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How cloud storage is transforming the future of land surveys

By Charles Thomson

Cloud initiatives sit at the heart of digital transformation projects in every industry. Surveyors now face some of the same options other industries have had for years regarding digital file sharing, remote collaboration and backup. Like everything it touches, the cloud will transform land surveys too.     

Access speeds and files sizes are the stumbling blocks that have limited particular cloud use-cases. The processing power required to manipulate 3D models and point cloud datasets is enormous, as are the storage requirements. Today’s land surveyors have to store survey results for thousands of different projects.  

With the nearing advent of 5G, the ever-expanding capabilities of cloud service providers, and the development of cloud-focused software for use by land surveyors — the cloud revolution has come to the survey industry. Promising flexibility, speed, geographic independence and more sharing of data for the benefit of everyone involved in a project — it’s time to take stock of the possibilities and understand how the cloud is going to transform the future of land surveys. 

Storage capacity and processing power

One of the benefits of cloud computing is the ability to ramp-up or ramp-down capacity as and when it’s needed. On-demand scalability allows users to scale-up to really any level of power. For large data sets, storage size is often the first scalable resource that comes to mind. But processing power can also scale in the cloud.    

Simultaneous registration 

Some types of point cloud processing software are able to take advantage of multiple processing cores (and multithreaded processors) to register multiple scans simultaneously. Scaling your access to virtual processing cores and threads can deliver huge benefits that are hard to duplicate with standard servers and storage. 

Cutting-edge hard drives can pack up to 18 cores, or 36 threads. But, the cloud will allow you to scale this capability indefinitely. Theoretically, this creates the ability to simultaneously undertake the ‘coarse registration’ of a project of any size — dropping registration times exponentially.  

The practical limits of simultaneous registration hinge on your bandwidth access and processing software. However, it’s an exciting possibility for surveyors regularly dealing with projects ranging into the thousands of scans — even if it practically only means a jump from registering a few dozen scans simultaneously to a few hundred. 

Flexibility 

When you get into the details, most cloud storage is roughly equivalent to hard drives in terms of cost. With connection speeds continuing to rise, the practical differences in terms of delivered outcomes are limited. It’s the flexibility that is different. 

The ability to scale-up and scale-down resources means it’s no longer necessary to permanently increase workloads in order to justify investments required to take on one large project. This will make it far easier for smaller land-survey businesses to dynamically meet client demands — allowing them to compete on a larger scale when and where it is required. 

The flexibility of the cloud benefits agile businesses that can take advantage of that flexibility. In surveying, as with most industries, the likely outcome will be the creation of a more dynamic market that will benefit both surveyors and their clients. 

Easy sharing of files across geographic locations

Sending files from one person to another becomes time-consuming and inefficient — particularly with large files. With cloud data storage, users can simply access the same file from the cloud. 

The cloud server can be accessed using any device. This includes mobile devices, so any worker in the field will have the same ability to access the documents they need as their counterparts back at the office.

For surveyors in the field, this also opens up the possibility of uploading scans directly from the field to cloud storage directories. Before sharing the scan data with others, the individual scans can be registered into one composite point cloud using point cloud software. Registration of these scans can be automated to start as soon as the scans are uploaded — accelerating the process enormously. For small data sets, near-immediate onsite registration is already a reality. There are still issues with bandwidth, but the advent of 5G data will create ever-expanding possibilities.

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Managing data across the supply chain

Increasingly, surveyors are being brought in to support construction and engineering projects. This creates collaboration and file-sharing problems that previously did not exist. With the cloud, managing and collaborating with users who aren’t in-house staff becomes easier. 

Cloud services enable a business to enhance communication during a project, improving internal and external collaboration. It also creates a hardware-agnostic dataset, allowing you access to files on any number of devices. Plus, as projects grow, so potentially do storage requirements. If 3D drawings and blueprints increase in size as more parties become involved, the cloud is elastic enough to support increases or decreases in file size, without impacting performance or data integrity.

The cloud enables a secure way to communicate with rapid response. You don’t have to be in the office — you’re not constrained to one or several machines. For multiple offices, collaboration becomes easier with data held in a cloud service.

Facing the cloudy future

Cloud storage is a scalable, customisable, flexible and secure solution for surveyors. Beyond cloud scalability and flexibility, it can also change your approach to resource management and the way you do things. For example, the cloud has its own comprehensive data backup and recovery system to enhance business processes. Surveyors can be much more confident in the resilience and protection of their data.

However, before going too far down the road on cloud storage, it’s useful to develop a “back of the envelope” monthly cost model. Consider factors such as data volumes, transfer times, how long data will reside in file systems vs. object stores, etc. The cloud is useful. But the data-heavy requirements of surveyors means it is important to make sure that the costs do not spiral.  

Replicate data selectively and move only the data needed by each workload. And remember to employ automation to provision file systems only when dynamic cloud instances need them, and shutdown them down after use. That way you will get all of the benefits, without unnecessary costs.

Another thing to consider is the type of software you are using to process and register your point clouds. Making sure that you can access multi-thread and multi-core capabilities should be high on your list. However, other factors can make a big difference. For example, advances in multi-stage, vector-based processing has accelerated processing time by up to 80%, while removing manual steps in alignment. This not only reduces the burden on your cloud connection, it allows you to take even greater advantage of the speed capabilities offered by the cloud. 

Technology always builds on technology. By making sure that you understand the latest capabilities on offer in every area, you will be able to build the best point cloud and survey solution for the future — taking your survey business into the 21st century with confidence. Good luck!

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Tags: surveying