Smart Cities

A London neighborhood is using 3D digital mapping to city plan

About 250,000 people live in Harrow, where city officials want to avoid IRL site visits by using lidar tech
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· 4 min read

London city officials are building out a digital version of Harrow, one of the city’s 32 boroughs, and, no, they’re not just tinkering around in SimCity.

They’re creating a digital twin based on lidar, a radar-like tech that builds accurate representations of its surroundings via pulses of light, and which is seen as key technology in enabling autonomous vehicles to “see.”

Until recently, that may not have been an option for city officials in a ~250,000-person city borough—when lidar was first introduced for autonomous vehicles, it cost around $75,000 for a single unit. But lidar has gotten a lot cheaper and more ubiquitous in recent years, as companies have found economical workarounds like using fewer lasers or cheaper materials.  Now, some companies, like Ouster and Ibeo, say they’ll begin selling lidar sensors for sub-$1,000 prices in the coming years.

With that reduction in cost, the 3D-sensor tech can be applied to projects less flashy than autonomous vehicles: like city planning, zoning, and management.

In August, Harrow officials announced a partnership with Cyclomedia, a mapping company specializing in image capture using lidar-equipped vehicles, and Esri UK, a geographic information systems company, to map the area. Harrow officials have started using the tech to plan and monitor projects without as many physical site visits, and Cyclomedia sales manager Fergus Craig said in a late–September public webinar walking through the tech that more pilots are expected across London and the EU in the near future.

Harrow officials used street imagery previously, but the new partnership offers better resolution, greater detail, and more timely and accurate information, allowing for a responsive map called a digital twin—something like an extended, interactive Google Maps. Digital-twin technology re--creates a physical asset, whether it’s a building, manufacturing plant, or—in this case—an entire borough, using an array of sensor data, images, and software. This gives city planners and engineers the ability to simulate changes, like building a new sidewalk or property, before implementing them in real life.

“If you send around a car once a week to get high-frequency image capture, you can then start building up an image of how that property is developed over time and start identifying issues sooner rather than later,” Sam Tizzard, Senior GIS and address data officer at Harrow Council said during the September walk-through.

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City officials could, in theory, use the tech to inspect property, look at how a new development would impact where shadows fall, and see changes, like stresses in a bridge’s foundation, which indicate a need for repairs. Tizzard gave the example of a developer building a third floor on a property without approval from the Council. In this scenario, the Council’s planning teams would be able to address the violation before the developer finished building, saving time and resources.

Cyclomedia’s fleet of 60 cars are outfitted with one spinning lidar unit and five cameras, allowing the fleet to capture a 360-degree view of the neighborhood. It collects street-level images and lidar data every couple of months, according to Tizzard.

For its part, Esri UK supplies the GIS technology Harrow is using to accurately map, locate, and respond to issues as they arise. Paired with lidar data accumulated from Cyclomedia’s vehicles, city officials can measure the space between two properties, detect new potholes or downed street lights, and even quantify the size of staircases and sidewalks, all from behind a computer screen. Esri UK synced some of Harrow’s critical planning documents to its platform, allowing city officials to quickly pull the relevant records associated with a given property, like tax records or deeds.

Harrow seems to be a testing ground for the private-public partnership between Cyclomedia and local government. Cyclomedia is working on a broader smart London partnership not only with Esri UK, Craig said, but with Bluesky as well—a company that specializes in image data capture from aircraft.

“High frequency of capture at a low cost is required. So that’s what we’ve developed at Cyclomedia. And that’s what we are going to be piloting around Europe and in the UK between now and the end of the year,” Craig said, in the same webinar. “We have a new system which can be operated by the customer themselves, which will be really good to have a look at in Harrow particularly.”

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