Just like the real thing


Motor sport technology has gone through several boom periods over the years, but perhaps none bigger than the one happening in the modern era. The by-product of this is that the industry has had to reach out to companies that can offer services that can’t be found from within the racing fold.

One of the reasons for this growth is that these new technologies are expanding beyond teams’ needs in the workshop or at the track. As simulator technology has improved, the need for extensive testing for a driver to get his or her head around a new circuit, tweak set-up, or to find a way to shave off those last tenths, has been removed.

The capability of modern gaming systems has increased to the point where Gran Turismo players are excelling on the world stage. And you can forget ‘90s fare like Nigel Mansell’s World Championship Racing; with the likes ofiRacing the gap between cockpit and couch has narrowed to the point where online championships are serious business. Some have even drawn the attention of the motor sport press in the USA.

1992: Nigel Mansell’s World Championship Racing. This is Monza, apparently

One of the companies this development has drawn into the motor sport industry is LandScope, a Shropshire-based integrated survey and data management company. While motor sport business is a small part of its workload it’s by far the most visible one, and with Formula E coming to London next year there’s a brand new circuit to model.

“We normally do lots of work for the Highways Agency,” says company director Martin Berry, “and we’ve also worked with some motor sport simulator developers like Eutechnyx, and Monumental Games and Dorna for the MotoGP games. We haven’t really marketed ourselves in this area because we’re more like dull surveyors than racing types. It’s not what we’re known for, but it does make for an interesting break from some of the more mundane mapping we normally do.

“The Formula E deal came about through the University of Hertfordshire, which is building an environmental model for the London circuit. It’s very much research and development at this stage but they’re working with Cruden [one of the biggest simulator companies]. The point cloud [see below] and photographic model allows their modellers to build the environment which these simulators and games use.”

So how does LandScope get an accurate 3D survey of the track? And what exactly is a point cloud?

How the scanner works

“To put it simply, we put this very expensive piece of kit on a vehicle and drive around the course,” explains Berry. “It’s shooting out hundreds of millions of LiDAR [light detection and ranging] measurements, pinging light off everything in its line of sight. In a second it’s gathering hundreds of thousands of very accurate points. You end up with what we call a point cloud – a geometrically accurate sample of the landscape – which is then augmented with photography.

“We’ve got a ‘ladybug’ camera, which is very similar to the Google Streetview camera. The interface we can deliver is very similar, but instead of just photography it’s got all of these measured points embedded within it. So when you click on a panoramic scene you’ve got accurate geometry. Then you can trace along the edge of a road or the top of a stand and the modeller can match what he sees with the data.”

There are plenty of variables that can interfere with a scan, most notably a poor signal from the Global Navigation Satellite System, or GNSS. 3D survey services manager Tom Card explains: “GNSS is a constellation of satellites that give us position and time signals from orbit. This means we can get relatively accurate positional information that can be used with the mobile mapping system. Trees and buildings can block the signal between the satellites and the GNSS receiver on the vehicle, but we can use ground control points to iron out the errors.”

Terrestrial LiDAR – which remains static during the scan – can fill in the detail that the unit mounted on the vehicle doesn’t pick up and the signal can be augmented using GLONASS (a Russian GPS equivalent). How intricate the point cloud needs to be is specific to each customer. For instance, the Highways Agency needs to know the position of its drainage gullies to about 10mm of 3D accuracy. The gaming industry doesn’t require quite that level of detail.

iRacing, arguably the best widely-available simulator on the market

“Interest has grown over the last few years and simulator developers get quite excited about the technology,” says Berry. “The systems they’re using at the moment have great detail on the vehicle side – suspension feedback or how they behave when you change gear, for example – but the environmental side is quite limited. If you’ve got a 2D racing environment then of course none of those experiences are feeding back through the game.

“There’s an increasing need for more accurate simulation, and the most cost-efficient method of acquiring the data is through mobile mapping,” adds Card. “The latest software packages are capable of using point clouds so it makes sense for developers to use the technology.”

“There are huge opportunities for growth in the market,” says Berry. “Because the system is so portable, if you’re a gaming developer, securing track time to model, say, Brands Hatch is much easier. The traditional methods of scanning will take days and that’s not feasible. It’s even more difficult on race days, because as well as the landscape you also want to get the paraphernalia that goes with it: burger vans, blimps, banners, everything.”

It’s that immersive environment that brings gamers closer to racing and allows professional drivers to feel more at home in their digital cockpit.

Not long after talking to the chaps at LandScope I paid a visit to a simulator facility to see the results of all this new technology. Stay tuned to find out just how realistic sims have become, and just how inept one journalist can make himself look when his mistakes don’t come with a price tag…

Click here for more on LandScope


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