When drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), make the news these days they are typically discussed in reference to military and, increasingly more often, commercial use. However, one French company is putting them to practical and money-saving industrial use. Drones Imaging, based in Maisons-Laffitte, a suburb of Paris, is using drone aircraft to, among other things, take over surveying projects, combining 3D modeling from digital photogrammetry and 3D printing. Now, for instance, labor-intensive and time-consuming projects like geological surveys can be simplified with the use of drones and the standard 2D maps that traditional surveys produced may be replaced with detailed, 3D printed models.

DFinished 3D model from UAV surveyigital photogrammetry, the science of taking measurements from digital photographs, employs remote sensing and high-speed imaging to record precise positions of surface points in 2D and 3D. Technology in this regard has facilitated increasingly more accurate results.

Of late, 3D printing has developed to the extent that it may now be used in concert with digital photogrammetry and 3D modeling to produce 3D printed models of the correlated data. Drones Imaging CEO Loïc Hussenet explained how programs like Sketchup became useful in converting 2D- and 3D-survey data into usable 3D models — but the making of such models had previously been time-consuming and less precise prior to the use of 3D printing in this regard.

Hussenet, whose previous experience was with the military analyzing imagery intelligence, decided that his experience could be put to use in the industrial sector. His company has used drones in the industrial capacity on public works, architectural, archaeological, and mining projects and has found it especially useful for acquiring data from areas that are traditionally more challenging to survey — rocky cliffs, for instance. Sending surveyors out to sites armed with manual GPS (Global Positioning Systems) is proving less and less necessary; a drone can do the work of several surveyors, producing millions of points in just minutes.

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The manual model production that has been a part of the surveying process has gradually been automated to the extent that photogrammetry can now generate complex, 3D models. Hussenet credits increasingly more sophisticated software and computers but he also emphasizes how more advanced 3D printed is an integral part of this cutting-edge process.

Drones Imaging uses PhotoScan photogrammetry software to generate 3D models from the images and data its drones generates. The images are created in .obj format. The next level of precision involves 3DReshaper, which helps refine the 3D models and prepare them for printing. The company assessed its options in terms of 3D printing and found FormLabs. Their FormLabs 3D printer, although limiting in terms of the size of the 3D printed models it could generate, was ideal because of its capacity to print in tremendous detail. In a 3D printed model for a mining project, for instance, the FormLabs high-resolution printer was able to provide details of the surrounding forest area (in proximity to the mining project), roads, and even stocks of materials.

Hussunet is confident that the 3D printing industry will improve at an increasingly rapid pace and that Drones Imagining will be able to provide its clients with larger 3D printed models that will retain the precision of the current, smaller-scale ones. More details on this used of 3D scanning and printing can be found in the Photogrammetry forum thread on 3DPB.com.

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