Enhancing UAV Operations with Powerful Workstations

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) capture high-quality aerial LiDAR or photogrammetry on a huge variety of job sites. Where aerial capture once required specialized tools – like a manned aircraft with a large sensor payload – the UAV has brought aerial workflows within reach for everyone.

“UAVs have changed everything,” says Pete Kelsey, owner of VCTO Labs, a service provider offering 3D data capture for storytellers in TV and film. “We can capture data faster. We can capture remotely now and do it anywhere: sea, air, land, underground, other planets. Anywhere.”
Aerial photogrammetry & LiDAR
Aerial photogrammetry & LiDAR; showing us our world like never before. Image credit Wingtra.

“UAVs help us on all kinds of projects,” says Russell White, president of Texas-based scanning service provider Dimensional Geomatics. “They allow me to see projects from a new vantage point. When a client requests terrestrial data, for example, we can say, “Hey, let’s save you some money and time by doing it from the air. That might even get you better data. At the very least, it will get you supplemental data for a better understanding of your site.”

Despite these huge benefits, experts like Kelsey and White are careful to note that there is a hidden problem with UAVs.

Using these tools to perform lidar or photogrammetric capture generates very large data sets. And these data sets aren’t just resource-intensive to process, store, and transfer. They can cause serious workflow problems that can jeopardize your ability to complete a job.

Unless you have a very powerful workstation.

The hidden cost of UAV capture

Reality capture professionals bringing a UAV into the field often use a sensor payload built for lidar or photogrammetry.

LiDAR fires beamed lasers to measure the distance to objects and surfaces below. The lidar scanner records these measurements as XYZ points (with intensity values) in a data set called a point cloud.

While the UAV flies, the scanner captures hundreds of thousands of points per second. Regardless of the particular project, the total number of points grows quickly. Your final point cloud can contain millions or even billions of points.

Photogrammetry uses specialized RGB cameras to capture imagery as the UAV flies around the project site. The UAV may snap hundreds or thousands of photos to ensure full site coverage from every possible angle.

During the processing stage, specialized software combines these multiple perspectives of the site – including all the objects and surfaces – to create a 3D point cloud or me
3D point cloud
3D point cloud. Image credit Hexagon.

As White explains, regardless of the UAV capture methodology you choose, you can expect to generate extremely large data sets.

“I am working on a job right now,” he says, “where I warned the client in advance that I was about to deliver 220 gigabytes of data. And that’s nothing, that’s a third of the project. It’s going to be closer to a terabyte once we’re done with it.”

What about cloud processing?

These large data sets require a lot of storage space and serious computing resources to handle effectively.

In response to this challenge, many vendors offer cloud computing platforms that handle data sets offsite using powerful server farms. Cloud processing is extremely effective for many projects, but it can still be an imperfect solution.

“When you are on the road or in the field,” Kelsey says, “cloud processing can be great. But it’s all about the WiFi access in your hotel. And most hotel WiFi is lousy. These are BIG data sets, so that’s a huge issue.”

As White explains, you may not even have the luxury of waiting until you’re out of the field and back at the hotel to begin processing.

“We do a lot of work overseas,” he says. “So we need to treat every job like we can never come back. We act like that flight no longer exists, or the roads are gone. I can’t afford to buy another $10,000 ticket because I forgot to capture something in my scan.”

“So how do I ensure I didn’t forget a scan or miss something in my photogrammetry? I have to process the data sets while we’re still in the field and check my data before we leave. That means processing at the same time as we scan.”

The implications of an underpowered workstation

That means the best and most reliable option for processing UAV data sets is a local machine. But not just any machine. You’ll need a workstation that’s up to the task.

“When I work in remote locations,” Kelsey says, “It’s all about the laptop and the size of the dataset. An underpowered laptop and a large data set can lead to LONG postprocessing times.”

“I might have to get up a couple of times during the night to check on my laptop and ensure everything is going well. If the processing is too slow, that could mean missed deadlines. Then, I don’t get paid, and the customer finds a different service provider.”
White agrees that an underpowered workstation can cause big problems.

“Since 2011,” he says, “we’ve been working in places like Nigeria and Angola. We’re not going there to scan a car or someone’s laundry room – we’re capturing entire offshore facilities. We’re talking thousands of scans. And like I said, we need to ensure we have everything ready before we leave.”

Offshore facilities present an ocean of data
Offshore facilities present, well, an ocean of data. Image credit Transformers Magazine.
“If we used an underpowered workstation to process that data, we couldn’t process it fast enough to validate our work. That could mean more than losing the job. It could mean losing the client. It could mean a lawsuit.”

How to spec an effective workstation

Kelsey’s advice for building a good workstation is simple. “For local processing, you’re going to need a serious workstation or laptop. There’s no such thing as too many cores, enough RAM, enough hard drive space, or a GPU that is too powerful.” “For this project I’m working on at Alcatraz, there is no other way I could get the processing done. It’s 3 terabytes to date, and I still don’t have it all.”

White adds that maxing out your laptop has another benefit beyond speed: versatility for your business.

“When working with our data,” he says, “we’ll use multiple software suites, and each taxes the machine’s resources differently. Some suites are RAM hogs, some need processing power, and some need a big GPU. So we don’t want a machine with a top-of-the-line processor that’s weak on RAM. That would pigeonhole us as to what we can do for our clients.”

“I want a high-end laptop that is maxed out, so it can be versatile. If I’m not versatile, I can’t succeed. We make sure every laptop can be used in the field in any way we need it.”

Wrapping up: Powerful workstations are essential in UAV capture

Talk to any industry expert, and they’ll tell you that UAVs are a truly transformative technology for reality capture. They empower professionals to gather more lidar and photogrammetric data, and do it in more places than ever before. They improve safety. They save time and money. They offer a new perspective on the site.

To build an effective UAV workflow, you’ll need a powerful local workstation. Under-spec’ing your laptop will mean slow processing speeds. That will lead to missed deadlines, missed data, expensive return trips, lack of flexibility in your business, and even lost clients.

Kelsey and White, industry veterans with years of hands-on UAV experience, agree: Max out your workstation. That’s the only way to use UAV capture to its full potential and save yourself from big trouble.

Whether working on a fixed workstation or on-the-go with a mobile workstation, Dell Precision systems with the latest Intel and NVIDIA technology offer the performance and reliability professionals need to succeed. Learn more about professional workstations here.
Pete Kelsey

Pete Kelsey

  • Owner
  • VCTO Labs

Pete Kelsey has spent over 25 years in the AEC (architecture, engineering, construction) industry specializing in civil engineering, land surveying, and remote sensing technology. He has led strategic projects all over the world documenting historic, cultural, archaeological sites and artifacts including the moai of Easter Island, and the USS Arizona using reality capture / digital twin technology.

For the last 15 years Pete has been providing 3D, photorealistic, survey grade data that provides credibility and context for documentary film series including The Secret of Skinwalker Ranch, Expedition Bigfoot, Buried Secrets of World War II, Expedition Unknown, and Drain the Oceans.

Pete Kelsey

Pete Kelsey

Owner

VCTO Labs

Pete Kelsey has spent over 25 years in the AEC (architecture, engineering, construction) industry specializing in civil engineering, land surveying, and remote sensing technology. He has led strategic projects all over the world documenting historic, cultural, archaeological sites and artifacts including the moai of Easter Island, and the USS Arizona using reality capture / digital twin technology.

For the last 15 years Pete has been providing 3D, photorealistic, survey grade data that provides credibility and context for documentary film series including The Secret of Skinwalker Ranch, Expedition Bigfoot, Buried Secrets of World War II, Expedition Unknown, and Drain the Oceans.

Russell White

Russell White

  • President
  • Dimensional Geomatics
Russell White

Russell White

President

Dimensional Geomatics

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