Mobile LiDAR to Support Positive Train Control

This article was originally written in 2011, but is being re-posted based on recent events…

DTS/Earth Eye just completed a positive train control (PTC) project for a national train company who was evaluating the differences between Airborne LiDAR and Mobile LiDAR to support the collection of PTC data.  They are currently collecting airborne data for approximately 15,000 linear miles of rail.  In certain areas, the airborne data does not provide enough fidelity to accurately map the rails or the asset infrastructure that support the railroad operations.

From Wikipedia – “The main concept in PTC (as defined for North American Class I freight railroads) is that the train receives information about its location and where it is allowed to safely travel, also known as movement authorities. Equipment on board the train then enforces this, preventing unsafe movement. PTC systems will work in either dark territory or signaled territory and often use GPS navigation to track train movements. The Federal Railroad Administration has listed among its goals, “To deploy the Nationwide Differential Global Positioning System (NDGPS) as a nationwide, uniform, and continuous positioning system, suitable for train control.”

The project involved the collection of Mobile LiDAR using the Riegl VMX-250 as well as forward-facing video to support PTC Asset Extraction.  The system was mounted on a Hi-Rail vehicle and track access was coordinated through the master scheduler with the Railroad company.  Once we had access to the tracks, we had one shot to make sure the data was collected accurately and we had complete coverage.  All data was processed on-site to verify coverage and we had a preliminary solution by the end of the day that was checked against control to verify absolute accuracies.  We collected the 10-mile section of rail in about 2 hours and this timing included a couple of track dismounts required to let some freight trains move on through.

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The following graphics illustrate the point cloud coverage colored by elevation (left) and Intensity (right).

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Mapping the rails in 3D was accomplished by developing a software routine designed to track the top of the rail and minimize any “jumping” that can occur in the noise of the LiDAR data.  Basically, a linear smoothing algorithm is applied to the rail breakline and once it is digitized the algorithm fits it to the top of the rail.  The following graphic illustrates how this is accomplished – the white cross-hairs on the top of the rail correspond to the breakline location in 3D.

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So, back to the discussion about Airborne PTC vs Mobile PTC data.  Here is a signal tower collected by Airborne LiDAR.  The level of detail needed to map and code the Asset feature is lacking, making it difficult to collect PTC information efficiently without supplemental information.

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The next graphic shows the detail of the same Asset feature from the mobile LiDAR data.  It is much easier to identify the Asset feature and Type from the point cloud.  In addition to placing locations for the Asset feature, we also provided some attribute information that was augmented by the Right-of-Way camera imagery.  By utilizing this data fusion technique, we can provide the rail company with an accurate and comprehensive PTC database.

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This graphic shows how the assets are placed in 3D, preserving the geospatial nature of the data in 3D which is helpful when determining the hierarchy of Assets that share the same structure.

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One last cool shot of a station with all of the furniture, structures, etc that make it up – pretty cool!

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Who is Checking Your LiDAR Data?

Throughout the years, I have seen many projects advertised, awarded, executed and then delivered to the client. The client receives the data, copies it locally and then final payment is made to the vendor and life goes on as usual. Then, someone actually checks the data and notices that there are many discrepancies associated with the scope of work and what was actually delivered. How does this happen and how can it be avoided?

Step 1 – Start with a Clear Scope of Work

The scope should define exactly what is going to be collected, how it will be collected and how it will be verified and checked after delivery. For example, a simple LiDAR scope must define the target point densities (LiDAR), hydro-flattening parameters, and accuracies (absolute and relative) for the project. The scope should also define how the client will be checking the data for final acceptance of the deliverables.

Step 2 – Process a Pilot Area

The pilot area should be representative of the overall project and should be processed and delivered as if it was its own project. This allows for the team to identify any processing issues or special techniques up-front so that the rest of the project can move forward in a linear fashion, thus limiting the re-visiting of the data to fix problems at a later date. Once the pilot area is delivered, it should be checked against the scope of work to ensure that all deliverables are being met in accordance with the client’s expectations.

Step 3 – Process the Entire Project

Final processing can occur once the pilot area is collected and accepted. This is a critical-path item that is the bulk of the project’s budget. Many projects will either be successful or a turn into a disaster during this phase. The risk is easily mitigated, though, as long as the first two steps of this process are in place and properly executed by the team. This is very reliant on communication between the vendor and the client and if these channels are in place, the project will most likely run smoothly since everyone is on the same page.

Step 4 – Data Validation and QA/QC

This is where the overall success of a project is either validated or issues are identified that must be resolved before final delivery is accepted. The processes for checking these data sets are specific for different type of deliverables – we will focus on some niche market deliverables and give examples of how to check their associated data elements.

LiDAR QA/QC

First off – make sure you have some kind of software that can open this data. Seems simple, but many clients do not have the most rudimentary piece of the puzzle – LiDAR viewing software. There are many commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) products that can be used and each one has its strengths and weaknesses. The goal is to be able to load the entire project in one place and then use the tools within the software to verify the deliverables. The most important items to check include:

· Average Point Density across the project

· Relative (flight line to flight line) accuracies – this should be half of the stated RMSE for the project (e.g. 5cm for a 9.25cm RMSEz spec or 7.5cm for a 15cm RMSEz spec.)

· Absolute (overall project) accuracies against ground control. Ground control should be on a hard surface and un-obscured and is typically tested to a 95% absolute accuracy specification). A minimum of 20 points is required, since one point out of 20 will get you to the 95% specification. Larger areas can require significantly more control.

· Data classifications (e.g. Ground, Vegetation, Overlap Points, Low Point/Noise, etc.) as per the project specifications (ASPRS or USGS publishes these specifications).

· Check terrain edits (look for berms that are removed, building points in ground, low point noise and other anomalous data in the wrong classes).

· Projection information in the LAS file header.

· Verify Intensity TIFFs as per user-specified requirements.

· If breaklines are required, check the following:

          o Water bodies meet minimum size criteria,

          o Interior points classified to water class and

          o Client-specified buffers around these features

          o Single drains (streams) meet minimum length and width requirements and are buffered as per client specifications.

          o Double-line drains (Rivers) are monotonic (perpendicular elevations to remove leaning) and are buffered as per client specifications.

          o For all breaklines – check elevations are at or slightly below terrain for a sampling of tiles for the project (typically 10% of project).

· Review the survey report

· Flightline trajectories with appropriate metadata, flight logs, and other raw data collection activities (GPS, inertial, etc).

· Metadata for all project deliverables (this can be automated with a metadata parser).

In conclusion, it is important to check your data immediately upon receipt, so that all quality control and quality assurance activities can be performed and verified while the data is still relevant. Good luck!

Utilizing Mobile LiDAR to Support Pavement Resurfacing

Many Departments of Transportation are looking for ways to save money while increasing safety on the roads. In order to do this, they are seeking out innovative ways to do this while utilizing new technology. Mobile LiDAR is being used to determine roadway geometry information for long stretches of roadways that are candidates for resurfacing. The typical DOT procurement process involves the selection of a resurfacing vendor through a competitive bid solicitation and then the selection of the most qualified and “cost-effective” bidder. As budgets have become leaner, the competition for these projects has increased and thus, drives the innovation curve to find the most cost-effective solution for the DOT.

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To achieve this goal, pavement vendors have sometimes turned to the use of LiDAR information to develop their bid packages for the DOT. Historically, vendors would use the as-built information that was available from the DOT which might be inaccurate, old or obsolete. This obviously leads to issues with the information that the pavement vendor uses to develop their bid packages. They are most interested in determining the correct amount of cut/fill needed to resurface the road while using the least amount of new material. One of the most important pieces of this puzzle relates to the cross-slop of the road which facilitates roadway drainage and ultimately makes a road safer for the traveling public.

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Mobile LiDAR provides a high-precision, digital terrain model of the roadway surface that can be used to generate very accurate cross-slope measurements at specific intervals. For example, the road surface is continuous for the entire length of the project. Cross-Slopes can be generated for each travel lane as well as for the shoulders. The extracted cross-slope is then compared to the design specification and colored based on whether it is in compliance or out of compliance.

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Once the areas have been identified that are out of compliance, it is easy for the pavement vendor to target those for the re-design effort. Instead of applying an average value across the entire section of road, specific areas can be identified and re-designed so that the pavement vendor can save the DOT money on materials. The ultimate benefit for both the pavement vendor and the DOT lies in the fact that everyone benefits – Pavement vendors can design roads more accurately and limit their risk of material over-runs while the DOT can select the most cost-effective vendor and have more budget available to pave their ever-increasing network mileage of roads.

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Since mobile LiDAR data is very cumbersome to manage (2Gb/mile) it is important to deliver the data in a format that is usable by the client. Sometimes raw LAS files work and sometimes the client can only deal with vector files that will be used in GIS, Autocad or Microstation, to name a few. We have found that KMZ files are useful as a delivery mechanism because they can be easily loaded and viewed by the client in very short order. Any derivative of these delivery mechanisms will work – it just depends on the expertise of the client and their computing environment.

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Future discussions will focus on the DOTs and their collection of mobile LiDAR data so that they can provide it to all of the pavement vendors and receive the most cost-effective bid packages. Although there is an up-front cost associated with the LiDAR collection, it is believed that the downstream cost savings for both the DOT and the pavement vendor will more than outweigh the up-front cost of collecting the mobile LiDAR data.

What are you going to do with your NERC data?

So, you’ve collected your entire Transmission network using LiDAR, built your PLS-CADD models and identified your encroachments – what’s next?  How about leveraging that data to manage the Work Activities required to upgrade/maintain your Transmission network?

We have all heard about Asset Management and how it can help an agency extend the useful life of its infrastructure.  We all know that in principal it makes all the sense in the world, but the actual application of these concepts require investment in software, hardware and personnel.  What we will never know is – How much should we invest in the management of our assets?  Using the NERC regulation and the frenzied data collection going on in our industry as an example, consider the following.

Most Airborne LiDAR companies are collecting and delivering data in the $500 – $1,500 per linear mile range, depending on the downstream processing requirements.  Most of this data is delivered to the end user as .LAS point clouds, PLS-CADD .BAK, files and some other CAD or GIS formats.  Once it is delivered, the agency has a unique opportunity to leverage the delivered products for future value.

If we use Vegetation Encroachment data as an example, we can illustrate how the encroachment information can be used to create a vegetation Asset Class and managed throughout its life-cycle.  Most likely, the data delivered to an agency will include .LAS point clouds with classified data reflecting terrain, conductors, towers, buildings, etc.  In addition to this, vector data is also delivered and can be used to support maintenance management activities.  The graphic below illustrates a common Transmission LiDAR deliverable.

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Note the Red vegetation in the graphic above.  It shows the vegetation points that have been flagged as encroachment violations based on its proximity to the conductors.  These points can then be mapped in a GIS or Asset Management program for further analysis.  In doing so, an agency can gather more value from this information.  For example, the graphic below illustrates the “grow-in” (light blue) and “fall-in” (red) violations for a section of Transmission line.

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GIS mapping provides the user the spatial context necessary to make informed vegetation management decisions.  First, the location of vegetation encroachments are known and with a little manipulation, the volume and area of the vegetation can be determined very easily.  This gives an agency the ability to control the costs associated with their vegetation management program.  Asset management software that leverages GIS can provide the tools necessary to develop an immediate return-on-investment of the software purchase and associated data collection expenditures.

First, the user creates the geospatial layers from the classified point cloud.  Vegetation violations can be exported as points and then aggregated into vegetation encroachment units.  These units are then integrated with the Work and Asset management system through the use of GIS.  Since the geometry of the encroachment units are known based on its GIS attributes, an agency can then determine the following characteristics about their encroachments:

  1. Maximum Height of Encroachment Unit
  2. Average Height of Encroachment Unit
  3. Total Area (acres) of Encroachment Unit
  4. Total Area (acres) of Encroachment Units along a particular circuit

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Since the agency knows so much about their encroachments, they can very accurately determine the volume of vegetation that needs to be removed.  The agency also knows other geospatial characteristics of the vegetation units and can then apply specific cost factors to the removal process.  In addition, GIS also provides a great way to provide contractors with maps and exhibits that will help them generate more accurate bids based on relevant information.  The graphic below shows a KMZ export of Vegetation Encroachments that can be provided to field units in charge of vegetation removal.

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A typical vegetation removal contract is assigned to a forestry company who heads to the field and clears vegetation based on their perception of what needs to be removed.  Now, agencies can tell the forestry companies exactly how much (estimated) vegetation needs to be removed and WHERE it is.  Pretty amazing concept to embrace because now an agency can accurately predict the costs of their vegetation management program.

Another factor that can be applied to this information is the concept of Risk.  Risk takes into consideration the consequences of failure of a particular asset and then provides a Criticality Index for specific Asset Classes and Asset Types.  The more critical the Asset – the higher the priority it gets when determining an agency’s primary work focus.  In other words, this concept helps to identify the most critical components of your infrastructure and helps you to prioritize its maintenance over less critical assets.  By prioritizing using Risk, an agency can take measures to minimize the Risk that exists in its Asset portfolio by fixing these pieces and parts first.

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None of this stops once you get to the Work Management piece of the puzzle.  I’ll be providing more information related to tracking the work activities as they are completed in the field and using this information to develop more accurate budget forecasts for the future.

Mobile LiDAR to Support Positive Train Control

DTS/Earth Eye just completed a positive train control (PTC) project for a national train company who was evaluating the differences between Airborne LiDAR and Mobile LiDAR to support the collection of PTC data.  They are currently collecting airborne data for approximately 15,000 linear miles of rail.  In certain areas, the airborne data does not provide enough fidelity to accurately map the rails or the asset infrastructure that support the railroad operations.

From Wikipedia – “The main concept in PTC (as defined for North American Class I freight railroads) is that the train receives information about its location and where it is allowed to safely travel, also known as movement authorities. Equipment on board the train then enforces this, preventing unsafe movement. PTC systems will work in either dark territory or signaled territory and often use GPS navigation to track train movements. The Federal Railroad Administration has listed among its goals, “To deploy the Nationwide Differential Global Positioning System (NDGPS) as a nationwide, uniform, and continuous positioning system, suitable for train control.”

The project involved the collection of Mobile LiDAR using the Riegl VMX-250 as well as forward-facing video to support PTC Asset Extraction.  The system was mounted on a Hi-Rail vehicle and track access was coordinated through the master scheduler with the Railroad company.  Once we had access to the tracks, we had one shot to make sure the data was collected accurately and we had complete coverage.  All data was processed on-site to verify coverage and we had a preliminary solution by the end of the day that was checked against control to verify absolute accuracies.  We collected the 10-mile section of rail in about 2 hours and this timing included a couple of track dismounts required to let some freight trains move on through.

IMAG0166IMAG0168

The following graphics illustrate the point cloud coverage colored by elevation (left) and Intensity (right).

imageimage

imageimage

Mapping the rails in 3D was accomplished by developing a software routine designed to track the top of the rail and minimize any “jumping” that can occur in the noise of the LiDAR data.  Basically, a linear smoothing algorithm is applied to the rail breakline and once it is digitized the algorithm fits it to the top of the rail.  The following graphic illustrates how this is accomplished – the white cross-hairs on the top of the rail correspond to the breakline location in 3D.

image

So, back to the discussion about Airborne PTC vs Mobile PTC data.  Here is a signal tower collected by Airborne LiDAR.  The level of detail needed to map and code the Asset feature is lacking, making it difficult to collect PTC information efficiently without supplemental information.

image

The next graphic shows the detail of the same Asset feature from the mobile LiDAR data.  It is much easier to identify the Asset feature and Type from the point cloud.  In addition to placing locations for the Asset feature, we also provided some attribute information that was augmented by the Right-of-Way camera imagery.  By utilizing this data fusion technique, we can provide the rail company with an accurate and comprehensive PTC database.

image

This graphic shows how the assets are placed in 3D, preserving the geospatial nature of the data in 3D which is helpful when determining the hierarchy of Assets that share the same structure.

image

One last cool shot of a station with all of the furniture, structures, etc that make it up – pretty cool!

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Mobile LiDAR and Cross-Slope Analysis

DTS/EarthEye just completed a 9-mile mobile LiDAR scan of I-95 here in Florida and provided one of our partners with cross-slope information in a period of days.   The data was collected with our buddies at Riegl USA using their VMX-250 mobile LiDAR.  This information will be used to generate pavement resurfacing plans for the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT).

This project shows the value that this type of project can provide to the end user on both sides of the fence.

First, the paving contractor can use this data to develop their 30% plans for submittal to FDOT when bidding on a resurfacing or re-design contract.  Having accurate and relevant data related to the roadway’s characteristics gives the paving contractor an edge over the competition because they know what the field conditions are before preparing an over-engineered design specification.  This happens all of the time because the detailed field conditions are unknown while they are preparing their plans and they only have historical information to work from.

On the other side of the fence resides the FDOT.  They can benefit from this information because if they can provide this detailed information as part of a bid package, they can reap the benefits that are gained from better information.  If all contractors have the detailed as-built information (or in this case, accurate cross-slopes), they can all prepare their submittals using the same base information.  This will provide the FDOT project manager with more accurate responses based on true field conditions, resulting in more aggressive pricing and decreased project costs.

Here are some screenshots of the information.

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LiDAR Data Viewed by Intensity and Corresponding Cross-Slope Profile

Once the data has been collected and calibrated, we generate cross-slopes at a defined interval and export those out as 3D vectors.

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These vectors are then symbolized based on their cross-slope percentages and exported as a KML file for ease of use.

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Although this is a pretty simple step, the presentation of the data in Google Earth makes it easy for the end-user to visually identify problem areas and design the corrective actions according to field measurements.

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Tunneling through the Trees

Just finished collecting a site for a project with some massive overhead trees.  This wreaks havoc on the GPS signal and validates the importance of having a good Inertial Measuring Unit (IMU) on board to carry the trajectory of the vehicle during the GPS outage.  This section of road is a virtual “tunnel” of trees which makes it difficult to nail the accuracy specification of 0.1-foot with GPS alone!



Elevation Data of Roadway Obscured by Trees

The next graphic shows the same area displayed by Intensity:

Intensity Image of Canopy Road

Here is a 3D Version of the Elevation point cloud:

3D Elevation Point Cloud

And here is an elevation profile of the same area:

Elevation Profile of 3D Point Cloud

Over the next couple of weeks, we will be creating 3D vectors from these point clouds that will be used to determine the geometric characteristics of the roads.  This information will then be used as parts of safety audits related to the following information:

  • Radius of Curvature
  • Horizontal Curve (Cross-Slope)
  • Vertical Curve (Grade)

This data will then be used with crash data to determine if a road needs to be re-aligned based on its geometric characteristics.  For example, a tight curve with a high speed may be contributing to crashes on a segment of road.  This information can be used to understand precisely how a road is constructed and functioning in the real world.