right now, this is really an inflection point for the industry,” says Phil Christensen, vice president for reality and spatial modeling at Bentley Systems. “The software has finally come far enough. And now the data that can be married to the software, the foundational data is commercially available—on demand.”
To the latter, Christensen is referring to street-level lidar, announced in 2022 as a service by HERE Technologies, a prominent global location data and technology platform.
Geospatial practitioners have been primed for this, as Christensen notes: “It makes it so that the technology everyone’s been talking about, digital twins and 3D reality models, can now be developed rapidly with data already available. And it really seems to be at the point now where this data can be utilized by just about anyone. Practitioners that implement Bentley iTwin, or infrastructure digital twins, are able to connect the physical with the virtual world. They can synchronize their work, gain greater visibility, and make sense of the right data at the right time across the lifecycle of assets.”
Are we at the point of ‘shake-and-bake’ digital twins? Certainly, much closer than we were. We’ve all become accustomed to, at the consumer level, the ubiquity of aerial and satellite imagery, and that we can zoom into just about anywhere in the world on our phones. On the professional side, there are many vendors of images as a service (IaaS). Lidar as a service adds a dimension (no pun intended) that has not previously been available at this scale.
“We have heard of the small-scale selling of mobile lidar data in the past,” said Dan Thompson, product manager at HERE Technologies. “But this is the first off-the-shelf, at-scale, commercially-available mobile lidar product announced, made readily available to the industries that can make best use of it.”
Continuous Reality Capture
HERE, as a location data provider and technology platform, is continuously driving roadways with mobile capture systems—lidar was a logical, and inevitable addition. “We’ve been collecting data of this kind since 2008,” says Thompson. “So, the ability to collect and utilize this data is not new for us. We have a lot of experience applying the data to a variety of practical solutions.”
HERE is on the fourth generation of its mobile lidar data collection system. “We continue to innovate in the market with respect to what we can do using the most modern collection equipment available. Our cameras are all custom designed by HERE to make sure they are tailored to properly capture ingestible data into our system and serve a wide variety of use cases,” says Thompson. “These rigs we’ve designed are added to our vehicles—all custom—with vigorous quality control checks, and the ongoing accuracy of where the vehicle is and the attributes of the road around it.”
Key questions in the mind of potential users of the lidar data revolve around the availability for geographic areas or specific road segments they are interested in—and accuracy. HERE’s general statement of the relative accuracy is 2cm, a common standard for street-level lidar, to be suitable for many applications. And there is more specific metadata available for each data set. The accuracy could vary, depending on the circumstances of the respective mobile mapping campaign. HERE may have tailored the collection to support specific needs of a partner or customer. For example, partnering with state departments of transportation has been a driver for focus on street-level lidar.
HERE collects and markets many types of location data, for many applications where consistent relative precision and accuracy are required. Each mobile mapping system incorporates integrated GNSS and inertial components, and the firm has consistently been at the forefront of positioning capabilities for growing markets like vehicle navigation and autonomy, like with their HD Live Maps.
Customer access today is accomplished by working directly with HERE and will soon be available via the HERE Platform. The HERE LiDAR web portal operates much like those for aerial and satellite images, and street-level images. The user zooms to an area of interest, and the road segments with lidar available are displayed. By selecting individual segments, or an area, metadata can be accessed, and standard lidar point file formats can be downloaded.
Coverage, as noted, is available for portions of more than 50 countries, but not for every road segment. Most major highways and urban arterials have been captured. Again, priority on which areas are captured with lidar may be driven by partner and customer needs, like that of DOTs. After doing some browsing in the portal, it appears that substantial portions of transportation corridors, cities, developed and developing areas, are well represented.
Managing and Analyzing the Data
Having more spatial data at one’s fingertips—substantially more data—can be like drinking from a firehose. Certainly, for users who are already accustomed to integrating street-level 360-degree image and lidar into their workflows, this is simply another source. Whereas the source may have previously been from one-off sources, like using data from a user’s own mobile mapping system or from a mapping contractor, a user now has the option of buying this off-the-shelf data.
The advent of this ready-mix could open whole new segments of users who might not have the tools, or capacity, to ingest, manage, extract features, model, and analyze a potential flood of data.
“It’s very large data, not covering one street, but a whole state or a whole country,” says Christensen. “You need to be able to manage that data, be able to consume terabytes or even petabytes of data.”
Applications like the digital twinning of cities, or in the case of DOTs, modeling whole transportation corridors come to mind. “If you want to bring that huge amount of data and make it available to users, you cannot just follow the standard way of doing exports and file transfers,” says Christensen. “You need to find other ways to share that data. You just cannot continue to copy the data.”
Indeed, the viable approach for dealing with big-spatial-data has been an evolution from the legacy ‘bringing the data to the users,’ to ‘bringing the users to the data.’
The cloud, and solutions like Bentley’s Orbit 3DM, fill such needs. As many DOTs are current customers of Bentley software for design, like OpenRoads Designer, Orbit 3DM can serve well as a pipeline for using these new, big-spatial-data resources. In 2019, Bentley acquired Orbit GT, adding this established provider of solutions for ingesting, analyzing, and sharing big-spatial data, to their digital cities business unit.
While there is no exclusivity between HERE LiDAR and Bentley, the two firms have worked together to enable smooth workflows for the data. Once a user accesses HERE LiDAR data, they can marry this to other spatial data that Orbit can accommodate. From there, the data can be managed and classified and features can be extracted using standard tools.
Some of the off-the-shelf data automation tools in Orbit include: bridge clearances; pavement rutting; pavement slopes; traffic sign detection/identification; guard rails; fences and poles; channelization and pedestrian crossings; rail inspection and corridor furniture detection/identification. And users/developers can “teach” Orbit to do other forms of extraction and analyses.
Tools like Orbit can create ortho images from the mobile captured spherical images, manage point clouds, and all data can be shared with stakeholders, design collaborators, and for community engagement. Data can also be ported to other downstream software packages, from Bentley, and others.
3D Reality Ambitions
Another key thing to note is that reality capture, as is being executed by location data firms like HERE, is a continuum. Currency is essential, so continual mapping on regular schedules enables change detection and true asset management.
This announcement of off-the-shelf lidar is yet another example of some much needed “reality” being injected into the subject of 3D reality modeling. Be it digital twins, 3D cities, digital cities, smart cities, or even the nebulous subject of “metaverses,” the spatial data resources continue to grow, enabling even more people to realize these lofty ambitions.