There’s a transformation underway — and it’s giving people a new approach to look at their world. The various ways we use spatial data are quickly moving from flat, static maps to interactive representations in three and even four dimensions. The exciting new approaches are driving a sharp increase in demand for spatial information.

From basic drafting solutions to the augmented reality of Pokémon Go, today’s professional users and consumers alike expect more spatial information; they also require high levels of accuracy and resolution. Much of this demand places a strong emphasis on 3D information. The demand is expected to continue to grow as new tools and devices for visualization and interaction find their way into the hands of more — and increasingly diverse — users.

A key driver behind this trend is the growing availability of high-resolution 3D geospatial data. Sources such as airborne or terrestrial photography and LiDAR are making data acquisition faster, easier and less expensive. As the cost of gathering information continues to decrease, geospatial data will make its way into even more applications.

However, the basic data of point clouds and orthophotographs are not suitable for many users and applications. In order to create deliverable information, raw images or LiDAR data must first be processed to remove superfluous information and render the data into forms and formats accessible to the downstream users. The steps to derive actionable information from raw data rely on increasingly sophisticated and efficient software.

For example, software to manage large point clouds is evolving; it now incorporates more automation that can simplify and speed up mundane tasks that previously were handled by human operators. Automated processing can now handle much of the work needed to register data from multiple LiDAR scans into a single coherent point cloud. This frees up operators for more complex processes where human judgment and experience are needed. Other software functions can identify ground surfaces, model planes and edges on buildings or structures. While advances in software technology help streamline many tasks, the work to efficiently acquire and manage the 3D information still relies on the skills of geospatial professionals.

One component of the professional’s skillset is determining which tools are best suited to fulfill a client’s needs. For example, some scanning projects require the speed and data density of a dedicated solution such as the Trimble TX8 or TX6 3D laser scanners. On other projects, the Trimble SX10 scanning total station can capture high-quality 3D scans as well as provide imaging and high-accuracy total station data. There are similar options in software, where choices can be based on the differing needs and capabilities of the users and their clients.

Using experience gained over years of interaction with its customers, Trimble has developed a deep understanding of the ways in which users gather and process 3D data. This knowledge enables the company to refine the workflows needed to produce 3D deliverables. We know that different users require different levels of data processing functionality and sophistication. For instance, some organizations are tightly focused as scanning service providers and work exclusively with 3D scanning or mobile mapping. Many other firms offer broader services and employ scanning alongside other technologies for surveying, engineering or GIS. While there is significant technological overlap, the two groups of users may be best served by using software with different approaches and levels of functionality.

High-level scanning specialists prefer to have comprehensive control over their data. They need to “get into the corners” to manipulate and analyze point clouds and extract detailed information. These professionals can use Trimble RealWorks software to manage large datasets and develop 3D deliverables customized to their clients’ requirements. RealWorks includes high-level tools for registering multiple point clouds, extracting objects and visualizing the results. Additionally, downstream users can access free viewer tools to see the point clouds and make quick measurements.

By comparison, many surveying professionals need to blend scanning with the conventional data and workflows of GNSS and total stations. This can be done using the scanning functionality incorporated into Trimble Business Center software (TBC). Within TBC, common scanning functions for point cloud management and analysis enable users to integrate scanning into their surveying processes. The software can automatically register multiple scans into a single point cloud, while also removing “noise” and identifying ground surfaces.

Software functionality continues to expand for both scanning specialists and more general users. New tools are in place for corridor extraction and design that enable users to quickly identify and model features such as curbs and pavement surfaces. Other tools automate the extraction of road markings. In addition, solutions such as eCognition software can use imagery or LiDAR data to characterize vegetation, buildings and surfaces.

Modern software is not limited to three dimensions. Point clouds or survey data can create models of a site at different points in time. These models can be overlaid to provide 3D visuals and computations. Users can determine changes over time and quickly develop information such as earthwork or mining quantities. These 4D deliverables can also be used to track construction progress and monitor deformation in cut slopes or excavations. Users can also compare point clouds to design surfaces to detect differences between planned and constructed features. And emergency managers can use change detection functions to identify damaged buildings over large areas in the event of earthquakes or fires.

A good illustration of the 3D/4D deliverable is in road design and construction. For pre-construction surveys, field crews can use a dedicated scanner (TX6 or TX8) or total station and scanner in one (SX10) to capture existing conditions quickly and without the need to step into traffic. During construction, scans can track the work and support quality control. Software can detect, quantify and visually flag uplift or subsidence in addition to changes or variations from plan. When construction is complete, a final scan can provide pavement pay quantities as well as as-built records needed for ongoing maintenance and lifecycle management.

New trends in visualization will leverage the cloud to provide tools for web-based viewing of 3D models. Today, most point cloud viewer software requires users to load large datasets onto their desktop or portable computers. When a model is updated, providers need to ensure that their clients are using current data. Moving models and viewing tools to reside in the cloud can free service providers from the need to update multiple users whenever a dataset changes. Their clients can enjoy fast, easy visualization with the assurance that they are seeing up-to-date information.

As software evolution accelerates, the path from field to finished deliverables will become even smoother and faster. Geospatial professionals can operate in a tightly integrated ecosystem of field solutions, software and cloud-based processes for data management, sharing and interaction. These new approaches enable them to manage costs while delivering increased service and value to their clients and stakeholders.