Using Drones to Create Beautiful 3D Context Models in SketchUp

3D Visualization software like Lumion and gathering data from OpenStreetMap or similar terrain mapping is all good for a basic 3D context model, but it is nowhere near good enough for displaying your model in real location in all its glory. That’s where drones may come in handy.

Most 3D terrain data from OS or similar sources come in flat colorless detail-less blocks only, and satellite imagery are way too low-res to have any effect. At least, those that you can access publicly. These options are great for quickly mapping out the urban or rural environments around your model, but drastically limits options and capabilities when preparing client presentation renders.

This is where drones may be very useful. You can get into really speedy context-building without having to sacrifice photorealism. The idea is based upon taking lots of photos of the area with a drone with a high-res camera, and then using those photos to match and render the 3D context in SketchUp.

Incidentally, drones are already used in construction in a similar manner. They fly them around the site, especially in case of large or tall projects, to see the progress and to inspect difficult-to-reach spots. Now we can, and should, use a similar idea in SketchUp 3D context modeling.

Of course, to use this tactic in architecture design and visualization, you need some help. A testing team of Lumion used a modern drone and a drone-to-3D capture software and designed a workflow that would be easy for most architects. Not only that, it will be time-saving too – all the capture and fitting work for a standard-sized project (let’s say, 300 by 300 meters) can be finished in a day.

The team used the drone device named DJI Mavic Air. It is less than a kilogram in weight and can speedily fly for 20 minutes (or, 10 kilometers) on full charge. While doing that, it can stream 4k videos and 12k photos! It cost them only $800, so, seeing the return, it is cost-efficient as well. Combined with a standard 10-inch tablet (with enough storage), this drone can be a great modern surveyor.

But taking random pictures darting around the site is not only clueless, it is also inefficient. You need to plan carefully about where the drone should pause, look in what direction, and take the picture. Pre-planning that much, and flying the drone with that kind of precision isn’t normal for us standard architects, yeah? Yes, the testing team thought that after just one try, and they opted for Drone Harmony.

What is Drone Harmony? It is an app used in the tablet mentioned above, and what it does it is fantastic. You can define the area of interest on the local map, and the app automatically calculates the flight path of the drone. Not only that, while it flies the drone on the precise path, it continuously captures images of the area. Each picture will have a 60% overlap with the previous, so you are guaranteed to get full coverage. Also, you are going to need that overlap to build the full 3D map.

But what about the angle? It’s simple, just repeat the run with the camera tilted at different directions till you have pictures of every solid object in that area from every conceivable direction. That means five runs with 5 different angles. Each of these runs for a 300x300m area would take around ten minutes. Adding charging time, that can be finished in under half a day.

Now that you got all the visual information about your area, you need to align and join the images to build one giant picture – and create a 3D model out of it, and add textures. You can, of course, do this by hand, with hour after hour of back-breaking work – but why bother when you have RealityCapture? This handy tool takes all your area photos, joins them up to make a full photo of the area, makes a detailed 3D model out of it painted with textures to boot!

Granted, after importing the pictures and getting it configures for the project, the RealityCapture software would take a few hours on a moderately decent machine – but the result is oh so worth it!

Now all you have to do next day, is to import the model into SketchUp, prune and weed out unimportant details no one will see (to make the model lighter and simpler), and send it to a renderer like Lumion. For those with more time, go ahead and decorate the place with trees, people and cars – hell, put the Batmobile in the middle of it for all we care – and then get it rendered.

There you go, all done! For video presentations, you can add scenes in the SketchUp model and get it animated as well. LiveSync will come in very handy for that!

Using Drones to Create Beautiful 3D Context Models in SketchUp