Engineers stitch together thousands of drone-captured images to create 3D model of BYU’s campus

By Todd Hollingshead

BYU’s main campus is 560 acres in size and includes roughly 100 large academic buildings. There are some 6,000 trees (900 species), miles of sidewalks and, according to most students, far too many stairs.

Grad student Bryce Berrett and his faculty mentors have virtually mapped every last inch of it. Using more than 80,000 drone-captured and ground images, and applying GPS systems for accuracy, the civil engineering student has stitched together a comprehensive 3D model of the entire BYU campus.

“Our research group has been creating 3D models from aerial photos for a while now, but to do so we need to fly drones and we can’t do that safely with people underfoot,” Berrett said. “When the COVID pandemic hit and most classes went remote in 2020, we realized we had a unique opportunity to photograph campus.”

So Berrett pivoted from his original master’s research project (which was heavily disrupted by the campus closure) and went all in on the 3D model as his new research project. With civil engineering professor Kevin Franke as his mentor, Berrett and classmates spent the summer of 2020 flying hundreds of drone flights, taking tens of thousands of images — both from the drones and DSLR cameras — and then processed those images with a technology called Structure From Motion computer vision.

The result is a high-resolution virtual version of campus so detailed that when you zoom in, you get a photo-realistic image of campus features. The immersive virtual campus view can give a prospective student — or a former student — an intimate view of what campus looks and feels like without being there, and it’s exponentially more detailed and accurate than the experience provided by satellite imagery or Google Street View.

The 3D campus model has an average resolution of about 0.7 centimeters per pixel, but increases to 0.5 centimeters per pixel for buildings and goes up to 2 millimeters per pixel for some spots like statues. That means you can actually read the words on the plaques and see fine details on the virtual statue of Brigham Young in front of the ASB, or the Cougar in front of the Student Athletic Building. And the model is accurate enough that Berrett’s team can 3D-print miniature versions of any building or statue on campus from the model data.

“This is by far the largest project we’ve ever undertaken,” Franke said. “There is more area and more buildings for us to cover here then we have ever covered on any other site.”

That’s saying something since Franke and his team created a 3D model of the entire Italian mountain village of Pescara del Tronto back in 2016 after it (and other Italian villages) were devasted by a 6.2-magnitude earthquake.

Franke said he sees many applications for the BYU campus model, one of which is for building engineers or designers. He hopes they will use it to make accurate measurements of distances or locations or to use it to see clearly the conditions of buildings for needed repair, maintenance or even new construction.

After the model was recently previewed by faculty in the Computer Science Department, a group led by professor David Wingate asked if they could use the model to create a virtual campus flyover. Thanks to the efforts of Wingate and his student Vin Howe, now anyone can walk into the Talmage Building lobby, pick up a gaming controller and control a flyover of a virtual BYU campus as they view it on a large screen.

“This project is a great example of an interdisciplinary, student-driven effort,” Wingate said. “I love seeing what students can accomplish when you give them a challenge and set them free.”

The models are available for anyone to access and explore and can be found online here. Berrett has also worked with Craig Harris and the Mixed Reality Lab on campus to make a virtual reality app of a portion of the campus model. The setup will allow a prospective student to fully immerse themselves into a virtual BYU campus experience, and as the technology improves, the collaborators hope to incorporate more of the model.

“There are many, many applications for models like these and I think we are just scratching the surface of it,” Berrett said. “On a very basic level, it’s just a great opportunity to preserve our historical heritage here on this campus. This project has helped me to feel like I have something to give back for all of the wonderful opportunities I’ve had to learn at BYU.”

The research team has also published their work on the project in the peer-reviewed academic journal Drones. See the full paper here:

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