Instant Urban Modeling: Berkeley Summons SET to Develop Militarized Version
Imagine if the first soldiers to enter an enemy city could map it street by street, recording every window and doorway of the urban battlefield in an accurate 3D model that could instantly be relayed to their comrades at base – and updated in near-real time. Thanks to funding from the U.S. military and cooperation from the Virginia engineering firm SET Associates (Science, Engineering, Technology), engineers at the University of California, Berkeley have found a way to do just that. Of course, this same technology can also make maps for use by emergency services, urban planners and even tourists.
Right now, a detailed urban model can take many months to create, but the new “virtualised reality” technologies can shrink that to hours. Here’s how it works:
The process begins by scanning the urban landscape using lasers and digital cameras mounted on a truck, plane, or UAV drone. The laser measures distances to objects such as lamp posts and building facades, while digital cameras takes 2D photos. Another laser calculates the movement of the platform, and checks its position against data collected from a reference laser. These measurements and pictures are then fed into a computer, which combines them to create a photo-realistic virtual 3D model of the area. Avideh Zakhor and her team recently created a working model of downtown Berkeley in just 4.5 hours – 26 minutes of driving, then 4 hours of data processing.
The first user will probably be the US Army, which funded much of the research. Best of all, once a model is set, each patrol can record new information about its surroundings, updating the model recorded by the previous patrol. This would allow soldiers to keep up with changes to the cityscape, such as new barricades or destroyed buildings.
Zakhor has started a spin-off company funded by the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to develop an even faster version that creates models in real time.
The process of creating models could be speeded up even further by developments in unmanned aerial vehicles. The US Navy is developing cheap (around $2000) robotic aircraft that can operate in “swarms” to perform reconnaissance of a wide area at speed. The aircraft use cooperative software that allows the swarm to cope with some of its members being shot down. SWARM systems, or UAVs like the semi-autonomous ScanEagle, could easily be applied to this problem and used to map out urban areas.
Other potential applications include:
- Emergency workers could using the models to figure out the best way to respond to natural disasters or terrorist attacks, and updating those models quickly to account for damage caused by earthquakes, tsunamis, et. al.
- Car-hire companies or cellphone providers using similar technology to transmit up-to-date 3D maps to their customers to help them navigate through strange cities. E
- Urban planners could even look at a series of models collected over time to see how the layout of their city has evolved.
Additional Readings & Sources
- New Scientist (May 5, 2005): The speedy way to capture a city
- Thanks to Romell Nandi of the U.S. EPA for the story tip.