FME 2011 Clears Up Point Clouds

19 Jan, 2011 By: Cyrena Respini-Irwin

Safe updates its spatial data transformation software, adding support for laser-scanning data and cloud-computing formats.

Yesterday, Safe Software launched FME 2011, the latest version of its venerable spatial data transformation platform. The technology, which can transform hundreds of spatial and nonspatial data formats, helps users convert and share data. Safe cofounders Don Murray and Dale Lutz, the company's president and its vice-president of development, explained that that challenge extends beyond keeping up with new formats. "The data volumes that people work with now are so much larger than when we started," said Lutz.

One increasingly common source of such data is laser scanning, which has become both less expensive and more widely known in recent years. The technology can be used for a host of applications, ranging from aerial surveying to collecting as-built architectural data, but the resulting point clouds are often enormous and can create data-management headaches.

Safe originally didn't intend to address point clouds in this release, said Murray, but made the decision to do so after speaking with users at road shows. "We really heard that people are struggling to manage and manipulate point cloud data," he explained.

Lutz explained that Safe didn't anticipate the amount of effort required to make point cloud data interact with other types of data in a reasonable way. "We had to work with [the data] in a more sane way ... in raster, you don't treat every pixel as its own citizen." Murray agreed that point clouds "are just misbehaved rasters, really."

According to Safe, FME 2011's support for point cloud data enables organizations to integrate point clouds with conventional GIS (geospatial information system) data and to restructure point cloud datasets by clipping, thinning, reprojecting, combining, splitting, and creating surface models. The software can read and write point cloud data in various formats, said Lutz, including POD — Bentley MicroStation's native point cloud format — thanks to an arrangement with point-cloud software developer Pointools.

The Year of the Cloud

Point clouds aren't the only technology on the horizon; Safe's also forecasting a continuation of the cloud-computing trend. FME 2011 supports cloud-based formats, said Lutz, with the capability to read and write Windows Azure, SQL Azure, OGDI, and Google Spreadsheet data.

Not all the capabilities of the new release are umbrella-centric, of course. FME 2011 also offers inline inspection, enabling users to check on the geometry and attributes of their data while the transformation process is under way, with the option of applying test conditions. "You can stop, take a look, put down inspection points ... it's a more interactive experience," said Murray.

Murray also stressed the eternal importance of usability, citing an updated user interface and improvements to the workbench authoring process. Users can create templates from their own workspaces — for their own use or to share with others — and can speed the development of new workspaces with the help of templates downloaded from fmepedia. And those workspaces can run automatically, without human intervention, thanks to a new scheduling tool.

Time-saving templates also appear in the XMLTemplater, which includes validation, styling, metadata, and cataloguing capabilities. "XML is really like the never-ending story," said Lutz, half-joking about how time-consuming it can be.

On the server side, Murray noted that "it's [now] very easy for users to schedule jobs from within the web interface." REST services have been added to FME Server, as have task scheduling and more granular security.

Safe's cofounders are proud that these improvements don't slow down the performance of their latest release. In fact, it's just the opposite: FME 2011 is 11% faster than FME 2010, said Murray. But efficiency isn't determined by transformation speed alone. Ultimately, said Lutz, this release "is about empowering users to tap into their own expertise."

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