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Emergency reality capture

By [email protected] - 24th January 2018 - 11:28

These days, when a fire department responds to a call, they can quickly find new locations, get the fastest route and even precisely plan the time to the destination, thanks to geospatial technology. In an industry where every second really does count, this can make a critical difference. But many of the calls firefighters respond to take place inside buildings. So, while technology has improved response time, firefighters are still dealing with many unknown factors when they arrive at the scene. In fact, they usually have to rely on basic floorplans to size up the scene, locate where the alarm was triggered or develop a fire suppression plan.

It was this stark contrast between the digital maps used outdoors and the paper floorplans used indoors that was the catalyst for seeing if reality capture technology could make a difference for emergency responders when they go inside a building.

It starts with an idea

Technology is constantly improving and overcoming new barriers. The surveying industry is no exception: mobile scanning is not only changing the way building data is captured but also the way it is being used. This certainly turned out to be the case when NavVis, a German provider of 3D scanning and visualisation technology, was tasked with scanning the headquarters of Interstuhl, the German manufacturer of high-performance office furniture. NavVis was first asked to capture data for creating a virtual showroom of the company’s office and a digital twin of the production facilities to help with planning. But as is often the case with new technology, this mapping resulted in an entirely new use case.

It just so happened that a facilities management intern at Interstuhl heard about the project and had also recently heard NavVis CEO Felix Reinshagen present the technology at his university, giving him a better understanding of reality capture. The intern also happens to be a volunteer firefighter, so had a pretty good idea of how the technology could benefit emergency responders.

He therefore proposed to his bosses at Interstuhl that they use the NavVis mapping to test another use case: improving emergency response time for firefighters by giving them digital maps of the building.

Capturing the as-built information

One of the biggest challenges of capturing the as-built state of an office and production facility is that there are always people around, at least on weekdays. That’s where the speed of a mobile scanning device offers a huge advantage. The Interstuhl project was scheduled for a Saturday and only one mobile NavVis M3 Trolley was needed to capture the 50,000 square metre headquarters. The trolley operator was able to capture the space within 12 hours.

Scanning an office with a reality capture device has other challenges that need to be taken into account. While the high level of detail that 3D visualisation software enables is very helpful, it also means that before scanning, any sensitive information has to be removed or covered. What’s more, the trolley captures a particular moment in time. So, this project required an interior decorator to set up the showcase and make sure everything was picture-perfect before the scan – and this had to be done after employees had left for the weekend.

Scanning for emergency planning

Since this project was also meant to provide firefighters with useful documentation, some additional planning as to what details were important was required. The additional details are key in helping firefighters – it’s not just about finding their way around, it’s about getting them familiar with surroundings. Usually, they head into the unknown. Having Google Street View-style access to the buildings that they can look at on the way to an alarm can significantly improve their safety.

When the trolley is pushed through a space being scanned, it needs to be stopped every metre to capture images. For this particular project, the trolley operator made sure to align the trolley with the smoke detectors placed every 4m in the building, so that these would be visible to the firefighters afterwards. 3D visualisation offers an advantage for firefighters by letting them see inside a building and what equipment is available or installed. It also helps them to identify potential hazards: the electrical rooms need to be captured and so do any potentially explosive material located in the production facilities.

Another benefit of reality capture for firefighters was that the trolley captured the ceiling, so they can quickly check if a building has, for example, a sprinkler system and where is installed.

While only one person is required to operate the trolley, this scan was a good example of why having an assistant around is a good idea. It was important to capture all the installations and exits relevant for emergency responders. But at Interstuhl, emergency exits are kept closed at all times and can only be opened with a button. They do not, however, stay open for long. So the second person at this mapping had to keep pressing the button to make sure it stayed open while the surrounding areas were being mapped.

Democratising building data

Once the scanning is complete, the data is processed and made available on the NavVis IndoorViewer. One of the core principles guiding the design and development of NavVis technology is accessibility. This goes for operating the trolley as well as accessing the data captured by the Trolley. The Trolley captures 360º panoramic images in JPEG, point clouds in PLY, PTS, XYZ, E47 and LAS formats, as well as infrastructure data, such as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi signals and magnetic field data.

The trolley data is stored on a removable SSD card. NavVis has developed software to automatically process as well as view and publish this data. The NavVis IndoorViewer is browser-based 3D visualisation software that can be accessed from any device and does not require any software installation. The IndoorViewer also makes it easier to view large datasets, such as point clouds. The software only loads the part of the point cloud that is being viewed, which makes it possible to stream even large point clouds in a browser and share the dataset by sending a link via email.

Of course, the data captured by the trolley can also be imported into any software that supports standard formats and is used for a wide variety of purposes, including modelling in CAD software to update building models with details of the as-built state. But for a project such as testing emergency response time, using the IndoorViewer was important an important factor in making the data both accessible and usable.

The testing and results

Once the data was processed, the testing began. The first test took place in January last year, with firefighters from several German cities participating in the pilot project at the Interstuhl facilities. Half the participants used the traditional floorplans and procedures while the other half were given tablets with the 3D map and visualisation. NavVis IndoorViewer is designed so that anyone can open the link and access the digital building information, which was essential to the success of the firefighter project but is also important to making this type of data accessible to a wider audience.

Participating firefighters had no knowledge about the buildings and didn’t receive any technical training before using the viewer. Nevertheless, they were still able to reduce the time it took to reach the location of the first alarm by up to a quarter using a tablet to navigate a NavVis 3D indoor map, compared to navigating with the 2D floorplan typically used in fire and emergency situations.

The management at Interstuhl was more than happy to have a virtual showroom, remote access to production facilities and improved emergency response plans. But what they liked the most was that data needed for every use case was captured with one scan and minimal disruption.

CEO Helmut Link says, “We would normally survey our building on a strictly as needed basis because it is so time-consuming and disruptive. We gave reality capture a try because we wanted a virtual showroom of our products. We were pleasantly surprised to find out that we could survey our production facilities with the same device and even use the data to update our floorplans.”

Ongoing development

After the success of the pilot project, the concept has been further developed, taking into account the initial learnings. The greatest interest came from customers with large industrial and commercial properties. The NavVis team therefore developed a custom tool for these types of buildings that would make it easier and faster for firefighters to respond to an alarm.

To this end, further research was done to determine if automatic fire detection systems could be integrated into the IndoorViewer interface. The integration of sensors would notify firefighters as early as possible to the fire, while NavVis positioning technology would help them determine the exact location of the alert once they arrived on scene. With this new tool, when an alarm goes off, firefighters are sent a link to the IndoorViewer building instance with the detailed location information of where the alarm is going off. A custom developed app will then provide positioning and navigation for firefighters once they are on scene.

After initial testing and further refinement, the custom firefighter tool was ready for testing in December. The preliminary test results indicate that the tool was successful, both in terms of sending out the alarm and decreasing the time it takes for firefighters to get to the location of the alert, and is on track to be released this year.

Viktoria Langley is marketing manager at NavVis Gmbh (

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