Industry Scan

August 1, 2005
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Offshore construction, civil infrastructure, automotive plant work, survey control, forensic investigation, revamp projects, underground applications. These areas and more benefit from the use of laser scanning (or dimensional control) technology, and were highlighted at this year's SPAR 2005 conference in Houston, May 23-24. The two-day seminar hosted by Spar Point Research of Danvers, Mass., invited practitioners from the surveying/civil infrastructure, transportation, mining and resource management, and other ancillary markets. The conference currently focuses on terrestrial practices and showcases success stories and new approaches utilizing scanners while presenting data issues, investment and implementation concerns, and future outlooks for the markets. Attendance for the show was up 76 percent to 367 registrants from more than 20 countries, and 17 exhibitors were present (up from 12 in 2004). Forty-five percent of the registrants were in the surveying, civil engineering and transportation infrastructure industries. Overall, the second-annual conference was well-received and proved that laser scanning is a growing arena.

Attendees received software demonstrations in the exhibit hall.

Effects on Surveying

How is 3D laser scanning affecting the surveying profession? Given that the larger percentage of surveyors do not generally work with 3D technology, it is not surprising that those surveyors who have adopted laser scanning are few. Yet these individuals and firms seem to be progressing-and prospering-from utilizing the service technology. The underlying message from representatives of these firms is that as with any technology in an operator's toolbox, he or she must know how and when to apply it-not every job is meant for scanning.

Bohannan Huston headquartered in Albuquerque, N.M., with three other offices in New Mexico, Texas and Colorado, was an early adopter of laser scanning, implementing the technology (a Leica Geosystems HDS2500) in 2001. The Laser Geomatics division of the company owns one HDS2500 and one HDS3000 unit, and leases an additional HDS3000 when needed. The units are used on civil infrastructure projects. In 2001, the firm recorded about $600 worth of work using the technology; last year the firm recorded more than $750,000 and hopes to reach $1 million this year. The firm's deliverables include GEOPAK and Microstation, and sometimes (InnovMetric Software's) PolyWorks.

METCO Services of Detroit uses scanning every day. As-built and site surveys are good for safe practices, explained Martin Dunn, LS, the firm's vice president. The process is fairly straighforward from establishing control conventionally to the scan cleanup, and in METCO's case utilizing the Leica HDS Virtual Surveyor application to set points on various features found on the site for the deliverable.

As new technology enters the market, new concerns come with it. Two concerns of surveyors include determining which of the various methods to use for registering point cloud data and recognizing when total station surveying is needed to augment scanning applications. Additionally, some work processes may need more than one software solution, which increases the cost and the learning curve of implementation. Registering data on-the-fly (cloud-to-cloud) is risky, some believe, and depends a lot on the uncertainty (accuracy) of the point cloud data. This procedure is considered by some to be best for offshore applications because the consistent vibration of platforms does not cause enough point cloud error for concern. To avoid vibration, stabilizing the tripod via weights or sand bags and securing the equipment is the only real remediation.

As laser scanning gains momentum, owners are obtaining knowledge and some are providing specifications for jobs to service providers, or at least working with the operators on a good plan of action including the provision of specifications. For those service providers who do implement the technology, language should be installed in contracts to focus job scopes.

While accuracies remain the important element in control, collection and output, operators should be realistic about the specifications they actually need. A quarter of an inch has been acceptable for years but shouldn't be the only standard for operations; operators should work by the specs necessary for each individual job.

David Reinhart, vice president of INOVx Solutions (Irvine, Calif.) echoed this point. Operators should have a clear scope and know their accuracy requirements, he noted in a clinic on best practices for survey control and quality control. Reinhart emphasized the importance of using the right tool for the job and of using qualified surveyors with good work practices to set survey control for proper accuracy. The company is seven years young in the scanning business and has more than one hundred projects to its name. A user of INOVx software is RBF Consulting, which used laser scanning on five projects in an 18-month period. Its largest project was scanning eight terminals at the Los Angeles Airport (LAX). RBF has outsourced or leased scanning for line and grade verifications for grading on construction projects, for as-constructed surveys, for architectural surveys and others. The company, which has 50 fully equipped surveying crews, is evaluating whether it should acquire laser scanning in-house. Once the company understood some of the terminology, explained Mike Miller, RBF's vice president of survey, it realized there is a market for laser data in GIS that may not be tapped.

Who Provides for Surveyors?

Since laser scanning technology is so vast in its coverage, not all players in the market answer to the needs of surveyors. Let's consider a few who do. During introductions, Ken Dooley, vice president, sales of BitWyse Solutions Inc., noted that data can be quality control checked in the field to avoid catastrophes-a great benefit for surveyors. The company demonstrated its promised LASERGen application for AutoCAD, a follow-up to its LASERGen for Microstation solution. The new version supports AutoCAD 2002 though 2006. InnovMetric Software demonstrated the latest version of its signature point cloud software, PolyWorks Version 9. One enhancement to Version 9 is IMAlign, a best-fit alignment method used to match known scanner positions and known control points, and to automate matching of reference points. Another addition, IMInspect, allows users to handle large data sets and manage the visualization of points through a grid cell manager. Trimble introduced RealWorks Survey 5.0 with new features and enhancements for viewing, editing and managing 3D scan data. The new EasyProfile function in RealWorks uses a pre-positioned profile (fitted to a cross-section of the point cloud) to track through the cloud. Feature lines are then automatically extracted according to break-points in the guide profile, which is especially useful for automatic recognition of sidewalks, rail tracks, handrails, tunnels and other continuous shapes. This is one step further to a 2D drawing of a point cloud. RealWorks 5.0 now also includes a large database management capability for subdividing a large project into data subsets that can be more easily edited in a computer memory-optimized environment.

FARO, new parent of iQvolution, quoted a 30 percent growth in one year, and highlighted its phase-shift scanner, the LS880 (formerly the iQsun). This unit is modular in design, offering users three scanners in one: distance sensor, base module and mirror module. MDL showcased its unique LaserAce Scanner, a combined reflectorless total station and 3D imager, and its C-ALS borehole deployable 3D laser scanning system for underground voids and cavities. Optech Incorporated displayed its ILRIS 36D laser scanner, which began shipping in May. The scanner's 360∞ x 360∞ field of view boasts the largest field of view in the market. The company also announced the availability of an open data format, the ILRIS eXchange Format for software developers, to leverage the advantages of the ILRIS 36D. Leica Geosystems HDS announced some major endeavors in the plant industry, and claimed it offers a "one-stop solution" with friendly workflows. Riegl exhibited its hybrid sensor system combining its long-range 3D laser scanner with a high-resolution digital camera.

Visi Image Inc., now part of the BitWyse group, demonstrated its 3Dguru phase-based laser scanner, and showcased new integration of 3Dguru data with LASERGen and other BitWyse software solutions. Z+F claims its Imager 5300 scanner collects 12 billion point data sets. Z+F also announced a strengthened relationship with Hi-CAD in which Hi-CAD service teams worldwide will use core Z+F technologies in their services business; scanning will be done using Z+F's Imager 5300 system, and data processing with Z+F LFM Viewer and LFM Server software. In opening presentations, HiCAD noted that it sells "solutions not technology," touting its D.I.M.E.S. (Data Integrated Management Engineering System) process.

Future applications using laser scanning are many.

Surveying Wish Lists

Many of the same user issues that arose at last year's conference were present again at this year's conference-most notably, software issues. Since laser scanning was born out of the plant and process industry, much of the software is designed for these markets. For surveyors, some software programs will need to be improved to work with survey grade coordinates and to allow for field editing. Scanners should also be able to integrate with total stations and GPS receivers (some currently do).

The scales of laser scanning pros and cons continue to sway for many potential users. RBF's Miller explained that while scanners offer high data capture, fast operation, true 3D topos and photo-realistic imaging of complex areas, their ranges remain limited, and units are still too big, heavy and temperature sensitive for many surveyors. And while specs continue to be developed, manufacturers may (and perhaps should) turn to surveyors for direction.

Standards for laser scanning enter many a conversation as well, especially in surveying circles. Many users indicated a desire for consistency in data formats similar to mapping standards or ALTA survey specs. What is the likelihood of this? Good but distant. The National Institute of Standards and Tech-nology (NIST) is looking into the topic, but promises it will be a while before standards would be set, mostly because specifications for the technology span the spectrum depending on the discipline utilizing it. A survey engineer in the audience, however, shared his answer to this problem: a general format for laser scanning like RINEX for GPS applications. This solution, he believes, wouldn't interfere with vendor goals and proprietary approaches. Data transfer, he noted, is still a main issue for users of point cloud data, and deliverables need to be correct in the end.

When Will it Fully Catch On?

Overall, SPAR 2005 was a resounding success and a victorious repeat of last year's inaugural show. This year's diverse group of presentations proved that laser scanning technology is increasing in numerous industries. Forensic investigation has especially benefited from the technology by allowing accident and crime scene specialists to collect evidence without disturbing a scene. A similar benefit exists on architectural jobs where some historic buildings and objects are fragile and often dangerous. Additionally, forensic specialists are now going one step further and creating physical models of scenes to be given to jury panels; these replicas can be held in one's hands and contain every detail of an accident or crime scene.

The question of when scanning will fully catch on with surveyors can potentially be answered once the items on the software and hardware wish lists are given attention. Additionally, many surveyors require more hands-on testing, more overall knowledge of this budding technology, and more convincing that the large dollar investment and learning curves will be worth it. Vendors are well-equipped to respond to these issues. Since manufacturers often lead the way in technology enhancements, they will benefit by offering the customer goods he or she can use. An understanding of surveyors' needs can aid in overcoming some of the obstacles surveyors currently see with laser scanning technology.

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