August 19, 2015

Real Earth's Free Web Service Converts Velodyne Scans into Maps

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A map generated by Real Earth from Velodyne VLP-16 data

Pittsburgh — Velodyne LiDAR and Real Earth have announced a partnership to lower the cost of entry for creating LiDAR maps. As part of their new arrangement, Real Earth is offering customers free access to their web-based service for converting Velodyne scans into high-quality maps—without the aid of expensive hardware like GPS or inertial navigation systems. For those who like the results they get from the web service, Real Earth also offers software that registers Velodyne scans in real-time.

To find out more, I spoke to Real Earth’s CEO Sanjiv Singh about how Real Earth’s software works, what it can help you accomplish, and what kinds of low-cost mapping applications they hope it will open in the future.

The Free Web Service
Real Earth’s web service is intended for customers who want to try out their software in a quick and easy way. As Singh explained, the service even supports those who are inexperienced because it “allows them to send us the data, and we we give them some helpful hints to say, if you want good results you’ll want to position your scanner like this, and so on. But even if they don’t follow the hints, we can reconstruct a very dense point cloud from just the data they give us. They upload it to our website, we run our software, we send back essentially a large point cloud.”

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Map generated from HDL-32E data

Custom, Real-Time Registration
But Real Earth has also packaged the software they use as part of the web service to appeal in order to larger-volume customers. For those who need to create maps of larger assets or areas, Singh told me, “We’ll give them software that will run on their side so they can use it themselves in real time. That’s a negotiated service.”

What makes Real Earth’s software useful for those who have purchased it, he explained, is that it can register scans of large, complex indoor and outdoor areas in real time to create the map as you go. The results of the map can easily be displayed on a screen such as a laptop, which makes it easy to check very quickly whether you’ve gotten full coverage or not—which can be a problem for maps created from static scans.

Singh noted that most systems using this method are designed to work with handheld scanners like Google’s Tango, which uses structured light rather than LiDAR. Singh told me that with such systems the “range is typically a few meters, and it works in small, indoor spaces. So if you’re going into the lobby or a room that’s 10 meters by 10 meters, which is not that big a room, your Google Tango will fail unless you skirt the walls. If you walk in the middle of the room, or you have to cross the space, it will completely fail. Also, they only work in indoor lighting situations.”

Since Real Earth software can create a real-time map from LiDAR scan data it works in outdoor lighting conditions and larger spaces. The ability to use scans captured by an inexpensive but effective sensor like those offered by Velodyne makes mapping those spaces much faster, Singh said. “Velodyne scanners produce a large amount of data very quickly,” Singh said, “and the quality of the data is high. And since the scanners are 360 degrees, the maps can capture a high level of detail in the environment even in the presence of moving objects.”

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Map generated from HDL-32E data gathered by a person walking from top level to bottom level in “a few minutes.” All portions of the scan, including objects outside the garage, were gathered from inside.

Other Applications
In addition to static and mobile scanning applications, Real Earth’s real-time registration software will also work in handheld applications and can perform the SLAM calculations necessary for self-driving cars and autonomous mapping robots. With certain caveats, like the need for the IMU in some of Velodyne’s scanners, the software will also work in what the press release calls “high-velocity” applications such as UAV scanning.

Even knowing that the software would open up a number of applications, Real Earth has been surprised by the breadth of ways customers have found to use their software. Singh said, “It seems like a bit of a surprise, when we took our technology and we matched it with Velodyne scanners, which are well known and have a large, solid base, that we just keep hearing from people, ‘Hey, I have this mining site in Asia and we need to keep track of the condition of the roads, and we need something small and low-cost and independent that does not rely on GPS, can you help us?’”

“We’ve been very happy that we made this choice and we’re finding more applications than we can imagine. We say, give us your data, and we’ll create a map for you. If you want it in real time, let’s work on a system together. And that brings out a whole bunch of new applications we had no idea about.”

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