Laser-equipped drones capture epic 3D scan of hulking battleship

Navigating "the pit of death" and hydraulic oil, a team of tinkerers renders a stunning point cloud in this challenging virtualization.
Written by Greg Nichols, Contributing Writer

When you get an invitation to visit an honest to goodness battleship, you take it. So when Autodesk reached out and asked if I wanted to witness the virtualization of the USS Iowa, a retired battleship berthed in San Pedro, CA, I braved LA traffic with visions of adventure on the high seas.


The object of the endeavor was to create a point cloud of the USS Iowa's main battery turret for a forthcoming VR experience at the USS Iowa Museum. The ship's sixteen inch guns once sent 2,700 pound shells at targets as far as 24 miles away, and they're an obvious attraction for visitors. 

Unfortunately, the turrets are only accessible after navigating several daunting ladders and narrow hallways, so they remain off limits. The virtualization project will give USS Iowa Museum curator Mike Getsher a way to take civilians inside without risking life and limb.

But scanning a battleship, it turns out, presents all kinds of technical challenges. At over 900 feet long, the exterior scale is daunting, doubly so when you consider the ship is floating and therefore in constant motion. 

Step through one of the companionways to get belowdecks and new challenges emerge. The exterior size of the floating fortress belies the cramped passageways and ladders inside, creating logistical challenges. 

To create a set of data points representing both the exterior and interior of the ship, the scanning team used state of the art equipment to painstakingly capture every inch of the battleship's exterior above water, as well as the inside of the turret. 

Taking on the task were technologists and tinkerers from CarahsoftAutodeskHTS Advanced Solutions, Sierra Skyworks, Nvidia, and Unreal, who approached the project as a technology demonstration, an eye-catching way to show various stakeholders and potential clients how sophisticated large-scale 3D scanning has become. Armed with 3 FARO scanners, 6 DJI drones, the team went to work scanning the ship. While the drones made passes overhead, capturing the ship's exterior with millimeter scale accuracy, team members inside scanned the hallways with FARO scanners on tripods.

The Navy in particular could see future potential use cases from the virtualization, everything from creating models to iterate future ship design to training personnel and crew in highly accurate virtual environments. 

Editorial standards