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:

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.

About the author

Suhas Sreedhar

Strategic Writer at GT Nexus