Video: The Intersection of GIS and Reality Capture in Digital Twins for the Built Environment

Reality capture consultant Patrick Crawford, GISP, reflects on his journey through the geospatial industry and what it takes to build a successful career.

Fresh out of college with a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Aided Drafting & Design, Patrick Crawford landed a promising position in 2006 as an engineering technician for a civil survey firm. He didn’t know where that role would lead, and he certainly couldn’t have predicted how technology would influence the course of his career.

Today, as a GIS professional, reality capture subject matter expert and digital twin innovator, Patrick is always looking for new opportunities—only now his focus is on helping other geospatial professionals expand their skill sets and grow their businesses.

We recently sat down with Patrick to learn more about his journey into GIS and reality capture. Watch the full interview, or browse the discussion highlights below.

What was one of the most impactful moments of your career?

I went to school for drafting and was a draftsman for a small civil survey company. We were doing cross country pipeline projects, so we were sending survey crews out from Kansas City to West Texas and up to Oregon. They’d come back, and we’d work with all of their data.

We had a Leica ScanStation C10 sitting in one of our closets that none of the surveyors was using. Someone pulled it out and used it on a site, and it was pretty life changing for me.

I immediately asked, Why are we not using this on every project? And eventually I was able to champion that technology using that Leica C10, and kind of grow my career from there.

You started out as an engineering technician. And then all of a sudden you found yourself in an interesting situation where you got laid off. And then I believe they offered you a job in GIS, and you had to figure out what GIS was. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

It was 2010, and the country was going through a recession at the time. We were busy, but for whatever reason, I was let go. My position was eliminated. But I was given the opportunity to interview for a GIS consultant role with the same company in the energy division for pipeline projects.

I had to look up the definition of GIS before I went into the interview. But I let them know that I was a hard worker, I was a fast learner, and I was interested in technology. So that was enough to keep my foot in the door and make that shift.

At the time, I wasn’t extremely excited about it, but it really was a catalyst that changed the trajectory of my career and gave me a lot of opportunities.

Talk to me about the role of both GIS, which is the mapping component, and reality capture and how that comes together.

It’s been an interesting evolution to watch both of these technologies, reality capture and GIS, and see where they begin to intersect.

GIS, for all intents and purposes, is data science with a spatial component added. So in a lot of cases it’s tabular data. You’re able to add a coordinate or an address or some kind of spatially identifying feature to that data, and then you’re able to identify different patterns and things of value.

With reality capture, we’re doing a lot of the same things. It’s a mass data capture at a specific point in time. And then using CAD software and classification techniques, we go in and extract the value.

And it always seemed to me, working in both worlds, that there was synergy in those two technologies. The integration of the two just wasn’t there in the early 2010s. But since then, 3D GIS has really moved forward.

And then with the advent of digital twins, what you’re looking at is taking all of these disparate data sets, these unconnected pieces of information, and a digital twin is bundling them all into a single experience where you can draw on all of that information.

I don’t think you can have digital twins of the built environment without reality capture, but I also think that the collaboration platform, where all of those data sets go to co-mingle and work together, is going to be some kind of large geospatial database. And that’s GIS.

What amazes you most about the different things that have happened on the technology side?

The main thing that strikes me almost on a daily basis is the accessibility of the technology.

When I first started using reality capture technology, one of the main arguments as to why the company I was working for wasn’t using it on every project was that it was too difficult to train surveyors, which I laughed at. Some of the smartest people I’ve ever met and some of the best mentors I’ve ever had have been land surveyors.

But seeing the technology then and now, and how quickly I can consult with someone who’s never used or even looked at a point cloud, who’s not a trained surveyor, not trained in field processes, and how quickly I’m able to get them up and running with a myriad of reality capture solutions—it’s astounding how fast it’s moving and how quickly that technology is spreading.

What was the most interesting project you found yourself involved with?

I was part of a team in 2019 that went to Easter Island, the Island of Rapa Nui, and we used UAS or drones to map seven square miles of the island. I brought along a handful of reality capture devices and was able to go in and do some mapping of some of the cave systems and lava tubes on the island, as well as participating in the island mapping and then also kind of round everything out.

We took all of the aerial imagery and hosted it in a web GIS. This allowed a group of individuals and volunteers to go through and classify and analyze the imagery collected so that we could find culturally significant sites, old villages and the remnants of old homesteads and things on the island.

It was an incredible 10 days and probably the most interesting project I’ve had the pleasure of working on.

What has been the most significant lesson learned from your experience in applying technology?

Every piece of technology is designed to perform a certain function. It’s easy to start pushing toward the limits of what that technology is currently capable of doing, whether it’s a Pegasus backpack or a drone or web GIS. And so I think the important lesson is always know your fundamentals, train with the equipment that you’re going to be using, know if there are any pain points with that technology, know where its strengths are and apply those strengths, and don’t try to duct tape a process together using one technology or another and hope that it all comes out.

You recently joined Leica Geosystems as a technology consultant. What is it about Leica Geosystems that you feel brings the best innovation and technology to the market?

Reality capture is exploding right now, with new companies coming out just about every quarter with new scanners, new software, and new products. Some of them are very innovative. But if you look at Leica’s position in the industry and its history in reality capture, Leica has always been at the forefront.

I started out using Leica equipment. I learned to scan using that equipment, working with my regional consultants and with the support staff. I got a lot of my training on projects, turning to Leica whenever I needed help.

There are a lot of really amazing products out there. You’ve got LiDAR on your iPhone. You’ve got different wearable SLAM based scanners. You’ve got other static scanners. Everybody’s trying to find that competitive edge.

But in the history of the industry, Leica has always been on the forefront. The solutions are solid, the products are something that I can stand behind, and it’s interesting to see how everything’s made.

What do you enjoy the most about your role as a technology consultant?

For a large part of my career, there’s always been an opportunity for me to introduce the technology to new people within the organizations that I’ve worked for. Now I’m not limited to one company. I get to bring this technology to anyone who is interested in 3D scanning.

There are more and more people, not necessarily just survey companies but surveyors, engineers, architects and small businesses, that are looking to add scanning to their service offerings, and I’m able to go in and work with them and get them started on the right foot. I really enjoy talking to people and teaching them about reality capture and the endless number of use cases for the technology and what you can do as a business. I really enjoy that part of the job.

Have you heard of any surprising use cases lately?

One of the facets of small businesses is that in a lot of cases, you’re kind of catching any opportunity that comes out of the chute. And sometimes you have to really pivot to those different opportunities.

I just worked with a customer a few weeks ago where they started off wanting to use reality capture to document power poles. And then an opportunity came along and they needed to map out potential routes for underground fiber cable at an apartment complex. And the fact that they could rely on the same technology to accomplish both—that’s the fun part.

You’ve got this tool in reality capture, and then you can find all of these versatile ways to use the same tool to service your customers and ultimately make money as a business.

It’s always entertaining and fun to see people put the pieces together.

What are the most common misconceptions about technology?

When new users of the technology see point cloud, they often assume that a scanner is going to be able to document everything in a given environment, including behind walls and underground. So they need to understand that the technology is only going to map the surface of the environment or subject, and that sensing through objects requires a different technology.

There’s also a misconception that we can just take this out and set it up and run it without really planning out or understanding the scope of a project, and we’ll get enough data that we’ll be able to just kind of pull it all together in the end.

One of the real benefits of 3D scanning and reality capture is the amount of data that you’re collecting, including collateral data—the information that’s not necessarily part of your initial scope but could be valuable in a project down the road. If you’re scanning the facade of a building, and that is your main focus, you’re also capturing all of the data on the facades of the buildings across the street. There’s a lot of value that can be extracted from those data sets. But you have to stay focused on your project scope and implement the technology to support that scope. Planning is still crucial.

What advice do you have for someone who is just starting out in the geospatial industry?

The broad geospatial industry is a $94 billion industry, and it’s growing rapidly. And there are so many facets of the geospatial industry. So be curious and be excited. Look at different opportunities that may come your way. Get a breadth of exposure.

Getting a lot of exposure to different aspects of the geospatial industry has really been a rocket underneath my career. It’s propelled me in directions that I had no clue that I even wanted to go.

And so I would say to look into different aspects of the companies that you’re working for and learn what those departments do. How does engineering use geospatial technology? How does environmental use geospatial technology? How does construction use that?

Having a breadth of exposure and knowledge on that will help you put all those things together and move your career forward.

What possibilities most excite you right now as you look to the future?

The big thing that everybody is looking at right now is artificial intelligence. I think it’s at a certain point in the hype cycle right now where there’s a lot of pontificating on what the future is going to look like with AI tools being widely available to everyone. I think that’s really interesting. I think we’re starting to see people implement productive and sustainable uses of that technology.

Looking at some of Leica’s products in the 3D geospatial realm, advanced classification of data is going to be huge—classifying data and being able to use that to inform some kind of AI analysis on a site or on a scan subject. I think the possibilities are huge. I think in the near future we’re going to start seeing more practical uses of that technology in conjunction with reality capture.

And as the use of those types of tools increase, there is going to be a demand for more data. So what that means from a reality capture standpoint is you need more and more data to run through your AI and machine learning tools. That’s going to mean more scanning, repeated scanning.

Ultimately, that’s what a digital twin comes down to: Data that’s refreshed at a known and consistent interval. You need new data coming in to refresh and inform the condition of that digital twin. And I think AI is going to be a huge part of that moving forward.

Do you listen to any podcasts you would recommend?

I like the Pivot podcast with Kara Swisher and Scott Galloway. They talk a lot about AI, but more from a market perspective and how that technology is going to change things.

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