Currently, if people wish to obtain a 3D model of an indoor environment, they have to send in a laser-scanning robot or cart that painstakingly makes its way through in a stop-and-start fashion. Depending on the setting, the process can take days or even weeks. Researchers at the University of California in Berkeley, however, have developed a portable laser-scanning backpack that can map an area in the time that it takes for its human wearer to walk through. The project was funded by the US Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the Army Research Office, and could be used by military personnel to plan missions into mapped target buildings.

Using sensor fusion algorithms, the backpack combines information obtained from cameras, laser rangefinders and inertial measurement units, and creates a textured photo-like 3D model of its surroundings. Without such algorithms, along with precise sensor calibration and registration, it would be impossible to bring all the disparate data together to form one cohesive digital environment.

So far, the UC Berkeley scientists have mapped two floors of their electrical engineering building. In the future, they plan on mapping entire buildings, and creating interactive viewing hardware that will allow people to virtually explore those buildings before arriving in person.

The backpack is said to be the first in a series of such devices being developed for the US military.