First Look with LAStools at LiDAR from Hovermap Drone by CSIRO

Last December we had a chance to visit the team of Dr. Stefan Hrabar at CSIRO in Pullenvale near Brisbane who work on a drone LiDAR system called Hovermap. This SLAM-based system is mainly developed for the purpose of autonomous flight and exploration of GPS-denied environments such as buildings, mines and tunnels. But as the SLAM algorithm continuously self-registers the scan lines it produces a LiDAR point cloud that in itself is a nice product. We started our visit with a short test flight around the on-site tower. You can download the LiDAR data and the drone trajectory of this little survey here:

The Hovermap system is based on the Velodyne Puck Lite (VLP-16) that is much cheaper and more light-weight than many other LiDAR systems. One interesting tidbit in the Hovermap setup is that the scanner is installed such that the entire Puck is constantly rotating as you can see in this video. But  the Velodyne Puck is also known to produce somewhat “fluffy” surfaces with a thickness of a few centimeters. In a previous blog post with data from the YellowScan Surveyor system (that is also based on the Puck) we used a “median ground” surface to deal with the “fluff”. In the following we will have a look at the LiDAR data produced by Hovermap and how to process it with LAStools.

LiDAR data of CSIRO tower acquired during test flight of Hovermap system.

As always we start with a lasinfo report that computes the average density ‘-cd’ and histograms for the intensity and the GPS time:

lasinfo -i CSIRO_Tower\results.laz ^
        -cd ^
        -histo intensity 16 -histo gps_time 2 ^
        -odir CSIRO_Tower\quality -odix _info -otxt

A few excerpts of the resulting lasinfo report that you can download here are below:

lasinfo (180409) report for 'CSIRO_Tower\results.laz'
[...]
 number of point records: 16668904
 number of points by return: 0 0 0 0 0
 scale factor x y z: 0.0001 0.0001 0.0001
 offset x y z: -5.919576153930379 22.785394470724583 9.535698734939086
 min x y z: -138.6437 -125.2552 -34.1510
 max x y z: 126.8046 170.8260 53.2224
WARNING: full resolution of min_x not compatible with x_offset and x_scale_factor: -138.64370561381907
WARNING: full resolution of min_y not compatible with y_offset and y_scale_factor: -125.25518631070418
WARNING: full resolution of min_z not compatible with z_offset and z_scale_factor: -34.150966206894068
WARNING: full resolution of max_x not compatible with x_offset and x_scale_factor: 126.80455330595831
WARNING: full resolution of max_y not compatible with y_offset and y_scale_factor: 170.82597525215334
WARNING: full resolution of max_z not compatible with z_offset and z_scale_factor: -34.150966206894068
[...]
 gps_time 121.288045 302.983110
WARNING: 2 points outside of header bounding box
[...]
covered area in square units/kilounits: 51576/0.05
point density: all returns 323.19 last only 318.40 (per square units)
 spacing: all returns 0.06 last only 0.06 (in units)
WARNING: for return 1 real number of points by return is 16424496 but header entry was not set.
WARNING: for return 2 real number of points by return is 244408 but header entry was not set.
[...]
real max z larger than header max z by 0.000035
real min z smaller than header min z by 0.000035
[...]

Most of these warnings have to do with poorly chosen offset values in the LAS header that have many decimal digits instead of being nice round numbers. The points are stored with sub-millimeter resolution (scale factors of 0.0001) which is unnecessarily precise for a UAV flying a Velodyne Puck where the overall system error can be expected to be on the order of a few centimeters. Also the histogram of return numbers in the LAS header was not populated. We can fix these issues with one call to las2las:

las2las -i CSIRO_Tower\results.laz ^
        -rescale 0.01 0.01 0.01 ^
        -auto_reoffset ^
        -odix _fixed -olaz

If you create another lasinfo report on the fixed file you will see that all the warnings have gone. The file size is now also only 102 MB instead of 142 MB because centimeter coordinate compress much better than sub-millimeter coordinates.

The average density of 318 last return per square meter reported by lasinfo is not that useful for a UAV survey because it does account for the highly varying distribution of LiDAR returns in the area surveyed. With lasgrid we can get a much more clear picture of that.

lasgrid -i CSIRO_Tower\results_fixed.laz ^
        -last_only ^
        -step 0.5 -use_bb -density ^
        -false -set_min_max 0 1500 ^
        -o CSIRO_Tower\quality\density_0_1500.png

LiDAR density: blue is close to zero and red is 1500 or more last returns / sqr mtr

The red dot in the point density indicated an area with over 1500 last returns per square meter. No surprise that this is the take-off and touch-down location of the copter drone. Naturally this spot is completely over-scanned compared to the rest of the area. We can remove these points with the help of the timestamps by cutting off the start and the end of the recording.

The total recording time including take-off, flight around the tower, and touch-down was around 180 seconds or 3 minutes as the lasinfo report tells us. Note that the recorded time stamps are neither “GPS Week Time” nor “Adjusted Standard GPS Time” but an internal system time. By visualizing the trajectory of the UAV with lasview while binning the timestamps into the intensity field we can easily determine what interval of timestamps describes the actual survey flight. First we convert the drone trajectory from the textual ASCII format to the LAZ format with txt2las:

txt2las -i CSIRO_Tower\results_traj.txt ^
        -skip 1 ^
        -parse txyz ^
        -set_classification 12 ^
        -olaz

lasview -i CSIRO_Tower\results_traj.laz ^
        -bin_gps_time_into_intensity 1

Binning timestamps into intensity allows visually determining start and end of survey.

Using lasview and pressing <i> while hovering over those points of the trajectory that appear to be the survey start and end we determine visually that the timestamps between 164 to 264 correspond to the actual survey flight over the area of interest with the take-off and touch-down maneuvers excluded. We use las2las to cut out the relevant part and re-run lasgrid:

las2las -i CSIRO_Tower\results_fixed.laz ^
        -keep_gps_time 164 264 ^
        -o CSIRO_Tower\results_survey.laz

lasgrid -i CSIRO_Tower\results_survey.laz ^
        -last_only ^
        -step 0.5 -use_bb -density ^
        -false -set_min_max 0 1500 ^
        -o CSIRO_Tower\quality\density_0_1500_survey.png

LiDAR density after removing take-off and touch-down maneuvers.

The other set of point we are less interested in are those occasional hits far from the scanner that sample the area too sparsely to be useful for anything. We use lastrack to reclassify points as noise (7) that exceed a x/y distance of 50 meters from the trajectory and then use lasgrid to create another density image without the points classified as noise..

lastrack -i CSIRO_Tower\results_survey.laz ^
         -track CSIRO_Tower\results_traj.laz ^
         -classify_xy_range_between 50 1000 7 ^
         -o CSIRO_Tower\results_xy50.laz

lasgrid -i CSIRO_Tower\results_xy50.laz ^
        -last_only -keep_class 0 ^
        -step 0.5 -use_bb -density ^
        -false -set_min_max 0 1500 ^
        -o CSIRO_Tower\quality\density_0_1500_xy50.png

LiDAR density after removing returns farther than 50 m from trajectory.

We process the remaining points using a typical tile-based processing pipeline. First we run lastile to create tiling of 200 meter by 200 meter tiles with 20 buffers while dropping the noise points::

lastile -i CSIRO_Tower\results_xy50.laz ^
        -drop_class 7 ^
        -tile_size 200 -buffer 20 -flag_as_withheld ^
        -odir CSIRO_Tower\tiles_raw -o eta.laz

Because of the high sampling we expect there to be quite a few duplicate point where all three coordinate x, y, and z are identical. We remove them with a call to lasduplicate:

lasduplicate -i CSIRO_Tower\tiles_raw\*.laz ^
             -unique_xyz ^
             -odir CSIRO_Tower\tiles_unique -olaz ^
             -cores 4

This removes between 12 to 25 thousand point from each tile. Then we use lasnoise to classify isolated points as noise:

lasnoise -i CSIRO_Tower\tiles_unique\*.laz ^
         -step_xy 0.5 -step_z 0.1 -isolated 5 ^
         -odir CSIRO_Tower\tiles_denoised_temp -olaz ^
         -cores 4

Aggressive parameters assure most noise point below ground are found.

This classifies between 13 to 23 thousand point from each tile into the noise classification code 7. We use rather aggressive settings to make sure we get most of the noise points that are below the terrain. Getting a correct ground classification in the next few steps is the main concern now even if this means that many points above the terrain on wires, towers, or vegetation will also get miss-classified as noise (at least temporarily). Next we use lasthin to classify a subset of points with classification code 8 on which we will then run the ground classification. We classify each point that is closest to the 5th percentile in elevation per 25 cm by 25 cm grid cell given there are at least 20 non-noise points in a cell. We then repeat this while increasing the cell size to 50 cm by 50 cm and 100 cm by 100 cm.

lasthin -i CSIRO_Tower\tiles_denoised_temp\*.laz ^
        -ignore_class 7 ^
        -step 0.25 -percentile 5 20 -classify_as 8 ^
        -odir CSIRO_Tower\tiles_thinned_025 -olaz ^
        -cores 4

lasthin -i CSIRO_Tower\tiles_thinned_025\*.laz ^
        -ignore_class 7 ^
        -step 0.50 -percentile 5 20 -classify_as 8 ^
        -odir CSIRO_Tower\tiles_thinned_050 -olaz ^
        -cores 4

lasthin -i CSIRO_Tower\tiles_thinned_025\*.laz ^
        -ignore_class 7 ^
        -step 1.00 -percentile 5 20 -classify_as 8 ^
        -odir CSIRO_Tower\tiles_thinned_100 -olaz ^
        -cores 4

 

Then we ground classify the points that were classified into the temporary classification code 8 in the previous step using lasground.

lasground -i CSIRO_Tower\tiles_thinned_100\*.laz ^
          -ignore_class 7 0 ^
          -town -ultra_fine ^
          -odir CSIRO_Tower\tiles_ground -olaz ^
          -cores 4

The resulting ground points are a lower envelope of the “fluffy” sampled surfaces produced by the Velodyne Puck scanner. We use lasheight to thicken the ground by moving all points between 1 cm below and 6 cm above the TIN of these “low ground” points to a temporary classification code 6 representing a “thick ground”. We also undo the overly aggressive noise classifications above the ground by setting all higher points back to classification code 1 (unclassified).

lasheight -i CSIRO_Tower\tiles_ground\*.laz ^
          -classify_between -0.01 0.06 6 ^
          -classify_above 0.06 1 ^
          -odir CSIRO_Tower\tiles_ground_thick -olaz ^
          -cores 4

Profile view for 25 centimeter wide strip of open terrain. Top: Green points are low ground. Orange points are thickened ground with 5 cm drop lines. Middle: Brown points are median ground computed from thick ground. Bottom: Comparing low ground points (in green) with median ground points (in brown).

From the “thick ground” we then compute a “median ground” using lasthin in a similar fashion as we used it before. A profile view for a 25 centimeter wide strip of open terrain illustrates the workflow of going from “low ground” via “thick ground” to “median ground” and shows the slight difference in elevation between the two.

lasthin -i CSIRO_Tower\tiles_ground_thick\*.laz ^
        -ignore_class 0 1 7 ^
        -step 0.25 -percentile 50 10 -classify_as 2 ^
        -odir CSIRO_Tower\tiles_ground_median_025 -olaz ^
        -cores 4

lasthin -i CSIRO_Tower\tiles_ground_median_025\*.laz ^
        -ignore_class 0 1 7 ^
        -step 0.50 -percentile 50 10 -classify_as 2 ^
        -odir CSIRO_Tower\tiles_ground_median_050 -olaz ^
        -cores 4

lasthin -i CSIRO_Tower\tiles_ground_median_050\*.laz ^
        -ignore_class 0 1 7 ^
        -step 1.00 -percentile 50 10 -classify_as 2 ^
        -odir CSIRO_Tower\tiles_ground_median_100 -olaz ^
        -cores 4

Then we use lasnoise once more with more conservative settings to remove the noise points that are sprinkled around the scene.

lasnoise -i CSIRO_Tower\tiles_ground_median_100\*.laz ^
         -step_xy 1.0 -step_z 1.0 -isolated 5 ^
         -odir CSIRO_Tower\tiles_denoised -olaz ^
         -cores 4

While we classify the scene into building roofs, vegetation, and everything else with lasclassify we also move all (unused) classifications to classification code 1 (unclassified). You may play with the parameters of lasclassify (see README) to achieve better a building classification. However, those buildings the laser can peek into (either via a window or because they are gazebo-like structures) will not be classified correctly. unless you remove the points that are under the roof somehow.

lasclassify -i CSIRO_Tower\tiles_denoised\*.laz ^
            -ignore_class 7 ^
            -change_classification_from_to 0 1 ^
            -change_classification_from_to 6 1 ^
            -step 1 ^
            -odir CSIRO_Tower\tiles_classified -olaz ^
            -cores 4

A glimpse at the final classification result is below. A hillshaded DTM and a strip of classified points. Of course the tower was miss-classified as vegetation given that it looks just like a tree to the logic used in lasclassify.

The hillshaded DTM with a strip of classified points.

Finally we remove the tile buffers (that were really important for tile-based processing) with lastile:

lastile -i CSIRO_Tower\tiles_classified\*.laz ^
        -remove_buffer ^
        -odir CSIRO_Tower\tiles_final -olaz ^
        -cores 4

And publish the LiDAR point cloud as version 1.6 of Potree using laspublish:

laspublish -i CSIRO_Tower\tiles_final\*.laz ^
           -i CSIRO_Tower\results_traj.laz ^
           -only_3D -elevation -overwrite -potree16 ^
           -title "CSIRO Tower" ^
           -description "HoverMap test flight, 18 Dec 2017" ^
           -odir CSIRO_Tower\tiles_portal -o portal.html -olaz

Note that we also added the trajectory of the drone because it looks nice and gives a nice illustration of how the UAV was scanning the scene.

Via Potree we can publish and explore the final point cloud using any modern Web browser.

We would like to thank the entire team around Dr. Stefan Hrabar for taking time out of their busy schedules just a few days before Christmas.

Pre-Processing Mobile Rail LiDAR with LAStools

The majority of LAStools users are processing airborne LiDAR. That should not surprise as airborne is by far the most common form of LiDAR in terms of square kilometers covered. The availability of LiDAR as “open data” is also pretty much restricted to airborne surveys, which are often tax-payer funded and then distributed freely to achieve maximum return of investment.

But folks are increasingly using our software to do some of the “heavy lifting” for mobile LiDAR, either mounted on a truck for scanning cities or on a train for capturing railroad infrastructure. The LiDAR collected for the cities of Budapest and Singapore, for example, was pre-processed by multi-core scripted LAStools when the scanning trucks returned with their daily trajectories worth of point clouds captured by a RIEGL VMX-450 mobile mapping system.

One customer who was recently scanning railroad infrastructure wanted to do automatic ground classification as a first step prior to further segmentation of the data. We were asked for advice because on such data the standard settings of lasground left too many patches of ground unclassified. Also the uniform tiling lastile generates by default is not a good way to break such data into manageable pieces given the drastically varying point densities in mobile scanning.

We obtained a 217 MB file in LAZ format with 40 million points corresponding to a 2.7 km stretch of railway track. We first run a quick lasindex (with the options for ‘mobile’) on the file that creates a spatial indexing LAX file with maximally 10 meter resolution. This not only allows faster area-of-interest queries but also gives us a more detailed preview than just the bounding box of where the LiDAR points actually are in the GUI of LAStools.

mobile_rail_lidar_01

Presence of LAX files results in actual extend of LiDAR being shown in GUI.

lasindex -i segment.laz -tile_size 10 -maximum -100

We then run lastile four times to create an adaptive tiling in which no tile has more than 6 million points. The first call creates the initial 1000 by 1000 meter tiles. The following three calls refine all those tiles that still have more than 6 million points first into 500 by 500 meter, then 250 by 250 meter, and finally 125 by 125 meter tiles in parallel on 4 cores. Note the ‘-refine_tiling’ option is used in the first call to lastile and the ‘-refine_tiles’ option in all subsequent calls.

lastile -i segment.laz ^
        -tile_size 1000 ^
        -buffer 10 -flag_as_withheld ^
        -refine_tiling 6000000 ^
        -odir tiles_raw -o rail.laz
lastile -i tiles_raw\*_1000.laz ^
        -flag_as_withheld ^
        -refine_tiles 6000000 ^
        -olaz ^
        -cores 4
lastile -i tiles_raw\*_500.laz ^
        -flag_as_withheld ^
        -refine_tiles 6000000 ^
        -olaz ^
        -cores 4
lastile -i tiles_raw\*_250.laz ^
        -flag_as_withheld ^
        -refine_tiles 6000000 ^
        -olaz ^
        -cores 4

The resulting tiles all have fewer than 6 million points but still have the initial 10 meter buffer that was specified by the first call to lastile. Two tiles were sufficiently small after the 1st call, three tiles after the 2nd call, eleven tiles after 3rd call, and three tiles after the 4th.

contents of tile shown in blue in adaptive tiling below

points of adaptive tile (high-lighted in blue below) colored by intensity

Adaptive tiling created with four calls to lastile.

Adaptive tiling created with four calls to lastile. Scale factors of 0.00025 (see mouse cursor) implies that point coordinates are stored with quarter millimeter resolution. Lowering them to 0.001 would result in better compression and lower I/O.

Noise in the data – especially low noise – can lead lasground into choosing the wrong points during ground classification by latching on to those low noise points. We first classify the noise points into a different class (7) using lasnoise so we can later ignore them. These particular settings were found by experimenting on a few tiles with different values (see the README file) until visual inspection showed that most low points had been classified as noise.

lasnoise -i tiles_raw\*.laz ^
         -step_xy 0.5 -step_z 0.1 ^
         -odir tiles_denoised -olaz ^
         -cores 4
noise points shown in violett

noise points shown in violett

The points classified as noise will not be considered as ground points during the next step. For this it matters little that lamp posts, wires, or vegetation are wrongly marked as noise now. We can always undo their noise classification once the ground points were classified. Important is that those pointed to by the mouse cursor, which are below the desired ground, are excluded from consideration during the ground classification step. Here those low points are not actually noise but returns generated wherever the laser was able to “peek” through an opening to a lower surface.

lasground -i tiles_denoised\*.laz ^
          -ignore_class 7 ^
          -step 1 -sub 3 -bulge 0.1 -spike 0.1 -offset 0.02 ^
          -odir tiles_ground -olaz ^
          -cores 4

For classification with lasground there are a number of options to play with  (see the README file) but the most important is the correct step size. It is terrain along the railway track bed that is supposed to get represented well. The usual step of 5 to 40 meter for lasground aim at the removal of vegetation and man-made structures from airborne LiDAR. They are not the right choice here. A step of 1 and the parameters shown above gives us the ground shown below.

Classification of terrain along railway track using lasground with '-step 1'

Classification of terrain along railway track bed using lasground with ‘-step 1’

The new ‘-flag_as_withheld’ option in lastile that flags each point in the buffer with the withheld flag is useful in case we want to remove all buffer points on-the-fly, for example, in order to create a DTM hillshade of 25 cm resolution for a visual quality check of the entire 2.7 km track using blast2dem from the BLAST extension of LAStools.

blast2dem -i tiles_ground\*.laz -merged ^
          -drop_withheld -keep_class 2 ^
          -hillshade -step 0.25 ^
          -o dtm_hillshaded.png
Small 600 x 600 pixel detail of hill-shaded 5663 x 9619 pixel DTM raster generated by blast2dem

Small 600 x 600 pixel detail of hill-shaded 5663 x 9619 pixel DTM raster generated by blast2dem.