You don’t have to think too hard to understand why 3D mapping is important and useful commercially. Certainly we can see why companies might want a complete map of their real estate, so they can identify weaknesses, track preservation needs, or make improvements on a design. But 3D mapping can also help us conserve the physical reality of a place because places change over time, and when they change we lose something about what was once there, usually forever.
These aren’t limp ideas. Just think about it. The difference between a 2D photograph and a full 3D map of a historic place, including its surroundings, is huge. Photographs can give you a strong emotional connection to a place, but when it comes to understanding the physicality of it, both in case you’d like to restore or preserve it, but also simply for the sake of the future, 3D mapping provides so much detail that it’s like, well, being there yourself.
Drones make 3D mapping possible using photogrammetry, which is “the use of photography in surveying and mapping to measure distances between objects.” Originally photogrammetry happened using high quality cameras in airplanes, which flew back and forth over the location being mapped. Now, using drones, most of which come equipped with high quality cameras, photogrammetry can be done pretty inexpensively and quickly.
Here is how drones collect the data needed to create a 3D map:
First, you take a Point of Interest flight. The drone flies around the object or site to be mapped in a circle, taking a bunch of pictures as it flies. The GPS in the drone will record the drone’s exact location when a photo was taken, where the camera was faced, and other related information necessary to create a full 3D map.
Second, you take a scanning flight. In this flight, the drone passes back and forth across the site taking pictures, again with the GPS recording all of the locational details that will be used later in creating the 3D map. Now you have all the data you need to create a 3D map. And when you look at these maps, it’s like being there yourself.
Many people are offended at the thought of drones flying over their homes and invading their privacy. But looking at practical applications for this technology, there are some big positives. Beyond the preservation of historic sites, which is in and of itself a great thing, this new technology has a powerful potential for motivating students to pursue studies in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). Given how accessible this technology is now, students could create their own 3D maps fairly inexpensively, and take on projects that could be of great importance to them and their communities while also forwarding their interest in fields that could lead to rewarding careers.
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