I want to relate a story that, once again, brought this home to me.
Creating colorized point clouds by fusing LIDAR points with imagery (as is performed in the True View 410 3D Imaging System) requires us to know the precise location (X, Y, Z) and orientation (Pitch, Roll and Heading) of the sensor. Precise means positional accuracy at the single centimeter level and orientation such that we can point within a few centimeters at distances in the 100 m range. This positioning and pointing are performed by a Position and Orientation System (POS). These days, Position is provided by a Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) antenna/receiver, whereas Orientation is determined by an Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU). An IMU comprises accelerometers and gyroscopes. A magnetometer is added to the mix to determine (or at least initialize) Heading. An Applanix POS AV-310 is shown in Figure 1. Note the external IMU on the right side of the image. The GNSS engine and main processor are contained within the box on the left.
Figure 1 – Applanix POS AV-310
If the system is running in real time (“kinematic”) mode, these data must be processed in a rather complicated multi-sensor navigation algorithm in real time. If the mode is post-processed, then similar algorithms are run post-flight. We run our True View systems in a hybrid mode where we receive real time position/orientation for initial processing, but refine in a post-processing solution for precise LIDAR/Image geocoding.
The interesting thing is the sensors are becoming rather common, but the software is the secret sauce and really only available from system fabricators/integrators such as Applanix, Novatel and SBG. If you were to “roll your own” solution, you would have to build custom circuit boards, design cables, buy third party processing software, characterize the system, … Well, you get the idea. This is a very complex proposition.
This week, a well-known hardware manufacturer of IMUs stopped by to convince me to use his IMU in our True View product line. He had a really nice IMU that was light-weight, accurate and affordable. I was intrigued. However, when I asked about the development path from IMU to a full POS, he obviously had not thought this through; “… GNSS boards are ubiquitous, right? Well, you guys already know how to do single board computers. Well, we do not yet have the processing software but we are working on that…” This story went on for a while. This guy was trying to sell me a product, not a solution.
My point here, I hope, is obvious. I want a POS, not a bucket of components. Yes, I do have the talent in house to eventually buy these components from a bunch of different vendors and cobble together a “GeoCue POS” but why would I do this? I OEM the APX series from Applanix (a Trimble company), a time-tested solution used in a myriad of applications. If any part of positioning is suspect, I have deep technical expertise quickly available from the Applanix support team. I never have to worry about them saying “oh, that is your GNSS causing the problem – go see that vendor”). They just fix my problem and give me advice on future prevention. They are a partner, not a product supplier. Of course, I also do not have to convince you, my customer, that I have a quality POS; the name Applanix speaks for itself.
You need to treat your investment in drone LIDAR technology this same way. If you are considering a system and the vendor is giving you a shopping list of where to get the various components (especially post-processing software), then alarm bells should be going off. Yes, you can get the system running but at what cost in operational efficiency? This is the reason that we call the True View series an Ecosystem – you get all the components from GeoCue, including the full post-processing software stack and have a single contact for support. We do not sell you a LIDAR/Imaging sensor; we provide you a complete end-to-end solution for producing high quality output analytics.