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QGIS 3D Tiles – thanks to Cesium Ecosystem Grant!

We’ve recently had the opportunity to implement a very exciting feature in QGIS 3.34 — the ability to load and view 3D content in the “Cesium 3D Tiles” format! This was a joint project with our (very talented!) partners at Lutra Consulting, and was made possible thanks to a generous ecosystem grant from the Cesium project.

Before we dive into all the details, let’s take a quick guided tour showcasing how Cesium 3D Tiles work inside QGIS:

What are 3D tiles?

Cesium 3D Tiles are an OGC standard data format where the content from a 3D scene is split up into multiple individual tiles. You can think of them a little like a 3D version of the vector tile format we’ve all come to rely upon. The 3D objects from the scene are stored in a generalized, simplified form for small-scale, “zoomed out” maps, and in more detailed, complex forms for when the map is zoomed in. This allows the scenes to be incredibly detailed, whilst still covering huge geographic regions (including the whole globe!) and remaining responsive and quick to download. Take a look at the incredible level of detail available in a Cesium 3D Tiles scene in the example below:

Where can you get 3D tile content?

If you’re lucky, your regional government or data custodians are already publishing 3D “digital twins” of your area. Cesium 3D Tiles are the standard way that these digital twin datasets are being published. Check your regional data portals and government open data hubs and see whether they’ve made any content available as 3D tiles. (For Australian users, there’s tons of great content available on the Terria platform!).

Alternatively, there’s many datasets available via the Cesium ion platform. This includes global 3D buildings based on OpenStreetMap data, and the entirety of Google’s photorealistic Google Earth tiles! We’ve published a Cesium ion QGIS plugin to complement the QGIS 3.34 release, which helps make it super-easy to directly load datasets from ion into your QGIS projects.

Lastly, users of the OpenDroneMap photogrammetry application will already have Cesium 3D Tiles datasets of their projects available, as 3D tiles are one of the standard outputs generated by OpenDroneMap.


So why exactly would you want to access Cesium 3D tiles within QGIS? Well, for a start, 3D Tiles datasets are intrinsically geospatial data. All the 3D content from these datasets are georeferenced and have accurate spatial information present. By loading a 3D tiles dataset into QGIS, you can easily overlay and compare 3D tile content to all your other standard spatial data formats (such as Shapefiles, Geopackages, raster layers, mesh datasets, WMS layers, etc…). They become just another layer of spatial information in your QGIS projects, and  you can utilise all the tools and capabilities you’re familiar with in QGIS for analysing spatial data along with these new data sources.

One large drawcard of adding a Cesium 3D Tile dataset to your QGIS project is that they make fantastic 3D basemaps. While QGIS has had good support for 3D maps for a number of years now, it has been tricky to create beautiful 3D content. That’s because all the standard spatial data formats tend to give generalised, “blocky” representations of objects in 3D. For example, you could use an extruded building footprint file to show buildings in a 3D map but they’ll all be colored as idealised solid blocks. In contrast, Cesium 3D Tiles are a perfect fit for a 3D basemap! They typically include photorealistic textures, and include all types of real-world features you’d expect to see in a 3D map — including buildings, trees, bridges, cliffsides, etc.

What next?

If you’re keen to learn even more about Cesium 3D Tiles in QGIS, you can check out the recent “QGIS Open Day” session we presented. In this session we cover all the details about 3D tiles and QGIS, and talk in depth about what’s possible in QGIS 3.34 and what may be coming in later releases.

Otherwise, grab the latest QGIS 3.34 and start playing…. you’ll quickly find that Cesium 3D Tiles are a fun and valuable addition to QGIS’ capabilities!

Our thanks go to Cesium and their ecosystem grant project for funding this work and making it possible.

Cesium Ecosystem Grant Win for QGIS 3D Tiles!

Success! Lutra and North Road have been rewarded a Cesium Ecosystem Grant to provide access to 3D tiles within QGIS. We will be creating the ability for users to visualise 3D Tiles in QGIS alongside other standard geospatial sources in both 3D and 2D map views.
3D Tiles Cesium integration ecosystem diagram
3D Tiles Cesium integration ecosystem
We are very excited about it, but to be included in the first cohort of awardees is also an added honour! We share this distinction with 3 other recipients:
The opportunity was brought to our attention by our friends over at Nearmap, which, along with the existence of this grant, shows how the geospatial community is working together by evolving the Open Source Economy. A movement close to our hearts and our core business. Working between commercial software and open-source, Cesium’s business model recognises the legitimacy of Open Source Software for use as a geospatial standard operating procedure by promoting openness and interoperability.
Our team of Nyall Dawson and Martin Dobias will create a new layer type, QgsTiledMeshLayer, allowing for direct access to Cesium 3D tile sources alongside the other supported geospatial layer types within QGIS. This will include visualisation of the tile data in both 3D and 2D map views (feature footprints). It will fulfill a critical need for QGIS users, permitting access to 3d data provided by their respective government agencies to work alongside all their other standard geospatial layers (vector, raster, point clouds). By making 3D Tiles a first class citizen in QGIS we help strengthen the case that those agencies should be providing their data in the Cesium format (as opposed to any proprietary alternatives).
Proposed Technical Architecture Cesium QGIS
Proposed Technical Architecture for Cesium 3D Tiles in QGIS
Here’s a breakdown of what we will be doing:
  • Develop a new QGIS layer type “QgsTiledMeshLayer”
  • Develop a parser for 3D Tiles format, supporting Batched 3D Model (with a reasonable set of glTF 2.0 features)
  • Develop a 3D renderer which dynamically loads and displays features from 3D Tiles based on appropriate 3D view level of detail. (A similar approach has already been implemented in QGIS for optimised viewing of point cloud data).
  • Develop a 2D renderer for 3D Tiles, which will display the footprints of 3D tile features in 2D QGIS map views. Just like the 3D renderer, the 2D renderer will utilise map scale information to dynamically load 3D tiles and display a suitable level of detail for the footprints.
  • Users will have full control over the appearance of the 2D footprints, with support for all of QGIS’ extensive polygon symbology options.
  • By permitting users to view the 2D footprints of features, we will promote use of Cesium 3D Tiles as a suitable source of cartographic data, eg display of authoritative building footprints supplied by government agencies in the Cesium 3D Tile format.

Through past partnerships, North Road and Lutra Consulting have developed and extended the 3D mapping functionality of QGIS. To date, all the framework for mature, performant 3D scenes including vector, mesh, raster and point cloud sources are in place. We are now ready to extend the existing functionality with Cesium 3D tiles support as QGIS 3D engine already implements most of the required concepts, such as out of core rendering and hierarchical level of detail (tested with point clouds with billions of points).

So there we go! Working together collaboratively with Lutra Consulting on another great addition to QGIS 3D Functionality thanks to Cesium Ecosystem Grants. Stay tuned on our social channels to find out when it will be released in QGIS.

Cesium Ecosystem grant Badge


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