Point of Beginning

Street Smart

February 25, 2011
A 3D model of a wind farm with accurate site-specific tower features.


We live in a 3D world, and we design our buildings and infrastructure to fit real-world applications. Yet all too often, the data and maps that form the foundation of these designs only exist in two dimensions. Traditional topographic maps essentially strip the data of vital information--a feature’s vertical elements--leaving designers, architects and engineers to perform their design or analysis using 2D features. Although companies have been developing 3D data for years (through the 3D Buildings layer in Google Earth and other tools), few have taken it to a street-level realm in building highly accurate 3D models for use within existing widespread CAD/GIS platforms. However, those that have taken this approach are finding a successful new business model.

Vertical Mapping Resources based in Scottsdale, Ariz., is one such firm. The company began looking at 3D mapping several years ago as a way to make its map products more comprehensive and help clients fill a void in the limitations of existing land information products. “Over the past 18 months, we have been creating and implementing highly accurate 3D map feature data derived from stereoscopic imagery collection,” explains Kurt Okraski, the firm’s CEO. “By creating 3D topographical map files with multiview blocks, we are allowing clients to work interactively with the drawing utilizing varying views.”

A college campus shown with 3D blocks overlaid on color orthophotography.

For example, when viewing a topographic map from the top, users see blocks as they would appear in a traditional 2D product. However, they can then drill down into the map to see entire blocks and individual buildings or other features from different angles, essentially stepping from a 2D project into a 3D environment that is scaled to meet real-life applications. Importantly, accurate vertical measurements can be obtained from the 3D representations of each feature.

For VMR, producing the maps is the easy part. The firm specializes in aerial surveying, photogrammetric mapping and other land information services and does not need to add additional field collection once a project has been flown. An investment in product development and software--particularly the newest releases of AutoCAD Civil 3D and ESRI’s ArcGIS--allowed VMR to fully integrate its services and expand into 3D mapmaking for a multitude of clients.

More challenging has been identifying the markets in which such services would be considered a value-added deliverable. “In today’s business environment, successful project awards are often determined by a difference of literally hundreds of dollars--or less,” Okraski says. “We knew it would be absolutely imperative to keep all proposed costs of this service at minimal levels.”

The company believed that anyone in the survey, engineering, GIS or BIM field could benefit from these true 3D maps. However, the firm identified seven specific applications in which the 3D data would be considered extremely valuable:

• College campuses and schools

• Military installations

• Airports

• Wind-power generating farms (3D wind-flow modeling)

• Solar-power generating sites

• Site development and new construction disputes

• Line-of-sight projects (cellular towers, etc.)

The 3D features shown represent actual real-world conditions.

From there, the firm focused on keeping costs for the new products low and on identifying the optimum delivery method for each client and type of project. “The cost-to-benefit ratio associated with delivering accurate mapping products in a 3D format is relatively low compared to a traditional 2D format,” Okraski explains. “The technicians working on a particular project can quickly and efficiently collect the features and then perform a final 3D translation through the map edit process.”

To develop its presentations, VMR works closely with its clients to determine their specific requirements and preferences and then creates customized visual renderings, project flythroughs and individual demonstrations. For example, the firm was recently approached to create models for a commercial renovation project. The client needed to perform an obstruction analysis to address the concerns being voiced by neighboring residential communities about the height of the commercial building. The local municipality required that a survey be performed to prove that the renovation project met the required codes and height restrictions. VMR was hired to create a true 3D model of the commercial structure and its surrounding infrastructure to aid in the submittal to the governing agency. The information proved vital in clearly identifying the height of the structure and all surrounding utilities, barriers and vegetation.

The college campus from alternate perspective showing the 3D blocks.

In all potential applications, VMR focuses on demonstrating how the 3D information can be used to improve asset management as well as evacuation planning and assistance.

The reception to the 3D maps has been positive so far. Okraski believes the firm is poised to see substantial growth in this area. “It is inevitable that this type of service and land information will become much more prevalent in years to come, and one day we will all work in a digital rendering or recreation of a true 3D environment,” he says. “As collection techniques and computer system processing power increases, so does the amount of information contained in a product delivery. Once efficient processes have been developed, adequate training implemented, and an investment in newer, faster computer systems has been allocated, more and more data will be obtained and available for widespread use.

“Essentially it’s a vertical integration of services,” he adds. “It’s all about taking a look at existing services that we provide and assembling additional offerings that won’t take away from what we do best--all the while allowing for expansion of our client base.”