A wildly popular geospatial visualization tool could provide a way to expand surveyors’ services.

By Gavin Schrock, PLS
You might be thinking, “Gee, another cool geospatial tool—what can it do for surveyors?” Some surveyors have already found that it can help expand their services and grow their businesses.

How? Imagine a residential survey where you can offer your client an accurate 3D visualization of their property with photo-realistic features that may include structures, additions, or remodeling they might be thinking about. Or a developer who wants to see how some proposed earthworks, landscaping, or new structures might fit into the parcels. Typically such customers turn to architects or landscape specialists for these services, through some heavy CAD work and often at substantial cost. These are just a few examples of what surveyors have been doing with this tool, even with the free version.

Although it’s not CAD as we would think of legacy CAD, it is in many ways no less powerful a tool. And it’s very popular; the SketchUp blog has consistently been one of Google’s most popular, with SketchUp garnering tens of millions of individual session activations yearly. Driving this popularity is its relative simplicity to master and its rapid growth in many sectors and for so many applications—one surveyor reports that his son was taught how to use it for a fifth-grade project.

Complicated problems require uncomplicated solutions. That’s the premise behind SketchUp, which Trimble recently acquired from Google (you might have heard a lot about this acquisition in the press). It is a drawing and modeling tool created to deliver the benefits of 3D design and modeling to the broadest possible audience—well, everyone. Since SketchUp came onto the market in 2000, it has established a solid reputation in architecture, BIM, construction, urban design, and related disciplines. With its recent acquisition by Trimble, SketchUp is poised to gain a stronger presence in key geospatial sectors, including the cadastral (land-tenure resolution and parcel mapping), heavy civil, and building and construction industries.

Visualization: Helping Clients Streamline Processes

In a legacy CAD approach, designs begin in 2D and are built up into 3D. In SketchUp, everything starts as a true 3D model. Because you’re operating in 3D from the outset, the transition from 2D to 3D is removed, taking with it the setbacks that commonly occur at that stage of the process. You survey in 3D, and 3D will provide the best representation of your data. Issues related to 3D fit and feasibility can be solved early in the design process. Once the 3D design is settled, SketchUp can also produce 2D plan and layouts as needed. 

The ability to visualize a project in 2D can be a challenge for many non-technical people. Because a tool like this provides an easy way to see and manipulate a design in 3D, clients and stakeholders can provide faster, more precise feedback. For example, a surveyor and architect can collaborate with a client to develop the optimal location of a building on a particular site. The architect can incorporate changes and push the model back to the surveyor, who provides related layout information. This bi-directional information sharing can go through multiple iterations until all design concerns have been settled—before the project begins.

3D for Everyone

“Designers and engineers are most creative when they can focus on the problem, not on the tools they use to solve them,” said SketchUp product manager John Bacus. “From day one, our emphasis has been to make SketchUp an easy, approachable tool. Bacus explained that the software appeals to anyone who has ever needed to make a drawing of anything. “In the process of using SketchUp,” he said, “they discover that making a 3D drawing is much more productive and, frankly, more fun.”

The name is somewhat misleading; this is no lightweight drawing program. SketchUp sits on a powerful 3D modeling engine that combines engineering-level precision with sophisticated tools to create and manage the objects, groups, and attributes that make up a 3D design. The system uses its close ties to Google Earth to provide basic functionality for georeferencing. And, through the Trimble 3D Warehouse, users have no-cost access to thousands of 3D models of buildings, construction equipment, and just about anything you can imagine. Dinosaurs and starships, anyone?

Survey Data in 3D

Over the years, survey information has transitioned from paper media, to digital vector media, and again to object-based media (i.e. with attributed or linked data attached). Instead of a surveyor delivering a piece of paper or CAD file, surveyors can create these intelligent data objects that can feed and tap land information systems, control records, photos, and design data. Surveyors can use SketchUp’s dynamic components to create parcels and entities to manage data for design basemaps, cadastral, and land-information systems.

With this approach, a survey will become a 3D representation of land and improvements based on the data collected by the surveyor. Ownership, taxation, and other information also can be attached to the real property entities the SketchUp models. By developing a collection of individual, georeferenced 3D models, design basemaps and land-information systems can depict and manage large regions with exceptional detail and precision. 

Building Design and Construction

SketchUp serves as an important front-end tool for design and construction. Brian Unger, an associate architect at Roth Sheppard Architects in Denver, Colorado, said his firm uses SketchUp to work through options during the concept and pre-design phases. Unger uses SketchUp’s Scenes feature to create walk-through videos and concept images. “Visualization is incredibly important,” he said. “Anytime you can have a 3D model in front of your clients or consultants, it will be beneficial because of quick understanding.” 

Building models can be placed onto 3D terrain models to help people visualize how a structure will fit the existing ground. Using SketchUp in conjunction with Google Earth, Unger can access terrain information and insert proposed buildings into sites. From there, he creates street-level views of how a project fits into the landscape and surrounding structures.

As a project moves to the construction phase, building contractors use SketchUp to address site logistics and constructability issues. For example, a contractor concerned about water penetration may need to draft a view on a specific building detail using utility records and surveyed data. By using SketchUp, the project team can create a 3D mockup of how the detail will be constructed in the field. The mockup helps to ensure that correct materials and construction techniques are used. In addition to reducing the project risk, the iterations of SketchUp models provide documentation of the decisions taken by the team. 

The Virtual Construction Site

Construction site logistics require management of materials, machines, and personnel on a rapidly changing worksite. Using SketchUp, project teams can create virtual 3D construction sites to communicate construction processes. By creating different scenes based on various stages of construction, planners can test the sequencing and movement of equipment and materials while communicating the impact on the surrounding community. Locations for laydown areas can be selected to optimize workflows and prevent unnecessary movement of goods and machines.

As an example, consider a site on which multiple buildings are under construction. Project managers can depict the buildings in different stages and test to see that trucks and excavators can move around the site once the buildings are in place. The Trimble 3D Warehouse contains models of most heavy equipment, so it is easy to download a specific bulldozer to make sure it fits between the buildings. 

A New Partnership and New Opportunities

SketchUp product manager John Bacus proudly notes about Trimble’s acquisition, “The core development team has remained intact.” Bacus also noted that in July 2012 the first of a series of “hackathons” (a term from the Google development environment) was held, inviting internal and third-party software developers to talk about enhancing existing—and developing new—tools and functionality.

With SketchUp now part of the Trimble product line, the pieces are in place to provide new connections between SketchUp models and Trimble tools for field data models, project management, and positioning. Perhaps the most significant opportunity lies in delivering easy-to-visualize and -edit information to the point of work, whether that point is in the office or at a construction site or remote field location. That concept blends domain- and workflow-expertise with technologies for measurement and communications.

What does Trimble have planned for further development for SketchUp? Although they normally don’t comment on unreleased products and versions, we expect to hear some announcements at the upcoming Trimble Dimensions in November 2012. Bacus did say that Trimble has no intention of discontinuing the free version—a key driver of the rapid growth in the user base—but will also continue to provide enhanced professional versions.

You can download it and take it for a spin. There’s nothing to lose but a little tinkering time, but you might stand to gain from such geospatial visualization and modeling tools—it might very well help enhance our lines of business and our industry.

Gavin Schrock, PLS is a surveyor, technology writer, and operator of an RTN. He’s also on our editorial board.

Editor’s note: We asked Jim Cox, who has used SketchUp extensively, including on surveying projects, about his take on the tool and what he foresees in its further development and adoption by more surveyors. Cox is a software engineer with Gabites Porter Consultants, providing specialist transport planning and engineering services in New Zealand.
A User’s Perspective         

by Jim Cox

Some quick history: SketchUp was developed by startup company @Last Software of Boulder, Colorado. It debuted in August 2000 as a general-purpose, 3D-content-creation tool. Google acquired @Last Software in 2006, attracted by @Last’s Software’s work developing a plugin for Google Earth. In early 2012, Google announced it would sell the program to Trimble. Aided partly by its ease of use and its price, SketchUp has been a huge success.

For general users SketchUp provides an easy way to do 3D modeling. It provides tools like texture mapping and photo draping that you would expect to find only in much higher-end software. Designs can be walked through and rendered in real-time. There is also a large amount of training material available, such as tutorials and YouTube videos. SketchUp runs on Macintosh OS, Microsoft Windows, and Linux with Windows emulation.

For more technical users (like surveyors) there are many powerful tools, for example, drawing surfaces. You can create a surface from a triangulated irregular network or contours and you can even drape it with a photo realistic texture.

SketchUp also offers geolocation, in that a SketchUp model can be dropped into and displayed in Google Earth with full reference to its surroundings. SketchUp also offers a command line and a scripting language, a dialect of “Ruby,” so a model can be generated automatically from a file or other input data. SketchUp can be extended and customized with such tools. Imports and exports can be made in DXF and DWG, the native SketchUp format, and others. Trimble also provides the cloud service 3D Warehouse for sharing components and models. SketchUp works well with XML, which makes data exchange with other systems much easier.

SketchUp is cool but it is not CAD—the name is a good guide—it is sketching taken a very long way. At this stage, I don’t see it completely replacing commercial CAD suites in the surveyor’s or engineer’s office; I imagine more that every home or office will have a copy.

SketchUp is cool but it is not perfect. Some users will find that there are problems with dimensions and data file sizes, but that will depend on what you are doing and how big the project is. For example, you can’t draw directly in coordinates where the coordinate systems have many digits. There is provision for feet or meters, but no U.S. survey foot yet. Regarding Google Earth, geolocation can reveal issues with both the positional accuracy of Google Earth and Google Maps data. Accurate survey data will yield improvement. Examples of traditional mapping issues like grid-to-ground separation can also be demonstrated. We can expect that Trimble will address these issues.

From a surveyor’s point of view, I can see SketchUp being used to deliver georeferenced photo-realistic topographic models to architects and designers, both professional and amateur. Putting SketchUp in the hands of the home designer opens a whole new market segment, and I think that could well be a very large market. There is also merit in using SketchUp for rendering and checking models from other sources. A walk through in SketchUp can reveal all sorts of issues that might not otherwise show up until after construction.

What it does, it does very well indeed. There is nothing around at present to match its combination of ease of use with such powerful features. Like any tool, there are areas where it could be improved. I think Trimble’s acquisition of SketchUp should be good for both the users and for Trimble.  Imagine Terramodel’s DTM and design tools with a SketchUp interface. And Trimble has the experience and the resources to be able to significantly improve SketchUp. I look forward to seeing what they come up with.

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