We often talk about the big data, analytics, and worker impact of the Industrial Internet. But data acquisition is usually taken for granted. After all, sensors tend to be common, and embedded computing power simply keeps growing with time. Not much news there, right?
Well, a recent federal government venture called the 3D Elevation Program (3DEP) is highlighting a new and exciting method of acquiring data. 3DEP uses lidar (think radar with lasers instead of radio waves) to construct detailed 3D maps of geographical terrain. The purpose of 3DEP is to replace old, inconsistent US Geological Survey (USGS) data with an eye toward preparing for climate change.
Lidar is at least three times more accurate in mapping out bare earth elevation, and can capture natural and manmade features in extraordinary detail. Lidar information is typically collected by planes flying over a geographical region, or using ground-based stationary and mobile units. Lidar systems shoot intense, focused pulses of light onto a geographical surface. The reflections bounce back and are collected and analyzed for time interval, angle, and absolute positioning relative to Earth to construct a feature-rich 3D map. It’s a similar principle to radar, but lidar is accurate to centimeters, gives detailed elevation information, and can create realistic 3D representations of bridges, roadways, railroads, buildings, and other structures.
What’s truly exciting about lidar, though, is its sheer number of applications. 3DEP is bringing together private sector interests, federal agencies, academia, and local communities to collaborate on 3D maps because each of them stands to benefit from detailed 3D maps.
Here are some of the most interesting ways lidar data is being used to gain contextual and predictive insight:
- Green infrastructure planning. Using lidar-generated mapping data, LA County has created Solar Map to help people figure out the best locations on their home to deploy solar panels and do other green infrastructure planning.
- Wind farm data collection. Ground-based and nacelle-based lidar systems are providing a far more accurate picture of varying wind conditions and their effects on turbines.
- Pipeline routing. Lidar slope data can help plan pipeline routing and provide critical environmental data through mountains, rivers, construction zones, and help keep track of important assets.
- Disaster management. After Hurricane Sandy in 2012, FEMA used 3D terrain maps to identify damaged and inaccessible households based on accurate flood depth information. The USGS also used 3D maps to detect a fault line in Washington State that led to the preemptive redesign of a high-cost suspension bridge. Climate change preparation is the primary aim with which the Obama administration launched the 3DEP project and in that context, lidar maps can help prepare for heavy rains and rising seas.
As you can imagine, the data lidar generates is huge. Big data analytics are and will be vital to storing and making sense of all that 3D information.
3D mapping is just emerging, but it’s an exciting domain that has many potential applications in science, city planning, and industry. The potential for predictive analytics based on lidar 3D maps is tremendous. Within the larger context of the Industrial Internet, 3D mapping shows that while we tend to focus intensely on big data and analytics, there’s still some pretty amazing advances happening on the sensor and data collection front.