July 9, 2014

From Scratch

Expand — When Point Clouds are not Enough

Recently I helped a client prepare a SPAR presentation.  The message he wanted to communicate to the conference attendees was simple: “No point clouds, please!” I think this was his response to many presentations by service providers enthusiastically arguing the virtues of what appeared to him to be grainy, memory-hogging, photograph-like stuff that he couldn’t possibly integrate into his existing workflow and would not, by itself, meet his business needs.

This client presented a project where he had the objective of communicating industrial geospatial information to a large and dispersed user community. Isn’t it remarkable how often a client’s fundamental goal is communication?  

For this project, the collection of positional data on features in the field was important, as was the field collection of attributes about those features, and their correlation with spatial data. However, equally important was the presentation of both the positions and attributes to the users in a non-proprietary, intuitive web interface. That presentation had to work well on a tiny bandwidth, and be in a form that existing personnel would understand easily and find immediately useable. This client’s people needed to see correlated positions and attributes in their own vernacular, so that they could use it for their own ends.

It is not surprising that satisfying all of these objectives required integration of a variety of methods, procedures and technologies. They eventually included photography, video, GPS/GNSS, digital attribute collection, database development, web integration and too many other things to enumerate in a short blog post. There was a role for 3DLS in their solution, of course, as it certainly provides an efficient way to collect positional data in the field (and other benefits), but it is not and cannot be the lone solution in this case.

How then to explain all the LiDAR devotees presenting point clouds to him as the only solution? I suspect it can be partially explained by the adage, “When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” but I don’t think that covers all of it. The cautionary line, “Don’t presume you have the answer until you are sure you understand the question,” might also be pertinent.

Offering a complete and integrated solution in instances like this requires the service provider to have an in-house combination of what many see as unrelated disciplines, a willingness to partner with others to augment their existing expertise, or both. In other words, it requires a service provider to have a real desire to widen its footprint. While that may be obvious when looking at the whole problem from the client’s point of view, too few service providers do. I am sorry to say that the admonishment, “Please listen to your client” is so shopworn as to be ineffective. It may be that the only effective encouragement for a more holistic approach is economic.

As collection and presentation technologies shift and change, clients turn more and more to trusted consultants for advice and solutions. That means that those geospatial professionals must be well versed and capable of choosing and applying the most efficient and cost-effective solutions, whatever they are.

Being a purveyor of such solutions has never been more of a challenge. It requires skill in not only data collection and measurement, but also data management, processing, display, geodesy, photogrammetry, numerical analysis, communication and more. In other words, as the Red Queen told Alice, “It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.” It is nevertheless a race worth running. Those that listen to their clients most carefully and widen their footprints the most are likely to be richly rewarded.

The Markets and Markets report released last year stated that the global LiDAR market was about $219 million in 2012 and will be about $551 million in 2018. That is a lot of money. I am sure everyone would like as large a portion of that market as possible. But, on the other hand, see Geoff Zeiss’s keynote address at South Africa Surveying and Geomatics Indaba (SASGI) last year, which states that “Global revenues from geospatial products and services is estimated to be $150 – $270 billion per annum, about 0.2% of global GDP, and this is expected to grow by an average 13% per year through 2016.” Wouldn’t you rather be playing on that field as well? 


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