Assessing Disaster Damage from 3D Point Clouds

Humanitarian and development organizations like the United Nations and the World Bank typically carry out disaster damage and needs assessments following major disasters. The ultimate goal of these assessments is to measure the impact of disasters on the society, economy and environment of the affected country or region. This includes assessing the damage caused to building infrastructure, for example. These assessment surveys are generally carried out in person—that is, on foot and/or by driving around an affected area. This is a very time-consuming process with very variable results in terms of data quality. Can 3D (Point Clouds) derived from very high resolution aerial imagery captured by UAVs accelerate and improve the post-disaster damage assessment process? Yes, but a number of challenges related to methods, data & software need to be overcome first. Solving these challenges will require pro-active cross-disciplinary collaboration.

The following three-tiered scale is often used to classify infrastructure damage: “1) Completely destroyed buildings or those beyond repair; 2) Partially destroyed buildings with a possibility of repair; and 3) Unaffected buildings or those with only minor damage . By locating on a map all dwellings and buildings affected in accordance with the categories noted above, it is easy to visualize the areas hardest hit and thus requiring priority attention from authorities in producing more detailed studies and defining demolition and debris removal requirements” (UN Handbook). As one World Bank colleague confirmed in a recent email, “From the engineering standpoint, there are many definitions of the damage scales, but from years of working with structural engineers, I think the consensus is now to use a three-tier scale – destroyed, heavily damaged, and others (non-visible damage).”

That said, field-based surveys of disaster damage typically overlook damage caused to roofs since on-the-ground surveyors are bound by the laws of gravity. Hence the importance of satellite imagery. At the same time, however, “The primary problem is the vertical perspective of [satellite imagery, which] largely limits the building information to the roofs. This roof information is well suited for the identification of extreme damage states, that is completely destroyed structures or, to a lesser extent, undamaged buildings. However, damage is a complex 3-dimensional phenomenon,” which means that “important damage indicators expressed on building façades, such as cracks or inclined walls, are largely missed, preventing an effective assessment of intermediate damage states” (Fernandez Galaretta et al. 2014).

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This explains why “Oblique imagery [captured from UAVs] has been identified as more useful, though the multi-angle imagery also adds a new dimension of complexity” as we experienced first-hand during the World Bank’s UAV response to Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu (Ibid, 2014). Obtaining photogrammetric data for oblique images is particularly challenging. That is, identifying GPS coordinates for a given house pictured in an oblique photograph is virtually impossible to do automatically with the vast majority of UAV cameras. (Only specialist cameras using gimbal mounted systems can reportedly infer photogrammetric data in oblique aerial imagery, but even then it is unclear how accurate this inferred GPS data is). In any event, oblique data also “lead to challenges resulting from the multi-perspective nature of the data, such as how to create single damage scores when multiple façades are imaged” (Ibid, 2014).

To this end, my colleague Jorge Fernandez Galarreta and I are exploring the use of 3D (point clouds) to assess disaster damage. Multiple software solutions like Pix4D and PhotoScan can already be used to construct detailed point clouds from high-resolution 2D aerial imagery (nadir and oblique). “These exceed standard LiDAR point clouds in terms of detail, especially at façades, and provide a rich geometric environment that favors the identification of more subtle damage features, such as inclined walls, that otherwise would not be visible, and that in combination with detailed façade and roof imagery have not been studied yet” (Ibid, 2014).

Unlike oblique images, point clouds give surveyors a full 3D view of an urban area, allowing them to “fly through” and inspect each building up close and from all angles. One need no longer be physically onsite, nor limited to simply one façade or a strictly field-based view to determine whether a given building is partially damaged. But what does partially damaged even mean when this kind of high resolution 3D data becomes available? Take this recent note from a Bank colleague with 15+ years of experience in disaster damage assessments: “In the [Bank’s] official Post-Disaster Needs Assessment, the classification used is to say that if a building is 40% damaged, it needs to be repaired. In my view this is too vague a description and not much help. When we say 40%, is it the volume of the building we are talking about or the structural components?”

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In their recent study, Fernandez Galaretta et al. used point clouds to generate per-building damage scores based on a 5-tiered classification scale (D1-D5). They chose to compute these damage scores based on the following features: “cracks, holes, intersection of cracks with load-carrying elements and dislocated tiles.” They also selected non-damage related features: “façade, window, column and intact roof.” Their results suggest that the visual assessment of point clouds is very useful to identify the following disaster damage features: total collapse, collapsed roof, rubble piles, inclined façades and more subtle damage signatures that are difficult to recognize in more traditional BDA [Building Damage Assessment] approaches. The authors were thus able to compute a per building damage score, taking into account both “the overall structure of the building,” and the “aggregated information collected from each of the façades and roofs of the building to provide an individual per-building damage score.”

Fernandez Galaretta et al. also explore the possibility of automating this damage assessment process based on point clouds. Their conclusion: “More research is needed to extract automatically damage features from point clouds, combine those with spectral and pattern indicators of damage, and to couple this with engineering understanding of the significance of connected or occluded damage indictors for the overall structural integrity of a building.” That said, the authors note that this approach would “still suffer from the subjectivity that characterizes expert-based image analysis.”

Hence my interest in using crowdsourcing to analyze point clouds for disaster damage. Naturally, crowdsourcing alone will not eliminate subjectivity. In fact, having more people analyze point clouds may yield all kinds of disparate results. This is explains why a detailed and customized imagery interpretation guide is necessary; like this one, which was just released by my colleagues at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI). This also explains why crowdsourcing platforms require quality-control mechanisms. One easy technique is triangulation: have ten different volunteers look at each point cloud and tag features in said cloud that show cracks, holes, intersection of cracks with load-carrying elements and dislocated tiles. Surely more eyes are better than two for tasks that require a good eye for detail.

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Next, identify which features have the most tags—this is the triangulation process. For example, if one area of a point cloud is tagged as a “crack” by 8 or more volunteers, chances are there really is a crack there. One can then count the total number of distinct areas tagged as cracks by 8 or more volunteers across the point cloud to calculate the total number of cracks per façade. Do the same with the other metrics (holes, dislocated titles, etc.), and you can compute a per building damage score based on overall consensus derived from hundreds of crowdsourced tags. Note that “tags’ can also be lines or polygons; meaning that individual cracks could be traced by volunteers, thus providing information on the approximate lengths/size of a crack. This variable could also be factored in the overall per-building damage score.

In sum, crowdsourcing could potentially overcome some of the data quality issues that have already marked field-based damage assessment surveys. In addition, crowdsourcing could potentially speed up the data analysis since professional imagery and GIS analysts tend to already be hugely busy in the aftermath of major disasters. Adding more data to their plate won’t help anyone. Crowdsourcing the analysis of 3D point clouds may thus be our best bet.

So why hasn’t this all been done yet? For several reasons. For one, creating very high-resolution point clouds requires more pictures and thus more UAV flights, which can be time consuming. Second, processing aerial imagery to construct point clouds can also take some time. Third, handling, sharing and hosting point clouds can be challenging given how large those files quickly get. Fourth, no software platform currently exists to crowdsource the annotation of point clouds as described above (particularly when it comes to the automated quality control mechanisms that are necessary to ensure data quality). Fifth, we need more robust imagery interpretation guides. Sixth, groups like the UN and the World Bank are still largely thinking in 2D rather than 3D. And those few who are considering 3D tend to approach this from a data visualization angle rather than using human and machine computing to analyze 3D data. Seventh, this area, point cloud analysis for 3D feature detection, is still a very new area of research. Many of the methodology questions that need answers have yet to be answered, which is why my team and I at QCRI are starting to explore this area from the perspective of computer vision and machine learning.

The holy grail? Combining crowdsourcing with machine learning for real-time feature detection of disaster damage in 3D point clouds rendered in real-time via airborne UAVs surveying a disaster site. So what is it going to take to get there? Well, first of all, UAVs are becoming more sophisticated; they’re flying faster and for longer and will increasingly be working in swarms. (In addition, many of the new micro-UAVs come with a “follow me” function, which could enable the easy and rapid collection of aerial imagery during field assessments). So the first challenge described above is temporary as are the second and third challenges since computer processing power is increasing, not decreasing, over time.

This leaves us with the software challenge and imagery guides. I’m already collaborate with HHI on the latter. As for the former, I’ve spoken with a number of colleagues to explore possible software solutions to crowdsource the tagging of point clouds. One idea is simply to extend MicroMappers. Another is to add simple annotation features to and PointCloudViz since these platforms are already designed to visualize and interact with point clouds. A third option is to use a 3D model platform like SketchFab, which already enables annotations. (Many thanks to colleague Matthew Schroyer for pointing me to SketchFab last week). I’ve since had a long call with SketchFab and am excited by the prospects of using this platform for simple point cloud annotation.

In fact, Matthew already used SketcFab to annotate a 3D model of Durbar Square neighborhood in downtown Kathmandu post-earthquake. He found an aerial video of the area, took multiple screenshots of this video, created a point cloud from these and then generated a 3D model which he annotated within SketchFab. This model, pictured below, would have been much higher resolution if he had the original footage or 2D images. Click pictures to enlarge.

3D Model 1 Nepal

3D Model 2 Nepal

3D Model 3 Nepal

3D Model 4 Nepal

Here’s a short video with all the annotations in the 3D model:

And here’s the link to the “live” 3D model. And to drive home the point that this 3D model could be far higher resolution if the underlying imagery had been directly accessible to Matthew, check out this other SketchFab model below, which you can also access in full here.

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The SketchFab team has kindly given me a SketchFab account that allows up to 50 annotations per 3D model. So I’ll be uploading a number of point clouds from Vanuatu (post Cyclone Pam) and Nepal (post earthquakes) to explore the usability of SketchFab for crowdsourced disaster damage assessments. In the meantime, one could simply tag-and-number all major features in a point cloud, create a Google Form, and ask digital volunteers to rate the level of damage near each numbered tag. Not a perfect solution, but one that works. Ultimately, we’d need users to annotate point clouds by tracing 3D polygons if we wanted a more easy way to use the resulting data for automated machine learning purposes.

In any event, if readers do have any suggestions on other software platforms, methodologies, studies worth reading, etc., feel free to get in touch via the comments section below or by email, thank you. In the meantime, many thanks to colleagues Jorge, Matthew, Ferda & Ji (QCRI), Salvador (PointCloudViz), Howard ( and Corentin (SketchFab) for the time they’ve kindly spent brainstorming the above issues with me.

13 responses to “Assessing Disaster Damage from 3D Point Clouds

  1. Pingback: Assessing Disaster Damage from 3D Point Clouds -

  2. Pingback: Assessing Disaster Damage from 3D Point Clouds | the drone news

  3. Matthew Lloyd

    I am not a digital native but I am a former professional navigator of ships and aircraft and I am surprised that it is difficult to allocate a 2D position to an object observed from a moving platform of known position. Cameras are available with azimuth and 3D orientation sensors (aka smartphones). Successive bearings on a fixed object taken from a moving object will cross at a point on the map = position. I appreciate that high resolution is desirable but that can be achieved by proximity.

    • Jorge Fernandez-Galarreta

      Good point Matthew. The reason why it is difficult it’s because we are dealing with a drone as a platform, and not with an airplane or a satellite. Bigger platforms can perfectly carry on an IMU, an instrument that is going to measure every little tilting you have on the camera. However drones are another story, you are right, drones carry similar system to the ones in the smartphones, but of course the precision of these instruments is not that good. In real life is not ucommon to see people location points on 2D maps from oblique drone images. But for this kind of processing you need to proceed with an orthorectification for which you need to have a good Digital Elevation Model (DEM). In a scenario such as Nepal this kind of information sometimes is missing or is not accurate enough, that’s why this keep representing a challenge, specially for drone imagery.

      I hope this answers your questions, Jorge Fernandez-Galarreta

      • Thanks for chiming in, Jorge. Saw a presentation on Google Project Tango this morning, sub-5cm accuracy re positioning and and sub-1 degree accuracy re tilt. While Tango is being developed for indoor positioning, made me think of potential applications for UAVs.

  4. Pingback: Assessing Disaster Damage from 3D Point Clouds - Quadcopter Blog

  5. Hi Jorge, There are other approaches to generate the required imagery based 3D model and get a useful geometric solution that can be used to measure changes as a result of subsequent reconstruction activities or in the case of Nepal, aftershock damage.

    Take a look at Acute3D, . It has a lot that is being looked for in terms of output, and ease of use. While the photographic requirements are fairly intensive in terms of image volumes, the resultant 3D model is very lightweight in comparison and can be used with other sources of spatial data. More importantly, then resultant information is very easy to interpret, which cannot be said for the lower density point cloud data. There is also the advantage of speed of processing and the relatively low resource requirement to produce high quality models beyond the image capture phase.

  6. Hi Patrick – A while ago I stumbled upon this research from the University of Zurich and just came across it again as I was organizing my bookmarks. Reminded me of your blog post about aerial mapping. Imagine how useful autonomous real-time 3D mapping could be…

    The paper on “Autonomous, Vision-based Flight and Live Dense 3D
    Mapping with a Quadrotor Micro Aerial Vehicle” would seem to solve the problem of lag between capturing data, processing, and sharing. I’m not sure where they are with this research now, but it seems like it could be a solution to some of the problems you present in your blog post “Humanitarian UAV Missions in Nepal: Early Observations (Updated)”, especially where internet bandwidth is limited. If 3D mapping could be done live on the spot, disseminating that information could be almost instantaneous.

    I’m interested in researching this some more, but if you haven’t already, it may be worth looking into.

  7. Pingback: Assessing Disaster Damage from 3D Point Clouds | Tony Israel

  8. Pingback: Assessing Disaster Damage: How Close Do You Need to Be? | iRevolutions

  9. Patrick,
    I find your blog posts on this topic very interesting and exciting. I’m a PhD student working on automated disaster debris detection using only lidar (for the most part). One of the obvious downsides to this is the lack of spectral information. I’m curious what software was used to generate the 3D model of Durbar Square. I have access to a lot of post-disaster imagery as part of my work and would be interested in trying something similar.


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