It seems like imaging is on everyone’s mind these days. Every month we see more articles in magazines, technical journals, blogs and newsletters. The flow is increasing and with good reason: The use of imaging in its many forms is quickly becoming a key component of geospatial information. In this article, we’ll look at how organizations and individuals that have adopted imaging solutions are realizing tangible—and rapid—benefits.

Geospatial professionals can choose among several different approaches for capturing, analyzing and delivering information based on visual data. As in past decades, when selecting among various types of positioning solutions—GPS, GNSS, robotic and manual total stations—the decisions are based on the application, operating conditions and required accuracy. Thanks to newly available technical solutions, the decision process can expand to consider requirements for downstream deliverables: who will receive the information and how it will be used. This flexibility enables geospatial professionals to tailor their processes for acquiring and processing data to produce information that is immediately useful for their clients.

Today’s imaging solutions cover a range of platforms and capabilities operating on the ground or in flight. Terrestrial systems consist of simple digital cameras in handheld computers and tablets, calibrated cameras in total stations and panoramic imaging rovers as well as stationary and mobile scanners. Airborne imaging solutions include photography, LiDAR and remote sensing. These systems can rapidly produce large volumes of high-quality georeferenced imagery and are rapidly transforming the process of surveying, mapping and asset management. Even more disruptive are unmanned aerial solutions (UAS), although in many regions their potential remains largely untapped while regulatory agencies complete their work

The field systems are supported by office or cloud-based software that provides increasingly sophisticated processing and analyses. Until recently, the work to process and combine multiple images into a single model or dataset often required highly trained technicians using specialized software on dedicated workstations. But modern software such as Trimble® Business Center has automated the task while expanding the capabilities to integrate various types of imaging data. Today it’s possible to combine aerial imagery with photos captured from ground-based cameras as well as 3D points captured using GNSS and total stations. The solutions continue beyond photogrammetry. Advanced systems such as eCognition™ provide capabilities to automatically identify and characterize features and conditions in images collected by aerial or terrestrial cameras and LiDAR.

Rapid Data Capture

Imaging solutions are proving their value in applications that take place on work sites where terrain and conditions can rapidly change. For example, to optimize its airspace utilization, a landfill needs frequent measurement to determine volumes and locations of material. Aerial photography can provide the needed information, but the cost and time constraints of conventional manned aircraft limit their effectiveness. In contrast, an unmanned solution such as the Trimble UX5 can provide precise aerial data at frequent intervals and low cost. Similar opportunities exist in open pit mining and quarries, where engineers, geologists and production staff can utilize the image-based information for applications including planning, safety, quantity payments and production control.

Ground-based imaging produces similar benefits. For example, consider a detail survey conducted as part of the planning for rehabilitation of civil infrastructure such as a bridge, canal or roadway. Rather than measuring hundreds of individual points in the field, a survey crew can use a Trimble V10 Imaging Rover to capture a few panoramic images of the site. The fieldwork can be completed in minutes rather than hours. In tests and real-world projects, crews using the Trimble V10 have increased in-field efficiency by 30 percent and more. In addition to the direct cost savings, imaging solutions deliver benefits in safety and convenience. Field crews can avoid working in difficult or hazardous areas. Imaging can also reduce downtime for measurement, a costly component for mines, railways and industrial applications. And measurements and scans on highways and bridges can be conducted from a safe location, cutting or eliminating lane closures or late night work hours.

Lower Costs and New Deliverables

The geospatial professional can use imaging solutions to provide efficiency over the near and long term. For example, a 30 to 40 percent reduction in field time can shave days off the front end of a project. That’s a conservative estimate; one V10 owner reported reducing field time by nearly 80 percent compared to using RTK.

Imaging solutions provide benefits beyond worksite efficiency. Processing software can merge data from multiple sources and produce visual deliverables such as 3D models and point clouds, terrain and surface models and photorealistic 3D representations of sites, buildings and facilities. This information, vital to engineers and designers, plays an important role by effectively engaging a wider range of stakeholders in a project’s planning, progress and outcome. A picture is worth a thousand words and more, especially when visualization helps decision makers, financing sources and the general public to understand a complex project.

At the end of the process, deliverables can transfer directly to client systems for specialized design and analysis. Even this work is streamlined. For example, objects captured from an aerial photo can be described using a library of descriptions and attributes. This library can be shared among crews and offices, providing a consistent method of description that is independent of the method by which an object was collected. Data collected from ground or aerial photos, survey crews and GIS mapping teams can quickly be combined, checked and prepared for delivery.

Delivering for the Geospatial Professional

The benefits of imaging technologies stem from the combination of speed, flexibility and thorough data acquisition. Images contain far more information than a line drawing or list of points and can be gathered in far less time.

The time savings extend beyond geospatial field crews. For example, geologists often accompany surveyors on a mine site. The surveyors conduct the measurements with the geologists pointing out the areas of interest. But by capturing georeferenced images, the mine can eliminate the need to send geologists with the survey teams. Mine engineers can use the images for modeling and volume computations and the geologists can identify materials and blasting points. Imaging could reduce the cost, eliminate some safety risks and provide higher flexibility in scheduling.

Even the most meticulous field crew can fail to capture all objects on a site, but the camera or scanner captures everything it sees. The risk of revisits to collect missing data falls to near zero. In fact it’s normal to capture more information than is necessary while spending less time in the field. That data can be available for extensions of the job or to create new and valuable deliverables. For example, panoramic images of a job site taken using a Trimble V10 can be offered to the client as an additional deliverable.

In the event of the seemingly inevitable request for “just a bit more information,” chances are good that the needed data can be found in the photos or point clouds. Instead of sending a crew back to the field, the work can be done with the office software. It’s an opportunity to deliver high-value information to the client while incurring minimal costs to do so.

Thus, we can break the benefits of imaging into two simple parts. First, it provides significant gains in efficiency and throughput in the process of collecting, analyzing and delivering highly visual information. Second, it creates an additional value stream (i.e. new deliverables to produce new revenue) at minimal additional cost.

Certainly, there will be times when a total station or GNSS is needed to reach required accuracy for control and precise stakeout. But there are many situations where imaging technology can either replace these sensors or add visual and spatial context to their data. In many cases, imaging can replace the other sensors’ data or even outperform them in certain environments and applications.

The bottom line is that imaging is yet another, exceptionally powerful, tool available to help geospatial professionals get their job done in the best way possible. How can it fit into your business?