Removing Excessive Low Noise from Dense-Matching Point Clouds

Point clouds produced with dense-matching by photogrammetry software such as SURE, Pix4D, or Photoscan can include a fair amount of the kind of “low noise” as seen below. Low noise causes trouble when attempting to construct a Digital Terrain Model (DTM) from the points as common algorithm for classifying points into ground and non-ground points – such as lasground – tend to “latch onto” those low points, thereby producing a poor representation of the terrain. This blog post describes one possible LAStools workflow for eliminating excessive low noise. It was developed after a question in the LAStools user forum by LASmoons holder Muriel Lavy who was able to share her noisy data with us. See this, this, this, thisthis, and this blog post for further reading on this topic.

Here you can download the dense matching point cloud that we are using in the following work flow:

We leave the usual inspection of the content with lasinfolasview, and lasvalidate that we always recommend on newly obtained data as an exercise to the reader. Note that a check for proper alignment of flightlines with lasoverlap that we consider mandatory for LiDAR data is not applicable for dense-matching points.

With lastile we turn the original file with 87,261,083 points into many smaller 500 by 500 meter tiles for efficient multi-core processing. Each tile is given a 25 meter buffer to avoid edge artifacts. The buffer points are marked as withheld for easier on-the-fly removal. We add a (terser) description of the WGS84 UTM zone 32N to each tile via the corresponding EPSG code 32632:
lastile -i muriel\20161127_Pancalieri_UTM.laz ^
        -tile_size 500 -buffer 25 -flag_as_withheld ^
        -epsg 32632 ^
        -odir muriel\tiles_raw -o panca.laz
Because dense-matching points often have a poor point order in the files they get delivered in we use lassort to rearrange them into a space-filling curve order as this will speed up most following processing steps:
lassort -i muriel\tiles_raw\panca*.laz ^
        -odir muriel\tiles_sorted -olaz ^
        -cores 7
We then run lasthin to reclassify the highest point of every 2.5 by 2.5 meter grid cell with classification code 8. As the spacing of the dense-matched points is around 40 cm in both x and y, around 40 points will fall into each such grid cell from which the highest is then classified as 8:
lasthin -i muriel\tiles_sorted\panca*.laz ^
        -step 2.5 ^
        -highest -classify_as 8 ^
        -odir muriel\tiles_thinned -olaz ^
        -cores 7
Considering only those points classified as 8 in the last step we then run lasnoise to find points that are highly isolated in wide and flat neighborhoods that are then reclassified as 7. See the README file of lasnoise for a detailed explanation of the different parameters:
lasnoise -i muriel\tiles_thinned\panca*.laz ^
         -ignore_class 0 ^
         -step_xy 5 -step_z 0.1 -isolated 4 ^
         -classify_as 7 ^
         -odir muriel\tiles_isolated -olaz ^
         -cores 7
Now we run a temporary ground classification of only (!!!) on those points that are still classified as 8 using the default parameters of lasground. Hence we only use the points that were the highest points on the 2.5 by 2.5 meter grid and that were not classified as noise in the previous step. See the README file of lasground for a detailed explanation of the different parameters:
lasground -i muriel\tiles_isolated\panca*.laz ^
          -city -ultra_fine -ignore_class 0 7 ^
          -odir muriel\tiles_temp_ground -olaz ^
          -cores 7
The result of this temporary ground filtering is then merely used to mark all points that are 0.5 meter below the triangulated TIN of these temporary ground points with classification code 12 using lasheight. See the README file of lasheight for a detailed explanation of the different parameters:
lasheight -i muriel\tiles_temp_ground\panca*.laz ^
          -do_not_store_in_user_data ^
          -classify_below -0.5 12 ^
          -odir muriel\tiles_temp_denoised -olaz ^
          -cores 7
In the resulting tiles the low noise (but also many points above the ground) are now marked and in a final step we produce properly classified denoised tiles by re-mapping the temporary classification codes to conventions that are more consistent with the ASPRS LAS specification using las2las:
las2las -i muriel\tiles_temp_denoised\panca*.laz ^
        -change_classification_from_to 1 0 ^
        -change_classification_from_to 2 0 ^
        -change_classification_from_to 7 0 ^
        -change_classification_from_to 12 7 ^
        -odir muriel\tiles_denoised -olaz ^
        -cores 7
Let us visually check what each of the above steps has produced by zooming in on a 300 meter by 100 meter strip of points with the bounding box (388500,4963125) to (388800,4963225) in tile ‘panca_388500_4963000.laz’:
The final classification of all points that are not already classified as noise (7) into ground (2) or non-ground (1) was done with a final run of lasground. See the README file of lasground for a detailed explanation of the different parameters:
lasground -i muriel\tiles_denoised\panca*.laz ^
          -ignore_class 7 ^
          -city -ultra_fine ^
          -odir muriel\tiles_ground -olaz ^
          -cores 7
Then we create a seamless hill-shaded DTM tiles by triangulating all the points classified as ground into a temporary TIN (including those in the 25 meter buffer) and then rasterizing only the inner 500 meter by 500 meter of each tile with option ‘-use_tile_bb’ of las2dem. For more details on the importance of buffers in tile-based processing see this blog post here.
las2dem -i muriel\tiles_ground\panca*.laz ^
        -keep_class 2 ^
        -step 1 -hillshade ^
        -use_tile_bb ^
        -odir muriel\tiles_dtm -opng ^
        -cores 7

And here the original DSM side-by-side with resulting DTM after low noise removal. One dense forested area near the center of the data was not entirely removed due to the lack of ground points in this area. Integrating external ground points or manual editing with lasview are two possible way to rectify these few remaining errors …

Integrating External Ground Points in Forests to Improve DTM from Dense-Matching Photogrammetry

The biggest problem of generating a Digital Terrain Model (DTM) from the photogrammetric point clouds that are produced from aerial imagery with dense-matching software such as SURE, Pix4D, or Photoscan is dense vegetation: when plants completely cover the terrain not a single point is generated on the ground. This is different for LiDAR point clouds as the laser can even penetrate dense multi-level tropical forests. The complete lack of ground points in larger vegetated areas such as closed forests or dense plantations means that the many processing workflows for vegetation analysis that have been developed for LiDAR cannot be used for photogrammetric point clouds  … unless … well unless we are getting those missing ground points some other way. In the following we see how to integrate external ground points to generate a reasonable DTM under a dense forest with LAStools. See this, this, this, this, and this article for further reading.

Here you can download the dense matching point cloud, the manually collected ground points, and the forest stand delineating polygon that we are using in the following example work flow:

We leave the usual inspection of the content with lasinfo and lasview that we always recommend on newly obtained data as an exercise to the reader. Using las2dem and lasgrid we created the Google Earth overlays shown above to visualize the extent of the dense matched point cloud and the distribution of the manually collected ground points:

las2dem -i DenseMatching.laz ^
        -thin_with_grid 1.0 ^
        -extra_pass ^
        -step 2.0 ^
        -hillshade ^
        -odix _hill_2m -opng

lasgrid -i ManualGround.laz ^
        -set_RGB 255 0 0 ^
        -step 10 -rgb ^
        -odix _grid_10m -opng

Attempts to ground-classify the dense matching point cloud directly are futile as there are no ground points under the canopy in the heavily forested area. Therefore 558 ground points were manually surveyed in the forest of interest that are around 50 to 120 meters apart from another. We show how to integrate these points into the dense matching point cloud such that we can successfully extract bare-earth information from the data.

In the first step we “densify” the manually collected ground points by interpolating them with triangles onto a raster of 2 meter resolution that we store as LAZ points with las2dem. You could consider other interpolation schemes to “densify” the ground points, here we use simple linear interpolation to prove the concept. Due to the varying distance between the manually surveyed ground points we allow interpolating triangles with edge lengths of up to 125 meters. These triangles then also cover narrow open areas next to the forest, so we clip the interpolated ground points against the forest stand delineating polygon with lasclip to classify those points that are really in the forest as “key points” (class 8) and all others as “noise” (class 7).

las2dem -i ManualGround.laz ^
        -step 2 ^
        -kill 125 ^
        -odix _2m -olaz

lasclip -i ManualGround_2m.laz ^
        -set_classification 7 ^ 
        -poly forest.shp ^
        -classify_as 8 -interior ^
        -odix _forest -olaz

Below we show the resulting densified ground points colored by elevation that survive the clipping against the forest stand delineating polygon and were classified as “key points” (class 8). The interpolated ground points in narrow open areas next to the forest that fall outside this polygon were classified as “noise” (class 7) and are shown in violet. They will be dropped in the next step.

We then merge the dense matching points with the densified manual ground points (while dropping all the violet points marked as noise) as input to lasthin and reclassify the lowest point per 1 meter by 1 meter with a temporary code (here we use class 9 that usually refers to “water”). Only the subset of lowest points that receives the temporary classification code 9 will be used for ground classification later.

lasthin -i DenseMatching.laz ^
        -i ManualGround_2m_forest.laz ^
        -drop_class 7 ^
        -merged ^
        -lowest -step 1 -classify_as 9 ^
        -o DenseMatchingAndDensifiedGround.laz

We use the GUI of lasview to pick several interesting areas for visual inspection. The selected points load much faster when the LAZ file is spatially indexed and therefore we first run lasindex. For better orientation we also load the forest stand delineating polygon as an overlay into the GUI.

lasindex -i DenseMatchingAndDensifiedGround.laz 

lasview -i DenseMatchingAndDensifiedGround.laz -gui

We pick the area shown below that contains the target forest with manually collected and densified ground points and a forested area with only dense matching points. The difference could not be more drastic as the visualizations show.

Now we run ground classification using lasground with option ‘-town’ using only the points with the temporary code 9 by ignoring all other classifications 0 and 8 in the file. We leave the temporary classification code 9 unchanged for all the points that were not classified with “ground” code 2 so we can visualize later which ones those are.

lasground -i DenseMatchingAndDensifiedGround.laz ^
          -ignore_class 0 8 ^
          -town ^
          -non_ground_unchanged ^
          -o GroundClassified.laz

We again use the GUI of lasview to pick several interesting areas after running lasindex and again load the forest stand delineating polygon as an overlay into the GUI.

lasindex -i GroundClassified.laz 

lasview -i GroundClassified.laz -gui

We pick the area shown below that contains all three scenarios: the target forest with manually collected and densified ground points, an open area with only dense matching points, and a forested area with only dense matching points. The result is as expected: in the target forest the manually collected ground points are used as ground and in the open area the dense-matching points are used as ground. But there is no useful ground in the other forested area.

Now we can compute the heights of the points above ground for our target forest with lasheight and either replace the z elevations in the file of store them separately as “extra bytes”. Then we can compute, for example, a Canopy Height Model (CHM) that color codes the height of the vegetation above the ground with lasgrid. Of course this will only be correct in the target forest where we have “good” ground but not in the other forested areas. We also compute a hillshaded DTM to be able to visually inspect the topography of the generated terrain model.

lasheight -i GroundClassified.laz ^
          -store_as_extra_bytes ^
          -o GroundClassifiedWithHeights.laz

lasgrid -i GroundClassifiedWithHeights.laz ^
        -step 2 ^
        -highest -attribute 0 ^
        -false -set_min_max 0 25 ^
        -o chm.png

las2dem -i GroundClassified.laz ^
        -keep_class 2 -extra_pass ^
        -step 2 ^ 
        -hillshade ^
        -o dtm.png

Here you can download the resulting color-coded CHM and the resulting hill-shaded DTM as Google Earth KMZ overlays. Clearly the resulting CHM is only meaningful in the target forest where we used the manually collected ground points to create a reasonable DTM. In the other forested areas the ground is only correct near the forest edges and gets worse with increasing distance from open areas. The resulting DTM exhibits some interesting looking  bumps in the middle of areas with manually collected ground point. Those are a result of using the dense-matching points as ground whenever their elevation is lower than that of the manually collected points (which is decided in the lasthin step). Whether those bumps represent true elevations of are artifacts of low erroneous elevation from dense-matching remains to be investigated.

For forests on complex and steep terrain the number of ground points that needs to be manually collected may make such an approach infeasible in practice. However, maybe you have another source of elevation, such as a low-resolution DTM of 10 or 25 meter provided by your local government. Or maybe even a high resolution DTM of 1 or 2 meter from a LiDAR survey you did several years ago. While the forest may have grown a lot in the past years, the ground under the forest will probably not have changed much …