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Modeling Ski Slopes with Advanced Drone Mapping Software

Key takeaway

When Red Bull sponsored a snowboarding competition at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, it wanted to create a 3D digital twin (a virtual model of a real-world place) of the slopes that could help snowboarders plan their routes through the challenging terrain. Site Scan for ArcGIS, end-to-end drone mapping software, made this possible.

  • Comprehensive planning/execution capabilities eliminated the need for repeat flights.
  • The Terrain Follow feature enabled safe, accurate, and automatic image capture.
  • Image processing was complete in just a few hours.

The Natural Selection Tour, a snowboarding competition sponsored by Red Bull, brought athletes to Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in February 2021. Because of the challenging terrain and weather conditions, Red Bull wanted to create a tool that would give snowboarders the ability to plan their routes. The company turned to XR Media Group and VCTO Labs, media and technology firms that enlisted the help of drone mapping software. The goal was to give competitors a fully virtual experience before they hit the mountain slopes.

To create the best digital representation of the rugged competition trail with its trees, cliffs, rocks, and jumps, the VCTO team used drones and cutting-edge mapping software Site Scan for ArcGIS to capture high-quality imagery. The new Terrain Follow feature in Site Scan streamlined the collection of imagery by eliminating the need for repeat flights, and the geofence feature allowed the team to automatically stay outside no-fly zones. The team was able to capture and process its data quickly using the automatic and repeatable workflows in Site Scan.

Area Survey flight mode with Terrain Follow enabled in Site Scan Flight for ArcGIS

Mapping a mountain—safely, accurately, and automatically

The main objective of capturing drone imagery was to accurately virtualize the competition area. This included natural terrain, snow, trees, boulder fields, and natural and manufactured jumps. Mapping all the obstacles and jumps competitors could encounter on the mountain was a must to generate an authentic 3D digital twin (a virtual model of a real-world place) of the trail for athletes to virtually plan their run on a smartphone.

The rugged terrain—with its high elevation, steep average slope of 45 degrees, and 1,000 feet of elevation difference—made it difficult to fly drones and capture quality imagery. So instead of using time-consuming drone mapping techniques such as tiered area scans, the team turned to Site Scan for ArcGIS—end-to-end cloud-based drone mapping software for imagery collection, processing, and analysis.

Of special interest for this project was the Site Scan feature Terrain Follow, which allows a drone pilot to load 3D terrain data into the mission planning software. Then the drone can automatically follow the ground and keep a consistent flying height. This creates a detailed model of the slope, with constant image overlap and resolution throughout the flight, while maintaining a safe distance from the terrain.

3D point cloud viewer with profile line in Site Scan Manager for ArcGIS

Streamlining imagery collection and processing—even when offline

The team members were able to collect the quality imagery they needed in a matter of hours, despite severe winter weather. Once the team had set up the flights and decided what flight modes to use, the app took care of the rest, and the data captured was excellent. Site Scan is designed to produce high-accuracy and high-resolution outputs safely and efficiently.

With no-fly zones nearby at Grand Teton National Park, the Site Scan geofence feature was beneficial at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. Enabling a geofence allowed the team to create a flight path that kept the drone within a defined polygon and preselected boundaries, avoiding obstacles while staying outside the no-fly zone.

2D viewer (orthomosaic) with Photo Inspect tool in Site Scan Manager for ArcGIS

Because many areas on the mountain lacked cell service, the ability to download maps before a flight and view them offline helped the team as well. Once all the imagery was captured and the team members returned to a location with internet connectivity, they uploaded the data to the cloud in Site Scan Manager for ArcGIS. There, it was processed into a 3D point cloud and mesh as well as a 2D orthomosaic high-definition map and elevation model. The process is fully automatic, enabling the team members to complete processing in only a few hours, well before they even made it back to home base.

Team members shared that the data captured at Jackson Hole with Site Scan for ArcGIS came out as well as it did because of the Terrain Follow feature. They added that the software supporting a full, realistic digital twin and reality capture is significant because so much of the data they captured is spatial. After the Natural Selection Tour project was completed, the resultant 3D model of the Jackson Hole ski area received excellent feedback from Red Bull with the development of this new, automated workflow that can be repeated in the future. Despite risks of using beta software in the field, the project successfully delivered valuable spatial data that can be repurposed for anything else the team at Jackson Hole can imagine.

3D scene viewer with SURE mesh in Site Scan Manager for ArcGIS

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