3D Mapping, Virtual Reality, and STEM Education—All with the Help of Drones!

BY Alan Perlman
8 January 2017

We were recently sent a TedX talk by Dave Meeker, one of our Drone Pilot Ground School students, who’s working on some fascinating projects involving drones, 3D mapping, and virtual reality.

The TedX talk was so good we decided to write a blog post about it.

We’ve summarized the main points Dave makes in the article below, but we recommend you check out the talk itself. He’s a great speaker, and an inspiring advocate for how we can work together to change public perception about drones, including how drones can be an integral part of STEM education.

Watch Dave’s talk here, or scroll down to get our key takeaways.

3D Mapping: Why It’s Important Culturally, Not Just Commercially

3D Mapping with DronesYou 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, or their machinery, so they can identify flaws, track maintenance needs, or make improvements on a design.

But 3D mapping can also help us preserve the physical actuality of a place, in situ. Because places change over time, and when they change we lose something about what was once there, usually forever.

3D-Mapping-with-DronesRelated to this, Dave asks the questions:

  • Are there better ways to visualize change?
  • How can we preserve today better for the benefit of those living tomorrow?
  • How can we provide place information contextually so people understand it?

These aren’t squishy 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.

Consider, for example, the two images in this section, which are 3D maps Dave uses as examples in his talk.

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 posterity, 3D mapping provides so much detail that it’s like, well, being there yourself.

How Do Drones Help Create 3D Maps?

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:

3D Mapping-with-dronesFirst, you take a Point of Interest (POI) 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.

3D Mapping with-dronesSecond, you take a scanning flight. In this flight, the drone passes back and forth across the site or object 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 (like we said above)…the only catch being, it’s a lot more like being there yourself if you view the map using the right tool for the job.

So How Do You Make 3D Maps Look Real?

Virtual Reality-3D Mapping with DronesAnd the right tool for the job is—Virtual Reality, of course!

This is where VR comes in, because a 3D map viewed on a flat 2D screen just isn’t the same.

As Dave puts it, “Photogrammetry via drones is great, but viewing it on a flat screen isn’t.”

This is really exciting, when you think about preserving significant sites—temples in Greece, statues in Washington, D.C., or even paintings and other precious artifacts.

Using VR to view a 3D map, you can actually see the entire object or place as if it stood right in front of you.

But sometimes when we think about VR, there are negative connotations. We imagine a race of humans locked in their own individual worlds, strapped to machines and cut off from other people and the real world.

Which brings us to our final section—

Changing Public Perception of Drones and VR

In the public eye, drones and VR both have something of a PR problem.

As Dave points out, many people bristle at the thought of drones flying over their homes and invading their privacy, and VR can still evoke those dystopian images we mentioned just a moment ago.

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.

Dave closes by encouraging everyone to be an advocate for change, and we’ll close on the same note. If you think drones are great and can do positive things (or VR too, for that matter) there is plenty you can do to get the word out in your community.

Check out the last minute of Dave’s talk to learn more about what you can do to get involved.

Alan Perlman

Founder & CEO

Alan is an FAA-certified drone pilot and founded UAV Coach in 2014 to help connect drone enthusiasts, to provide world-class sUAS industry training courses, and to help push the drone community forward with a focus on safety and commercial opportunities.

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