What is SLAM?

What is SLAM and how does it work?

What is SLAM?

First things first, what is SLAM? SLAM stands for Simultaneous Localization and Mapping. SLAM can trace its early development back to the robotics industry in the 1980s and 1990s. Robotics engineers had a problem – how to get their autonomous vehicles to move around the factory floor without bumping into walls, people, or indeed each other. Being indoors, they couldn’t rely on GPS for navigation. The engineers realized that if they could design an algorithm (like a set of digital instructions) that could concurrently map and navigate through that space, they could solve the problem. Simultaneous Localization and Mapping, or SLAM, was born.

But what is SLAM? Devices take data from sensors to build a picture of the environment around them and where they are positioned within that environment. These sensors may use visual data (such as camera imagery), or non-visible data sources (such as Sonar, Radar, or LiDAR) and basic positional data, using an inertial measurement unit (IMU for short). The device utilizes this information to compute a ‘best estimate’ of where it is within the environment. By moving its position within the environment, all environmental features (i.e. walls, floors, pillars) will move in relation to the device and the SLAM algorithm can improve its estimate with the new positional information. SLAM is an iterative process – the more iterations the device takes, the more accurately it can position itself within that space.

Why GeoSLAM?

There are many different types of SLAM algorithms. There is visual SLAM, which uses visual data as its main source of information. There is 2D SLAM, which is only interested in movement in 2 axes. Then there is 3D SLAM.

In 2008, the CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization) developed a powerful and robust SLAM algorithm primarily focused on accurate 3D measurement and mapping of the environment, rather than autonomous navigation. You may not be familiar with CSIRO, but you’ll certainly be familiar with their work – they invented Wi-Fi, 30-day contact lenses, plastic banknotes and the list goes on. They’re also Australia’s national science agency, pure experts in their field.

In 2012, Data61, the digital innovation arm of CSIRO teamed up with UK geospatial market-leaders 3D Laser Mapping (GeoSLAM’s former sister company) to commercialize their new SLAM. The result was GeoSLAM and this award winning technology is at the core of all our products.

The GeoSLAM ZEB-1, the world’s first SLAM based mobile mapping system being used on BBC Coast to map coastal caves around the UK

What makes our SLAM better?

Initially, SLAM was about navigation, so how did GeoSLAM turn this into the industry-leading 3D mapping tool it is today? We’ve already introduced different types of SLAM, but SLAM algorithms and approaches to SLAM, greatly differ. Some SLAM algorithms are optimized for robotics, but ours is specifically optimized for high-accuracy mapping.

The SLAM technology used inside GeoSLAM’s product portfolio was developed by some of the smartest people on our planet. The first versions of SLAM used images to help with orientation, but for laser scanning a more frequent calculation of position is required and continuous-time SLAM overcomes this limitation. With our sweep-matching SLAM, scan lines are projected in all directions and enable us to deliver a highly accurate and reliable digital map.

Our original SLAM (seen in our earliest solutions) was most comfortable in indoor, feature-rich environments. But we weren’t content with limiting ourselves to the indoor world. Over thousands of projects, in diverse and complex environments, our SLAM algorithm has been refined, honed and tweaked. In the same way GNSS accuracy has improved due to research and field observations, direct feedback from our customer data sets over many years has enabled us to interrogate and analyze the tech. We’ve pushed our algorithm to breaking point – and sometimes beyond – to see what makes it tick. We’ve taken our technology into notoriously difficult scanning environments, such as repetitive corridors, smooth-sided tunnels and spaces with moving people, and really put it to the test. The result is a constantly improving SLAM algorithm, one that is so robust that it now works equally well in outdoor open environments as it does indoors. It turns out, not all SLAM is created equally.

But don’t listen to us, listen to our users. They’re continually testing our SLAM against our competitors and tell us that our accuracy and reliability are the best in the market.

What are the benefits of using SLAM?

SLAM was designed for devices that are moving through a space. SLAM based systems are inherently mobile, they are at their best when used on the move. For anyone involved in the acquisition of geospatial data, this is a huge game changer. Gone are the days of multiple, static set-ups of bulky, tripod-based systems. With a SLAM mobile mapping system, it’s possible to rapidly and simply walk through an environment, building a digital map as you go. By removing laborious set-ups from the equation, the time and cost savings are enormous. SLAM based mobile mapping systems slash survey times and can be over 10 times faster at acquiring data.

zeb horizon uav

The ZEB Horizon solution mounted onto a UAV

GPS doesn’t work indoors, it requires a line of sight to at least three satellites to function. But it isn’t just indoors that is out of bounds to GPS based systems. Forests prove difficult, as tree canopies block the line of sight to the sky. Similarly, urban canyons and tall buildings block signals in built up environments too.

SLAM based technology overcomes all these obstacles, by cutting out GPS altogether. With no reliance on remote data, SLAM systems are truly go-anywhere technology. We enable you to reach complex and enclosed spaces, either scanning by hand or by attaching a scanner to a trolley, drone or pole. This opens a whole new realm of environments to be surveyed, that were previously highly problematic, time consuming, or both.

For the built environment, this opens large opportunities as we help construction professionals carry out fast, accurate 3D models in the minimum amount of time, helping them with:

  • Fast, weekly progress monitoring of construction sites
  • Real-time surveys of residential, commercial and industrial facilities
  • Comprehensive site surveys of existing structures to be refurbished, remodeled or extended.

It’s easy to see how SLAM mapping devices are considered a ‘disruptive technology’ in the survey industry.

But it’s not just the built environment that benefits. The pre-cursor to the ZEB-1 found its birth in a complex cave system, in south-east Australia. From these humble beginnings, GeoSLAM products have been utilized in caves, mines, forests and open fields, globally. We have customers from all sectors, many of them global enterprise organizations. To cement our market position, we are proud to have built an international dealer network of over 90 channel partners, in over 50 countries, across all six continents.

That’s why we are called the experts in go-anywhere 3D mobile mapping technology.

zeb discovery new york
The ZEB Discovery in Times Square, image credit David Handschuh (2020)

What’s Next for Us?

You might think that after nine years of rapid growth and development we’d be taking a break. But in this fast-paced, innovation hungry industry, slowing down is not an option. After all, our SLAM isn’t standing still, it’s constantly evolving and so are we. Our experienced mathematicians and SLAM developers are constantly working on the next generation of SLAM features to offer even more functionality with each release. And we’re going one step further than this with our in-house innovation team  headed by GeoSLAM Founder & CEO Graham Hunter.

The initiative behind the foundation of the team is to cement innovation at the heart of all that GeoSLAM does, allowing us to expand our R&D capabilities, to keep delivering industry-leading products and to fortify our place at the cutting edge of global SLAM development.

The last seven years have been quite a journey for GeoSLAM and with our latest significant funding investment, we are well on our way to achieving our global growth plans.

How do I find out more?

If you want to learn more about GeoSLAM, our technology, and what we can do for your business, why not contact us or fill out the form below.


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Q&A with Harvey Wright, of GeoSLAM dealer Seiler Design Solutions

Q&A with Harvey Wright, of GeoSLAM dealer Seiler Design Solutions

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