Local Government Magazine
Information Technology

The plot thickens

Ruapehu District Council’s drone technology

Innovative use of drone technology allows for a 3D ‘walk through’ cemetery search experience in Ruapehu.

People searching online for cemeteries in Ruapehu will shortly be able to take a 3D ‘walk through’ of the plots. They will also be able to view burial records, see a picture of the deceased, submit updated information, and link to Ancestry and other sites. It’s all due to a project that makes innovative use of drone technology.

Ruapehu District Council’s IT manager Stuart Campbell has led the project and pioneered the use of drone technology at council.

Stuart says council was previously limited to maintaining “somewhat inaccurate” paper maps that were handed out to people searching for grave sites.

The project spans 10 cemeteries in the Ruapehu district. These include war graves and cemeteries that date back to early European settlement. Ruapehu District Council’s customer services staff have been facing increasing demands to assist with cemetery searches.

“By putting our cemetery records online and linking it with 3D mapping we have increased our level of service to the public and taken work pressure off our front counter staff,” says Stuart.

Ruapehu District Council’s drone technology project won the Excellence in Innovation Award at ALGIM’s recent Annual ICT Awards.

Image capture

The project started with looking at how to develop an effective and reliable way to capture the raw material for building an accurate 3D virtual cemetery.

The solution involved combining images from a low-level drone and a hand-held camera that captured each cemetery row from multiple heights and angles, ensuring each headstone could be accurately plotted and read.

Ruapehu District Council (RDC) used a DJI Inspire 1 Professional UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) fitted with a Xenmuse X5 16 megapixel camera.

“To ensure consistency, we employed the same Xenmuse X5 camera and settings for ground image capture, as we did for the drone,” says Stuart.

“This was done with the assistance of a DJI Osmo gimbal. We also used a Mini iPad to provide a larger screen for better viewing.”

Working with New Zealand-based Hawkeye Systems and Australian company 4D Mapper, this data was used to generate a 3D model of the cemetery together with a content management system (CMS) and a web-based user interface.

The CMS enables the GIS team to tag a headstone and match this up with council’s cemetery records. Each tag is geo-referenced in a database that can also be added as a layer in council’s GIS viewer Intramaps.

The web-based interface allows people to take a virtual walk around the cemetery. Navigation is by both mouse and keyboard with a search tool that works on any part of a deceased person’s name. Users can also generate and share a URL that will load the application and take them directly to the headstone of interest.

Database and maintenance

To ensure the accuracy of the cemetery records, council made a concerted effort to methodically validate burial records in its database against burial warrants and what was physically in the cemetery.

For the older graves, a local historian populated the database with a suitable picture of the deceased along with other life history. Whanau were asked to support the project.

Systems needed to be specifically developed for when new burials should be captured and recorded within the 3D model.

Stuart says it now takes just 10 minutes for council to capture and slot in a new burial plot to the 3D model. This involves a maximum of 10 ground capture images and two subsequent aerial images at low and higher levels.

“To ensure that we pick up any changes – including additional headstones, burial plots and headstones that have been cleaned – we intend to re-shoot each cemetery on an annual basis.”


This article was first published in the December 2018 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.

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