Microsoft Beta Testing Laserless Point Clouds
Microsoft Launches Beta Testing Program to Achieve Laserless Point Clouds
In July 2012 Microsoft announced the launch of its beta testing program for UltraMap Version 3.0. For those unfamiliar with UltraMap, it is the factory processing package that comes with Microsoft’s UltraCam series of aerial cameras made by Vexcel in Austria. The major update being testing is the automatic generation of point clouds using overlapping imagery to eventually create digital elevation products (digital surface models and digital terrain models). While the popular LAS format is usually the result of airborne lidar missions, UltraCam operators could potentially offer a similar product that only requires a single photo plane to fly the mission (many projects require separate flights for photo and lidar). And not to mention Microsoft is boasting that preliminary results yield significantly higher density clouds than similar lidar missions.
So how will this shake things up in the lidar market? There has been a range of opinion being from “not at all” to “rendering aerial lidar as obsolete”. Chances are it will fall somewhere in the middle depending on the project and this is why: while the ability to pull higher density point clouds from aerial photos seems more efficient than flying two planes, the photo generated point clouds are only based on what the optical sensor “sees”. So this gives lidar an advantage for situations such as penetrating through forest canopy. However, for projects such as volumetric surveying and urban mapping, having the single flight solution may bode well for data consumers. At the end of the day it gives aerial photo customers an extra option or better rate when doing certain projects.
Currently UltraCam sensors are used for many aerial remote sensing projects across Canada through both private industry and government contracting. The UltraMap beta testing program is set to run through August and be released as a stable version in Fall 2012.
But Microsoft won’t be the first to release automated DEM processing from photogrammetry products. Canadian company SimActive has already released Correlator3D which provides users with a fully automated workflow using robust autocorrelation algorithms. Another provider to look out for is PCI Geomatics with similar development coming down the pipeline. These recent software developments mark a new trend in automated DEM generation from what used to be a lengthy workflow. What was once a labour intensive, time consuming process is starting to be compressed into a handful of scripted tasked pushed through by hyperthreaded GPU technology.