Thursday, 10 April 2014 17:25

nearmap plans to lift use of elevation data

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Digital aerial imagery provider nearmap is working on ways of increasing its use of the elevation data it extracts from photos.

nearmap Solar isn't the only new feature the company has been working on. According to chief technology officer Paul Lapston various other improvements are under development, though he declined to say when or even if they will be added to the product.

nearmap's core technology is the provision of frequently updated, low altitude - and therefore high quality - aerial imagery covering 85% of the Australian population. The company uses satellite images to fill in the gaps.

Not only are the images updated frequently, the average time between photographs being taken and becoming available on nearmap.com is just three days, and half of that is needed to physically deliver the data from the airfield to nearmap's premises, explained senior vice president of product engineering Paul Petersen.

He stressed that the company gathers new images "on spec" - for example in response to severe weather events or major building or engineering works, as well as on a general schedule - not against specific orders from customers.

According to Mr Lapston, the digital elevation data captured using photogrammetry is "a fundamental part of the product." It is currently used for purposes such as generating an elevation profile for a track drawn on the imagery, eg along a road.

nearmap is now working on ways of using this data to measure volumes, for example to determine the amount of material in a stockpile, or to track excavations from an open-cut pit. It is also being used to generate 3D views from maps, including the ability to produce real-time fly-throughs.

The data could also be used for automatic change detection of vegetation or buildings for compliance purposes - some trees have disappeared, or a new building has been erected: did the landowner have the necessary permits?

An accurate 3D map could also be used to improve the shadow analysis in nearmap Solar, and for flood modelling (the company is currently working with a simple 'bathtub' model that is based only on the elevation, but is considering a more complex hydrodynamic model that can include the effects of vegetation and buildings on the pattern of flooding).

As long as the plane taking the images flies low enough, the height resolution that can be obtained from the photos is "frighteningly accurate," Mr Lapston said, to the extent that nearmap "will be challenging lidar [surveyors] in some markets."

While he said that the elevation data will be used for shadow analysis - useful for property valuations as well as input to nearmap Solar - he would not be drawn on the question of whether it will be accurate enough to allow the automatic optimisation of the position, number and type of solar panels required to meet customer criteria.

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Stephen Withers

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Stephen Withers is one of Australia¹s most experienced IT journalists, having begun his career in the days of 8-bit 'microcomputers'. He covers the gamut from gadgets to enterprise systems. In previous lives he has been an academic, a systems programmer, an IT support manager, and an online services manager. Stephen holds an honours degree in Management Sciences and a PhD in Industrial and Business Studies.

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