Nearmap is making three dimensional imagery of towns across Australia and the US available to explore in its web application, MapBrowser.
The firm has been offering such imagery on request since 2017, but is now giving subscribers access to all its 3D content on demand.
The browser also offers tools to easily measure the distance between two points in a 3D space – for example the height of a tower or the distance between two buildings – and to export the imagery for use in industry standard CAD and GIS software.
“It’s like switching from DVDs to streaming services, like Netflix versus what Blockbuster used to be,” said Dr Tom Celinski, Nearmap’s executive vice president of technology and engineering.
Since it was founded in 2007, Nearmap has been taking high resolution photographs of Australia from above using multi-angled, proprietary camera equipment carried on light aircraft. Capturing the world beneath from multiple angles, means the images can be stitched together to construct a 3D model.
“In very simple terms, it all amounts to triangulating points on the ground. Given any point on the ground, you have multiple views on it, you can triangulate, you can figure out the distance from the plane to the point, you do that across the whole landscape, you then get a 3D model,” Celinski told CIO Australia.
“We're doing that on a massive scale,” he said.
More than 25,000 square kilometres – home to around 88 per cent of the population – is captured in the imagery, which is updated up to six times a year. The ASX-listed firm also has a rapidly expanding US dataset, comprising 3D images of 99,000 square kilometres, covering 53 per cent of the population.
The 3D view in MapBrowser allows users to select any area covered, and "just like that fly around like a superhero".
“We managed to make [accessing the 3D dataset] easy. Easy hides lots of pain and blood and sweat and tears across the engineering team,” Celinski said.
“From a technology perspective, we've built the entire technology chain to be scalable from the get go. So our pipelines are elastic, our storage is elastic, we work with large compute and storage providers across the key geographies. So we've got the capability to scale about as far as anyone else at this point in time, and probably have,” he said.
Scalability is part of Nearmap’s ethos, says the company’s director of AI systems Michael Bewley.
“It's really how the company is set up, at a fundamental level, you have to set yourself up for doing these things at massive scale. You don't go ‘oh let's play with a little bit of data here and then let's make it a bit bigger’. From day one, you say ‘how is this going to work across petabytes of data?’ and design with a very much a systems perspective on how you going to cope with that,” Bewley said.
The closest representation of reality
In March, Google made available its 3D imagery of Sydney, via Google Earth. Google follows a similar process to create three dimensional models although unlike Nearmap retouches many of its buildings manually.
While specific sites like Sydney Harbour Bridge and Bondi Beach had been available for some time, capturing the broader central Sydney region had been hampered due to the city’s “busy airspace” Google said.
Google used to offer a tool for businesses to build and host private versions of Google Earth and Google Maps for internal geospatial applications, but shut the service down in March 2017.
Apple and Nokia also offer 3D mapping. Those alternatives, however, are lower resolution, less regularly updated and are not compatible with industry preferred Cesium, Esri, Autodesk, and Bentley platforms, Nearmap says. Nor do they allow export of the imagery as textured mesh, point cloud, DSM, or true ortho, it adds.
“We live in a 3D world, we think in 3D, and so we have to ensure that our products give the closest representation of reality as possible,” Celinski said.
“It’s not just ‘hey there's a pretty 3D image’ – you can click and measure and actually change what you do for work,” Bewley added.
Nearmap appears set to add more tools to its 3D browser-based application, such as line-of-sight or coverage – hugely useful for network deployment planning and signal propagation analysis for 5G.
The firm – which describes its business model as ‘Reality as a Service’ – is one of the ten largest aerial survey companies in the world by annual data collection volume. In its last results it reported more than 9,300 customers, signalled expansion into Canada, and revealed it would increase the headcount of its internal technology capability.
“It's a massive global imaging enterprise that we have going on here. Not too bad for a little Aussie company, I guess,” Celinski said.
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