The technology that’s enabling location intelligence
Here, we explain how new, accessible sources of highly accurate location data are becoming available. We describe the applications that utilise them, including the Internet of Things, predictive analytics, virtual reality and the latest satellite technology. Watch the video, then see the text and reference material for more detail.
- 52,000 datasets (mostly free) on UK government open data portal (Feb 2022)
- 1,100 earth observation and navigation satellites in space (2021)
- Open data reduces public administration across the EU by € 1.7billion
Accessible public data
Increasing volumes of public data are now free and accessible from portals such as data.gov.uk. The number of datasets available continues to grow, stimulating the development of new smartphone applications covering a wide variety of local authority functions.
Environment Agency (EA) Aerial LiDAR archive. Lidar (Light Detection and Ranging) uses light in the form of a pulsed laser to measure ranges (variable distances) to a target. LiDAR data available as open data, with digital elevation models that it uses for flood analysis. These models are available together with the raw point cloud data – records of every laser point collected. This information has been used to identify field boundaries for land registration, and to determine ideal rooftop locations for solar panel placement.
Shropshire Heat Loss Mapping. Shropshire Council used thermal mapping using airborne sensors to plot heat loss from buildings at night. The resulting colour coded maps are available for residents and business owners to check the performance of their homes and business premises, simply by adding an address or postcode into the search box. Other authorities have used the same technology to help identify outbuildings being used illegally as dwellings.
New 3D data sources
New and highly accurate 3D data sources are becoming available, not just for large city centres, but also for rural and coastal areas. Most of this data is collected using a technique called LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging). LiDAR sensors use lasers to measure the distances to objects very accurately. For example, HERE, a company that provides mapping and services to the automotive sector, is using car-mounted LiDAR sensors to create very detailed 3D road maps for use in self-driving cars. The sensors are also being used to create detailed interactive 3D maps of roadside features such as street furniture and building facades.
Another source of highly accurate 3D data is a technique known as ‘structure from motion’ photogrammetry. This technique is particularly used to process data acquired using Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) or drone technology. The technique uses ‘photo-stitching’ to combine multiple images and create a detailed 3D map.
Because UAVs can fly lower than planes, very high-resolution datasets are possible using this technique. Many of the providers of UAV surveys offer real-time feeds or frequent revisits. This is significant because it allows for the tracking of changes over time known as 4D (3D plus time) or time-series analysis. The link below shows a 4D visualisation of the construction of the new campus at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts Northwestern Switzerland.
3D City Models
More detailed models known as City Models are also now becoming available. These are built by merging LiDAR and high-resolution camera data with aerial imagery. Examples of 3D City Models in the UK include Sheffield, Folkestone and Jersey.
New London Model is a physical 3D model created using 3D printing from similar sources. Additional overlays showing information such as view-sheds, a geographical area that is visible from a location, are projected onto the model using coloured light.
Rotterdam Underground Assets Model One of the most innovative applications of such data is where underground services and surface models are combined to aid the detection of underground pipes and cables. An example of this is in Rotterdam, where the city had ambitious plans to add all underground assets to its existing 3D Model by 2020.
The Internet of Things
The Internet of Things (IoT) is a term for networks of connected devices that collect and exchange data. For example, buildings with networked climate control sensors, or connected vehicles that collect information about road and traffic conditions.
Southend Borough Council IOT for Street Lighting – the Council has deployed 14,500 connected light control units as part of a street lighting upgrade. The system gives the Council real-time control of the lighting with automatic fault reporting. These sensors can also act as a platform for other smart city applications such as traffic and environmental monitoring and public WiFi networks.
Mid Sussex Broadband – The ability to support IoT relies upon a high-capacity broadband. The Council targeted Burgess Hill for growth within the District Plan, projecting some 5,000 new homes will be constructed over the next decade, along with a Cambridge style science park, all of which demand high capacity, reliable communications. To access to central-government support they needed to show significant economic benefit to the local economy, motivating inward investment and the growth of local businesses – particularly those in the digital economy. By using UPRNs to identify network coverage at an individual property level, Mid Sussex ensured a successful bid for £2.2m Government funding.
Digital Twins are digital replicas or representations of systems, processes and/or places which mimic their real-world behaviour. Real-time updated collection of data, models and algorithms makes use of new technology capabilities, including High Powered Computing (HPC), Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Advanced Analytics. By predicting asset behaviour and capacity to deliver on specific outcomes within given parameters and cost constraints, Digital Twins provide a risk-free experimentation environment to inform policy makers and operations managers what they need to do with real world assets to achieve the most effective long-term policy outcomes and to make short-term operational decisions.
- DUET (Digital Urban European Twins)
- Digital Twins: A Comprehensive Solution or Hopeful Vision?
- Beyond Digital Twin – Convergence of the Virtual and Real Worlds
Predictive analytics is a term for software that determines patterns in data and predicts future outcomes and trends. It is used widely by retailers to make recommendations, forecast trends and target advertising but has increasingly important applications in local authorities.
Peterborough Council – predictive analytics and IoT in social care. The council is trialling the deployment of a mix of sensors to create IoT networks in the homes of 100 people who require care. The systems can be set up to alert carers, by monitoring movement and temperature to identify anomalies in expected parameters. The aim of the system is to enable proactive social care.
Accurate Census Data – Manchester City Council. Multiple occupancy residences present a challenge for identifying accurate information. However, with the application of the UPRN, it became easier to work with datasets that looked at HMOs, sheltered accommodation, care homes, hostels, and supported living properties. The UPRN was used to cross-match data from Care Quality Commission, Council Tax, licensing and social services. The resulting population data also means that the council can create more accurate projections, run analysis with confidence, and take decisions that reflect future demands on services such as education and social services. Infrastructure, planning, and transport plans also benefit from having these more granular insights.
Location technology is also being used to help find missing vulnerable people. Mindme is a Chichester-based service company that provides location tracking devices to people with dementia. If a vulnerable person carrying a Mindme device strays outside of a designated safe area, an alert is sent to their carer who can then easily locate them using the information from the device’s networked GPS unit. Virtually designating a place as ‘home’ like this is known as geo-fencing.
Augmented and virtual reality
Augmented Reality (AR) is a system for overlaying digital elements on top of a view of the real world. Virtual Reality (VR) is like AR but instead layers digital elements over the real world, doing so through fully immersive headsets that track head movements, allowing the user to experience a virtual 3D world. A location-based application of VR is Google Earth VR. Recently AR and VR have been appropriated into the term metaverse, to describe the next generation of social media platforms such as Facebook.
Many wearable headsets are being developed to allow the experience of AR and VR to be enhanced beyond the Smartphone. Microsoft HoloLens, Vive and Oculus are wearable technology currently in development, although there are limitations that may be impossible to overcome. VR headsets are still very clunky, and most people experience motion sickness or physical pain if they wear them for too long. Augmented reality glasses face a similar problem, on top of the not-insignificant issue of figuring out how people can wear them around in public without looking odd. The devices use computer vision to determine its position and orientation within an environment. The graphic below, courtesy of IDTechEx Research illustrates the concept.
AR is being used in combination with new 3D data sources, such as the Rotterdam City Model previously described, to find and locate underground utility infrastructure assets, preventing accidental excavation, increasing safety, streamlining operations and avoiding delays.
- Everything you Need to Know About Augmented Reality
- Google: Google Earth VR — Bringing the whole wide world to virtual reality
CubeSats are small, lightweight satellites that operate in low Earth orbit. CubeSats much cheaper to launch than traditional satellites, leading to a new breed of start-ups that are disrupting the Earth observation market. These new companies are using low-cost, off-the-shelf, components, small teams and rapid product iterations to develop large constellations of small satellites. Although these satellites are small, they use super-resolution techniques previously developed for microscopy to obtain high resolution imagery.
One of the foremost companies in this space is Planet Labs. In ten years, Planet has flown on 30 successful launches and deployed 452 satellites. Planet has over 150 satellites in orbit and claims to collect over 350 million Km2 of imagery daily.
Because these constellations – known in industry parlance as flocks – contain many satellites, they can revisit the same place on earth frequently making for more accurate changes over time. Earth Observation make possible local public services applications such as showing environmental change, tracking construction, predicting crop yields and monitoring disaster situations, as well as security applications and retail use cases such as counting the number of cars in store car parks.
Drones can provide a highly efficient and effective mechanism for local authorities and other public serve providers to harness location intelligence, improve services, reduce costs, and address health and safety risks. Evidence from early adopting UK authorities, other organisations and international local government bodies shows that drones can be introduced quickly and effectively to provide immediate benefits. Some examples from the study include:
- Land surveying – image and video capture to gain a better perspective of sites and the use of sophisticated photogrammetry software to produce orthomosaics for surveying of potential development sites.
- Building/structures inspections – thermal surveys of roof structures and bridge inspections.
- Transport management – tracking congestion, planning and maintaining roads and monitoring the progress of large development schemes.
- Emergency planning – monitoring areas that have been subject to flooding.
- Coastal management – creating a detailed orthomosaic enabling highly accurate rates of erosion to be calculated. Drones have also been used to assess the severity and impact of coastal landslides.
- Greenspace management – prioritise maintenance of parks and open spaces. Drones have also been used for monitoring of habitat and wildlife in locations that would otherwise be difficult and dangerous to access.
- Enforcement – collecting evidence to assist with enforcement action. This included assessing damage to a site caused by travellers and aerial photographs of a property to be used as evidence in a court action.
- Communications/public relations – showcasing regeneration projects and recording one-off commemorative events.
A specific example is Milton Keynes Council who use drones to monitor development sites – due to the rapid rate of development, it’s a challenge to keep the council registers up to date with property completions. In consequence, Council Tax will not be collected. This results in a loss of revenue and the risk that residents will not receive the local services they are entitled to such as waste collection. The solution is to use drones to produce 1 to 2 cm resolution imagery for an average site in 10-12 minutes. This delivers time savings in comparison to ground surveys, which can take up to one day.