No matter what kind of work you’re doing, it’s always good to be aware of your surroundings. Your environment will invariably affect anything you do, and often your work will even be directly concerned with it.
This is especially true in certain industries. For people like land surveyors, their environment is the focal point of the entire job. In those cases, it often takes more than a mere look around to get the information about a space that they need. Specialized technology is usually required to get the job done.
One of the most revolutionary technologies to gain traction in recent years is an algorithm called SLAM. Spanning many different industries, this scanning technology is paving the way for a new wave of 3D mapping.
What Is SLAM?
SLAM has quickly spread across multiple fields, but what does SLAM mean? SLAM stands for Simultaneous Localization and Mapping. Its purpose is to move through a given space, scanning as it goes, to create a digital map of that space that its users can refer to. Technicians first designed it to help robots navigate without crashing into things, but has since been picked up by many other industries as well.
SLAM can create maps in both 2D and 3D, though the latter is what has made it so popular and revolutionary in recent years. Two main types of SLAM are available — VSLAM and LiDAR.
- VSLAM: Visual SLAM (VSLAM) relies on a camera to scan its environment.
- LiDAR: Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) uses laser scanners to analyze its surroundings.
Both of these types also frequently use an inertial measurement unit (IMU) to aid their analysis. The IMU’s job is to assess the SLAM equipment’s motion and orientation as it travels through the space.
How Does SLAM Work?
SLAM equipment generally operates while in motion, whether on wheels or attached to a drone. As it moves through a space, it scans everything around it. It performs new scans every second, enabling it to capture the information in great detail.
VSLAM equipment scans its surroundings by using a camera. It essentially takes pictures of everything around it and uses those pictures to create a virtual representation of the space. It then pieces the photos together digitally to form a map of the area.
When VSLAM is paired with an IMU, it allows for better maps. While the camera photographs its surroundings, the IMU tracks the VSLAM equipment’s motion. This tracking allows the equipment to take images of the space, as well as get an accurate idea of the distance it moved between any two photos, so it can reconstruct the digital map with the correct proportions.
LiDAR SLAM works similarly to VSLAM in that it scans its environment as it moves. But rather than using a camera, LiDAR uses laser scanners. Because of how rapidly and precisely lasers function, LiDAR tends to operate much faster than VSLAM.
Often, this arrangement results in LiDAR being preferable to VSLAM, as it can be both quicker and more accurate. In the case of 2D LiDAR, however, the lasers only scan within a single horizontal plane, meaning they can inaccurately depict objects that change shape in a vertical direction.
As with VSLAM, LiDAR can also employ an IMU to help improve its accuracy, measuring its motion as it travels and syncing that information with the readings picked up by the laser scanner.
What Are the Benefits of Using SLAM?
SLAM has proven such a revolutionary force in its various industries because of the numerous advantages it has over its technological predecessors. Here are some of the primary benefits it provides.
1. It Does What GPS Can’t
GPS technology relies on triangulation between satellites. Its reliance on satellites, however, means it views any given space from an outside perspective, and only works for areas that the satellites can see. For areas partially covered by something, or for heavily wooded regions, GPS doesn’t often prove very useful.
SLAM doesn’t have this problem, though, as it operates from within the space itself, and scans its surroundings while moving, enabling it to pick up much more information.
2. It Works Both Indoors and Outdoors
Similar to the previous point, SLAM isn’t confined to indoor or outdoor spaces. It was created to help robots navigate through indoor spaces, but as it’s advanced, it’s taken on the ability to scan outdoor areas as well. This flexibility means that SLAM can work virtually anywhere. The fact that it can be connected to drones as well as to wheels only further increases its capabilities. The fact that it can operate in so many different areas is a big part of why it’s taken over such a variety of industries.
3. It Works Quickly
As previously mentioned, SLAM scans its environment while in motion, often with the help of rapid and precise laser scanners. This process results in high-speed scanning as compared to other technologies, allowing users to generate their maps by deadlines and quickly put them to use.
Who Can Use SLAM?
Perhaps the most significant sign of SLAM’s success can be seen in the many fields where it has found a home. From cars to caves, here are a few of the main industries that use SLAM technology.
- Robotics: Robotics is where SLAM was born, and it hasn’t left since then. Robotic technicians use SLAM to help a robot navigate its environment, whether by having it scan as it moves or by importing a previously scanned map into its system for it to follow.
- Self-driving cars: If you’ve ever seen videos of cars that are capable of driving themselves without even having a person inside them, you’ve already seen SLAM in action. These cars scan their environment as they move, and because of the speeds at which they drive, the SLAM they use has to function at the utmost speed and precision.
- Geology: One of the most classic areas of geology has always focused on the exploration of caves. While spelunking can certainly be a lot of fun, it won’t give you a detailed 3D map of a cave’s interior. SLAM will, however, and geologists have put it to work generating those maps across many different locations.
- Land surveying: Land surveying has been perhaps the most revolutionized of all the industries to adopt SLAM technology. SLAM is capable of rapidly scanning both built and natural environments to a high degree of accuracy. Having a perfectly constructed 3D map of an area of land has proven a fantastic asset to many surveyors, leading to the widespread use of SLAM in surveying.
Where Can I Get SLAM Equipment?
If you’re looking for a way to revolutionize your surveying business, you’re unlikely to find a better tool than SLAM. Moreover, as more people begin to pick it up, those in SLAM-heavy industries who don’t use it risk falling behind on the curve.
Fortunately, Allen Instruments and Supplies is here to help keep that from happening to you. We have partnered with GeoSLAM, a leading producer of the latest SLAM technology, and offer a wide array of equipment. Get in touch with us, and we’ll help you find the devices best suited to your surveying needs!