What are Point Clouds and How can you generate them?

Jun 28, 2021

Companies continue to bring about new technologies, entirely disrupting industries. One of the most promising technologies claiming to change the way we interact with the physical world and industrial assets is the point cloud. 
Just imagine everything you can do by having an exact and realistic 3D digital replica of any of your industrial assets. 
Point clouds have given rise to a new industrial revolution. This new technology is still showing its capabilities and already creating a significant impact in the workplace. However, there are still many doubts and uncertainties for this technology. Let’s break it down: 
What are Point Clouds and How can you generate them?
What is a Point Cloud?

Point Clouds are 3D digital replicas of physical assets made from a measured set of data points in space.

Technically, a point cloud is a dataset that contains millions of points existing within three dimensions, each having X, Y, and Z coordinates and some other attributes (e.g., RGB and Intensity values) in some cases. Each point represents a portion of a surface within a particular area, becoming an actual digital record of an object or space. 
People tend to think of these points as pixels in a picture but within a 3D environment. Just like having more pixels, you get better photo quality; the denser the point cloud is, the more details and terrain properties you will see, allowing smaller features and texture details to be more defined.

How do you create a Point Cloud?

We can generate point clouds by using reality capture technologies, such as terrestrial and airborne laser scanners, mobile mapping, cameras, and even smartphones. 
These reality capture technologies create a realistic view of different objects since they perceive the physical world to create replicas in a 3D digital environment.
In Point Cloud generation, we can use two methods: laser scanners and photogrammetry.

Laser Scanning

The 3D laser scanners use LiDAR technology, which stands for Light and Detection Ranging. This technology uses a pulsed laser to measure the distance between surrounding objects and the scanner, giving a 3D scan of what is along its path. 
Most advanced terrestrial laser scanners capture more than a million points per second and 360 photorealistic photos with a millimeter accuracy of any survey performed.
The LiDAR scanning technology comes in different shapes and sizes, from tripod-mounted scanners to drones. These scanners can be attached to helicopters, cars, small airplanes, and even used in mobile terrestrial equipment. These technologies have their pros and cons, but using one over the other depends on the use of the point clouds.
For instance, the tripod-mounted scanner is the most suitable to achieve millimeter accuracy for engineering and industrial applications. Their static characteristics allow them to capture more than millions of points per second, increasing the model’s level of detail. 
To digitalize an entire facility, the tripod-mounted laser scanners should be located in different positions to capture the overall shape of all objects or the area of interest. When the site scanning is completed, the data collected is then stitched together like a puzzle, creating a complete capture of the scene.  


When wanting to digitize a large area in a short time or wanting a 3D visual realism of a physical object, photogrammetry is the way to go. 
Photogrammetry consists of taking pictures of space from different angles and distances to capture the tridimensional surface of objects. After capturing the data, those photos are imported into specialized photogrammetry software for further processing, resulting in a 3D model. 

The main advantage of using aerial photogrammetry is capturing a vast extension of the area from higher elevations, allowing higher accuracy and detail of vertical assets.

The main output of photogrammetry software is a 3D mesh.
Meshes are 3D solid digital representations of objects and surfaces. The main advantage of photogrammetry over laser scanning is the quality of the texture of the 3D mesh. The meshes with laser scanning technology will not be comparable to the proper photogrammetry deliverable even with the dense and colored point cloud and advances in a mesh-from-point generation. 
Nonetheless, there is a non-spoken truth on the difference between the point cloud and 3D mesh. The 3D mesh is intended to look nicer than accurate, so it is not recommended to be used for precise measurements or AEC applications. 
New software and new equipment are being released constantly to improve the data capture and acquisition process while reducing time. The future of point clouds is looking bright, and most industrial sectors, even governments, are starting to realize the capabilities of this game-changing technology. 

What are the purposes of a Point Cloud?
The purposes of point clouds depend on the industry. But, since the point cloud is a 3D virtual representation of the reality, in essence, it has the following applications:
Simulate changes.
Reverse Engineering
Deformation analysis
Virtual walk through
The digital twin of existing factories and plants can be used to perform detailed 3D analyses, like collision detection for the removal of old equipment or the installation of new machines.
Simulate changes, familiarize with a facility without being physically there, and so on. But mostly, point cloud is being used for companies to
The market also offers laser scanning for diverse purposes and specialized applications, like building documentation, capturing objects, railways and roadways, topographic maps, construction verification, orthophotos, deformation detection, dimensional control, mesh generation, and so forth.
A point cloud can be leveraged when using a cloud-based software platform, since people do not require a huge computer power and they can visualize and interact with their point clouds in an easy-to-use interphase and, since it is cloud-based, it is easily scalable related to the amount of information you can store. These software platforms, such as JP Interactive Viewer, allow portability and connectivity from wherever you are, and you can share information with other parties involved and interested in using the point cloud.
What will the future look like for Point Clouds?
Even though it is almost impossible to predict what the point cloud business will look like in 5, or even 10 years, we are already seeing some tendencies. The mobile mapping systems, such as drones, scanners mounted on cars, and even mobile terrestrial laser scanners, are becoming more accurate and cost-effective, since the overall cost per square meter has decreased. Companies are creating cheaper and faster 3D laser scanners that use advanced technologies, such as SLAM, which stands for Simultaneous Location and Mapping, allowing companies to scan entire facilities in a fraction of time from what it used to take. 
So, it seems these disruptive technologies will be predominant soon, even displacing current incumbents, the tripod-mounted scanners famous for their millimeter accuracy. These technologies are reaching midstream, so are being used not only for industrial applications, but also for digitizing from industrial environments to entire cities.
Another trend from point cloud is related to the increasing processing computing power. Cloud computing and machine learning will become accessible for all stakeholders. For instance, for industrial facilities, point clouds, along with 360 photorealistic views, are being integrated with artificial intelligence to automatically detect corrosion. Companies are also leveraging cloud computing power to automatically process point clouds, so the point cloud is being democratized.
For smart city applications, the point cloud is being leveraged with the use of computer vision to automatically create an inventory of every element of the city, from light post to fire hydrant. These technologies are being used to serve as an easy-to-use interface to be integrated with control systems and sensors spread across the city.

Point clouds are becoming a central operational component for their digital transformation process. Their interactive interphase
So if you think about point clouds, the applications are limitless and depend on the imagination of the user. 
With new people already entering the market as point cloud producers and users, the future looks brigh