How Experts Say 3D Maps Are Better for Understanding Our Environment

Guidance in more dimensions

  • A wide variety of 3D mapping programs are springing up and will be helpful for everything from outdoor recreation to engineering. 
  • Three-dimensional maps are needed to navigate the metaverse, and use augmented reality. 
  • A drone uses a 3D map to prevent a nuclear storage waste facility disaster.
Holographic map of an area with hills or mountains.

koto_feja / Getty Images

The map programs you use to get around town might soon be three-dimensional. 

Activity tracking company Strava has bought Fatmap, which is building a high-resolution 3D global map platform for the outdoors. Experts say that 3D maps are helpful for everything from engineering to hiking. 

"3D maps go beyond traditional 2D maps providing greater context to the world around us," Dustin Parkman, the vice president of transportation solutions at Bentley Systems, which makes engineering software, told Lifewire in an email interview. "We live in a 3D world, so it is easier to understand the information in 3D. We are  accustomed to seeing information in 2D not because it is preferred, but rather because of a consequence of the technology that has historically been available to us."

Map Quests

Fatmap is designed for outdoor recreation work without a mobile connection. The company claims to have a community of hikers, mountain bikers, skiers, and trail runners in over 100 countries worldwide. 

The Metaverse will depend heavily on 3D mapping technology to easily traverse between the real world and the digital world.

"We started FATMAP with a mission to make outdoor experiences more accessible," Fatmap co-founder Misha Gopaul said in the blog post. "Where other map platforms have been designed for navigating streets and cities, we wanted to build a map specifically to help people explore. Joining forces with Strava opens up new exciting possibilities and will accelerate our progress to enable millions more people to explore the world's wild places safely and sustainably." 

Parkman said that 3D maps are often used with models from a survey or design combined with 3D map topologies to create inventories of 3D artifacts plotted on 3D terrain. 

"By combining this information, we can use it for planning, design proposals, construction monitoring, and asset maintenance workflows," Parkman added. "We also see these models being used as a virtual test environment for autonomous vehicles and machinery."

Tech analyst Bob Bilbruck, the CEO of the consulting firm Captjur, said via email that 3D maps would help navigate using augmented reality (AR), an interactive experience that combines the real world and computer-generated content. 

A drone making a 3D underground map.


"Today, 3D offers better, more recognizable points of reference, which 2D maps have not offered in the past," Bilbruck added. "Future developments like the Metaverse will depend heavily on 3D mapping technology to easily traverse between the real world and the digital world of the Metaverse."

OVER Map2Earn recently launched a 3D map program for geo-location in augmented reality. The company claims the program can locate objects with 20 cm accuracy outdoors and indoors, compared to GPS, which offers above 6 meters outdoors, allowing experiences in the metaverse to be more immersive. 

"OVER will be able to offer placement of, for instance, digital artworks on a specific anchor point on a wall, overlaying AR experiences on existing buildings, as well as geo-localizing assets within a building by recognizing different floors," the company wrote in the news release. 

Mapping Underground

One area where 3D mapping could prove revolutionary is mapping underground utilities, Benjamin Dierker, the director of public policy at the Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure, said via email. There's already a system for knowing what is below the ground through one-call centers. This helps ensure that when construction workers or homeowners begin a dig, they do not strike natural gas pipelines, telecom lines, and other pipes, cables, and wires. The spray paint markings on streets, sidewalks, and grass are the aboveground markings to help guide excavators and show what is below. 

Dierker said the problem is that the maps used behind the scenes are often two-dimensional, and the spray paint (a rough and ready map) on the ground is only two-dimensional. But people need more precise knowledge of the presence, location, and depth of facilities below the surface when digging. He said that 3D maps for underground utilities would help conduct underground work. 

"They help excavators see more detail about the underground facilities they are digging near," Dierker said. "This can help prevent damage, mitigate risks, save money, and save lives."

Three-dimensional maps could help prevent radiation disasters, too. Flyability's Elios 3 recently completed a 3D mapping operation of a radioactive waste storage vault at the Idaho National Laboratory Site. The information obtained in the mapping project will be used to plan the vault's removal.

Whether aboveground or below, 3D mapping seems here to stay. In the future, Bilbruck said the focus will be on "mapping the real world into a digital world that can be seamlessly and easily traversed between the two for users."

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