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Disruptive Drones: Point Cloud Technology

Rebekah Valero-Lee morson news


Andy has worked for Morson Projects for over 30 years and gained extensive knowledge across multiple engineering disciplines. Starting as a designer in 1985, he was later a project leader and training consultant, before becoming an associate director.

Technological excellence is everywhere, and the varied utilisation of it can be surprisingly innovative. Take drones for example.

The managing director of Morson Projects, Chris Burke, has always been on the pulse of technological innovation. Whenever a new gadget or piece of kit becomes available, he instantly goes out and buys it; drones were no exception. Chris even trained as a UAV (Drone) pilot and qualified to the high UK standards set out in article 94 and 95 of the CAA Air Navigation Order.

As with any piece of technology, we are driven to find out how we can use it to improve and enhance our projects. With drones, the potential for real-time, HD video and imagery along with their flexibility and stability have opened the door for multiple uses outside of recreation.

Chris describes how this idea developed. “This all started as a BIM challenge of ‘how do we get the real world affordably into a computer?’.  We seized on photogrammetry as it didn’t require the expense of a high cost laser scanning kit.”

At Morson Projects, we utilise 3D CAD technology to create models of a variety of structures and systems. However, problems arise when the technical data, for example the design drawings, aren’t available. This is where new drone technology comes to the fore.

“At the same time we were developing photogrammetry as a survey tool, drones became affordable and accessible with very high resolution cameras as standard.”

A drone can capture hundreds of high quality images of an area from a variety of angles. Using point cloud technology, these images are used formulate a 3D model which is then processed through 3D Studio and then eventually through an open-source video game engine called Unity. This formulates a highly accurate and graphically detailed 3D model of an area that is fully explorable. This can then be made into a fully interactive and highly realistic simulation by expert use of the gaming technology.

The below video shows this technology in action when carrying out a site survey of a Metrolink depot in Manchester, partnered with specialist rail engineering company Solaris.

As the video demonstrates, the technology also enables designers to tag the models with design drawings and other important structural information and data, something which is crucial for asset care.

The application of this technology has the potential to be wide-reaching and we have already taken part in another similar survey with the National Grid. Moreover, there is great potential for this technology to be utilised for infrastructure planning.  Can you imagine the ease at which a site surveyor could plot the route of a new road or railway not just standing at the site but by having a fully accurate, mouldable and explorable 3D model to play with, a true “digital asset”.

It’s not just asset care and infrastructure where the combination of drone and gaming technology can provide a significant impact. Many years ago, Morson Projects were working on the design for the transportation system that would be required to move the wings of a large, then-unbuilt prototype aircraft used today, from the site of manufacture to the final assembly point. A critical part of this was plotting a route that the transportation system would be able to travel along safely. Our reconnaissance involved flying the route in a helicopter while simultaneously taking video and plotting the route on a map. While fundamentally the same concept, it’s amazing to think how much easier, and cheaper, a drone would have made it. Additionally with the modern point cloud modelling system we would have been able to create a fully workable 3D model of the route and simulated every potential eventuality.

Chris sees multiple benefits in the new technology: “We use the drone as an aerial “tripod” resulting in very cost effective surveys.  It is now a standard work flow for our larger floorplate projects… and importantly they are also great fun to fly!”

At the recent National Rail Conference, we exhibited our drone and specialist point cloud modelling technology and it proved to be extremely popular with delegates. While the draw of the drone was enough in itself to generate interest, people were then further intrigued about the possible application of this technology. Network Rail have expressed the desire to map their whole network in a similar way (right down to the way the shrubbery grows!), which is a massive undertaking.

But disruptive technology like drones make that task more interesting, useful and achievable, and the wider implementation has not yet been fully realised. The sky could very well be the limit for drones and their future uses.