Mapping the future in 3D
CSIRO has developed an easy to use handheld 3D laser mapping device called Zebedee, which enables a user to generate a 3D map simply by walking through a desired location.
2 May 2013
Glen Paul: G’day, and welcome to CSIROpod. I’m Glen Paul. Growing up many of us would have used some sort of stereoscopic device that created the illusion of three dimensional depth from two dimensional images, and while it was fun looking at cartoon characters in 3D, the digital era has brought about a whole new world in 3D imaging. Advanced techniques such as laser mapping, which allows all sorts of environments to be produced as 3D maps, are becoming commonplace.
What is not so common is equipment that is cumbersome, costly, and tricky to use. That’s why CSIRO has created Zebedee, a handheld laser system which allows users the ability to rapidly and cost effectively generate 3D maps in any environment, from street mapping, mining surveys, searching disaster sites, or even recording the exact details of a crime scene.
Joining me on the phone to discuss the technology is CSIRO’s Doctor Jonathan Roberts. Jonathan, when I first heard it was a handheld laser device I imagined something like a parabolic dish with an attached pistol grip that you waved around in front of you, something perhaps like you would have seen in an old episode of Lost in Space, but it’s nothing like that at all. How would you best describe it?
Dr Roberts: Actually it does have a pistol grip, but then the resemblance sort of disappears. So we have a laser scanner that is mounted on top of a spring, and that spring is then mounted on top of a handle, which is now looking a bit more like a pistol grip, which the user walks around, and as the user walks around the little laser scanner unit, which is on top of the spring, moves backwards and forwards, just with the natural motion of the person as they walk around. And that natural motion swipes the laser across the whole environment, so it sees the floor, it then sees the walls, it sees the ceiling, and it just bobs backwards and forwards, scanning in the whole world.
Glen Paul: Which accounts for the name Zebedee, taken from the character on the British TV show, The Magic Roundabout, who kind of bobs around on a spring. So why this dancing hula doll on a dashboard of a car kind of motion for it?
Dr Roberts: Well that makes the whole system a lot more cost effective, so other people, including ourselves, previously have mounted these sorts of laser scanners on turntables, or nodding units, where you have a motor and you actually move the device around to make sure that you cover the whole environment. But of course that adds complexity. You’ve got to have this extra motor, you’ve got to have some extra power, it just makes the whole thing more complicated.
So our researchers thought about how could you more simply move the laser around, and came up with this clever spring idea.
Glen Paul: And how easy is it to use?
Dr Roberts: Oh, it’s extremely easy. So we can typically train somebody to use it in two to three minutes, just you know we show them how to operate it, typically how to walk around, and they just get it immediately. We’ve had many different people use the system in many different environments.
Glen Paul: And I’ve seen some of the images, but I did wonder how do you stop the user themselves from being measured and included in the image?
Dr Roberts: There’s two answers to that. One is the laser doesn’t see entirely around itself, it doesn’t give a sort of 360° view, it gives a 270° view, so the little sort of missing 90° is typically where the user is, and it’s set up like that, so it’s got a front and a back.
Also, we know that the user is very close, so we can automatically remove things that are extremely close to the laser device. So those two things combined, the user actually gets removed from the data.
Glen Paul: OK. And can the mapping be watched in real time, or do you watch it later as a recording?
Dr Roberts: At the moment we watch it later as a recording, so all the data from the laser device is recorded on a small laptop that the operator either carries around, or puts in a backpack or some sort of bag, and it’s then recorded live, and then the operator comes back and processes the data.
And the data doesn’t take very long to process. It’s so called real time, so it takes the same time or less time than it takes to collect. So say it takes ten minutes to collect some data, we can process that data in less than ten minutes.
Glen Paul: And what environments have you actually trialled it in?
Dr Roberts: We’ve trialled it in many, many places. The technology of course has been developed in our office environments, which is where we do a lot of our testing. We’ve also tested it in cave environments. Our researchers are very interested in cave mapping. Cave mapping produces a lot of challenges, logistically it’s hard to move traditional laser scanning equipment around caves where there’s tight squeezes, or big slopes, or it might be damp and wet, and all those sorts of difficult things.
And so we’ve done Jenolan Caves which are in the Blue Mountains, and we’ve done Koonalda Cave which is on the Nullarbor Plains in South Australia, where there is a 30,000 year old flint mine, and the guys have mapped that cave system just before Christmas.
Glen Paul: And I mentioned some of the other applications in the introduction. Where else do you see it being applied – in a military capacity perhaps?
Dr Roberts: I think anywhere where you want to record information in detail, and then potentially record it again later and look for differences. This technology is extremely good at seeing the differences and see how things change, so it has great application we think in building management industry, where you want to maybe go into a building and measure things.
I mean say a painter wants to find out how much paint an entire office building might require, if you’ve got a very detailed 3D map of that building you can automatically figure out how much paint you would need, or how much carpet you would need, or how many floor tiles, or how many ceiling panels. Anything where you need a lot of measurements in a building, this is ideal.
Also security – because change detection is possible using this sort of technology, if you had some VIPs attending from all over the world some very important meeting, you could map their conference centre one day, and then map it the next, and look for differences. And where any differences are highlighted you could send people to go and have a look to see, you know, why something changed.
So there’s a whole range of applications in those sorts of areas.
Glen Paul: Hmm. Excellent. And the device itself is now commercially available. Can it be bought off the shelf?
Dr Roberts: Yes. We’ve now commercialised the device through a company in the U.K. called 3D Laser Mapping, and it’s now available for purchase and use in a whole range of applications.
Glen Paul: So we’ll soon see in amongst the paint tins, scrapers, and brushes of a painter, a Zebedee for the next job.
Dr Roberts: Absolutely.
Glen Paul: Well thank you very much for talking about it with us today, Jonathan.
Dr Roberts:Thank you.
Glen Paul: Doctor Jonathan Roberts. And to find out more about the research, or to follow us on other social media, just visit www.csiro.au.