Small Town Scanning

November 1, 2007
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The Leica HDS scanner has proven to be well suited for scanning applications in rural areas.


Located in the rural northern panhandle of Idaho, Sandpoint is a community of 7,000 people; cattle, horses, deer, moose and other critters outnumber the humans. The area’s main road, I-95, is only two lanes and there are only six traffic lights. Our survey office of Glahe and Associates is about 40 miles north of the nearest “big” town, Coeur D’Alene (population ~ 41,000), and approximately 75 miles from the nearest city, Spokane, Wash. Around here, there are no refineries or chemical plants. No elevated roadways, tunnels or subways. No steel mills, big factories or major downtown redevelopment projects. The local economy is based around small business, tourism, agriculture, forestry and a growing retirement community.

Glahe and Associates doesn’t do as-built surveys of oil and gas platforms, road surveys of eight-lane interstates or elaborate architectural surveys. We survey in mountainous areas amid timber and brush, and in tall grasses on much of the open land. Although we aren’t considered urban out here, we have found success using 3D laser scanning technology in our rural area. Here’s our story.


Glahe & Associates’ survey office is located in Sandpoint, Idaho, pop. 7,000.

Business Profile

Glahe and Associates was formed as a one-person firm in the 1980s. The business has grown and changed over time reflecting the area’s economic swings, our major clients’ needs and what we’ve been able to do with technology, including GPS, robotic total stations and now, laser scanning. We practice in Idaho, Montana and Washington. Our 22 employees (six to seven field crews) take on diverse applications and clients that break down as essentially 50 percent boundary and subdivision surveys, 10–15 percent construction staking, 5 percent volumetric surveys, and 25–30 percent engineering and topo surveys, all for a balanced mix of public and private clients.

We have a multi-brand inventory of equipment with Trimble (Sunnyvale, Calif.) GPS and robotic total stations, Nikon (Trimble) total stations and Leica Geosystems HDS (San Ramon, Calif.) laser scanning hardware and software. In the office, we use Autodesk (San Rafael, Calif.) Land Development Desktop, Bentley Systems Incorporated (Exton, Pa.) MicroStation InRoads, and Leica Geosystems Cyclone and CloudWorx.  

HDS saves up to 75 percent field time for transmission tower and line surveys.  

The Case for HDS

When we started to investigate High-Definition Surveying (HDS) technology (a Leica Geosystems term), we thought it would fit directly into our diverse client base and service offerings. We saw potential economic benefits in terms of productivity and eliminating return site visits. We also saw added business value in terms of faster data collection results, better accommodation of demanding schedules, easier support of scope creep/changes, and higher quality, more accurate and more complete information. We saw these added values as a way to strengthen our client relationships.

Although brush, grass and trees are prevalent in our area, we believed that HDS could be used on 30 percent or more of the topographic sites we survey. We strongly believed that we could plug laser scanning technology into our current workflow without having to drum up a lot of new business for it. For example, we recognized that we could effectively use HDS technology to regularly survey power transmission lines, poles and towers, and associated terrain. Likewise, we knew HDS could be used for virtually all of our structural and hardscape (road and developed site) survey projects and for anything with vertical or sloped faces such as piles and rock faces.

Beyond this regular workload, we looked at the technology from a long-term perspective. While some firms make investments that are project-dependent and wait for the right project to come along to help pay for an investment in technology, we don’t do that. If we think a technology is a good fit for our overall business, then we’d rather make the investment, develop the expertise and deliver the benefits of the technology to our clients sooner rather than later. For our regional client base, this continues to associate our name with successful survey applications of emerging technology. It’s a basic philosophy that has served our business well for more than 20 years.

This philosophy led us to utilize HDS, even though it was a considerable initial investment and has entailed additional, ongoing investment to keep up with its steady advances. For example, we recently upgraded our Leica HDS3000 scanner to a Leica ScanStation by having a survey-grade tilt compensator installed in the scanner--the same tilt sensor used in Leica total stations. This gives us the capability to traverse and survey from known points with our scanner and provides us with additional confidence in the overall accuracy of registered scans. The investment gives us more capabilities and matches our philosophy to do what it takes to satisfy our clients. Things started out a little rough, though.

HDS proved to be successful and cost effective for Glahe & Associates on the 2.6 mile, two-lane road survey in Sandpoint. 

Early Challenges

We made our first investment in scanning technology in 2003 by acquiring a Leica HDS2500 scanner, accessories and Leica’s Cyclone software. This early model had a maximum 40 degree x 40 degree field-of-view (FOV) for each scan. Even though it had a limited FOV, it was very accurate, fast, had good range and met our basic needs.

Not too long after, Leica introduced a 360 degree x 270 degree FOV model (what they call a “full dome” FOV) with the same accuracy and range as our HDS2500. It was obvious that the new scanner would be more productive in the field: It would take less time to register scans and place survey targets, require far fewer setups and offer some office savings. Later, we managed a deal with Leica to assess an HDS3000 scanner while continuing to make payments on the HDS2500 scanner.

To continue with the HDS technology successfully, we also knew we had to allocate a person to master its specifics in both the field and the office. We couldn’t originally do that with our existing staff because of other commitments, so we sought out an additional employee. We discovered Eron Singleton, a graduate student at the University of Idaho who had experience with laser scanning.

A map deliverable of an 80-acre topographic survey includes four thumbnail HDS scan images.

A Winning Combination

The combination of a dedicated employee with scanning experience and a unit that had “turned the corner” in terms of overall productivity helped propel us to success. Singleton applied the new tools and the latest software on a number of projects. He also actively marketed our latest capabilities to current and prospective clients. Over several months, Singleton fine-tuned the field and office workflows and identified the types of projects where HDS could benefit our clients and our company most.

Over the last year and a half, we’ve had marked success with the technology. We use the scanner a couple of days per week; when it isn’t used in the field, Singleton processes data into deliverables. Today, we have what some consider a “good business problem”: a backlog of work. We’ve received notable positive feedback from our clients and have gained a couple of new clients. This increase in business has led us to spread our HDS knowledge to other internal staff members, guided by Singleton’s expertise. Financially, things are going well and we’re very excited about the future of this technology for Glahe and Associates.

A Sampling of Success

Our HDS gear has been put to successful use on transmission towers, roads, a Department of Energy (DOE) site, structural surveys and more. Here’s a sampling.

Transmission Tower and Line Surveys

Our HDS technology has helped us continue to earn the respect from one of our key clients, Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), the primary electric utility in the Pacific Northwest. On a recent contract, we used HDS to survey 15 of 40 line crossing sites. The technology helped us to meet a demanding schedule, pass some cost savings on to the client and survey the sites with unprecedented completeness. This has, in turn, allowed us to provide additional data to our client almost immediately without having to return to the sites surveyed with HDS. For one power line survey (see table below), the scope of work was to complete an as-built (data files and detailed field notes per BPA requirements) of power line crossings, poles and attachment points for 15 power line spans or 23 structures covering approximately 114 acres of terrain. On this type of project, we’ve seen that HDS can provide more than 75 percent field labor savings; we were able to use a one-man crew with HDS compared to a three-person crew with conventional methods.

HDS Conventional

Field Labor: 58 labor hours, 240 labor hours
Office Labor: 113 labor hours, 90 labor hours
Total Labor: 171 labor hours, 330 labor hours

Added-value Benefits
• Provided more complete data
• Increased confidence via the highly accurate results
• Offered the ability to meet demanding client schedule
• Easily supported scope changes

Rural Road Survey

Many surveyors consider laser scanning to be a great tool for urban interstates. We found it to be an equally good tool on a 2.6-mile survey of the two-lane I-95 highway just north of Sandpoint, a project we conducted for the Idaho Transportation Department (ITD). The scope of the project involved the road surface, adjacent sign locations, sign geometry and content, poles, all approaches, and buildings and improvements within 200 feet of the roadway. With each setup, our ScanStation proved ideal for the task and only required one person. We didn’t need to close down any lanes, which was a big plus since the road is a major artery to and from Canada. Plus, we were able to capture complete geometry.

HDS Conventional

Field Labor :60 labor hours, 360 labor hours
Office Labor: 104 labor hours, 160 labor hours
Total Labor: 164 labor hours, 520 labor hours

Added-value Benefits
• Provided more complete data
• Required no return visits
• Avoided costly lane closures for clients (est. $11,000)
• Offered safety measures; road was surveyed with scanner and surveyor off the pavement
• Led to additional projects with client

Site Surveys

One of the new clients we gained with our HDS offering is Fluor Hanford in Richland, Wash., a DOE nuclear fuels site. A topographic survey was needed for a potential gunnery range on 80 acres. The site included a paved road, numerous buildings and structures, and utilities; the terrain included sage brush, sand and a dune area that the client wanted to capture in detail.

The first HDS site survey for Fluor Hanford as a new client was performed in 2006 (see table below) by one crew member in connection with the services of the client representative assigned to accompany him on site. Since then, we’ve done additional HDS site surveys for Fluor Hanford.

HDS Conventional

Field Labor: 20 labor hours + client rep, 80-96 labor hours + client rep
Office Labor: 32 labor hours, 38 labor hours
Total Labor: 52 labor hours, 118-134 labor hours

Added-value Benefits
• Provided better quality end product due to added detail in scans
• Provided faster delivery to client

Structural Surveys

We’ve had excellent experience with HDS on structural surveys as well. One particularly interesting and challenging project we conducted was to assess and monitor a sand shed structure owned and operated by the ITD. The shelter, used to keep rain and snow off sand used on roads in the winter, had started to collapse a year after it had been constructed. ITD wanted to assess why; they retained us to measure the structure, compare its existing geometry with its design geometry, and return to monitor any changes in geometry five months after the first survey. HDS proved to be ideal for the task.

For the initial assessment survey, we only needed one day in the field with a one-man crew. We spent five days in the office creating detailed models of numerous, specific structural elements. On the return visit, a one-man crew spent one day at the site plus three days in the office.

Our results provided solid evidence as to how closely the construction geometry matched the design geometry, and how much the structure was continuing to move over time (almost 0.1 foot in just five months). The data was used to accurately identify the source of the collapse and to plan corrective measures. With our HDS offering, we were able to offer the client real, value-added service and continue to earn our stripes as a service provider. Based on our success with this project, the client asked us to apply scanning to another project, a rock-cut survey.

Scan Data Processing Advances

In addition to the benefits from our scanners that have increased our field efficiency, we have also noticed strides in office software and efficiencies. For some of today’s projects, the office time required for HDS data processing is oftentimes less than the time required for processing conventional data; on other projects, processing time may be a bit more. But we more than make up for it with substantial field labor savings on the order of 50 percent or more.

Our office efficiency gains have come from our own experience over time and from new features in Leica’s Cyclone and CloudWorx software suites. The Virtual Surveyor tool in Cyclone, for example, has proven particularly handy because it allows our technician to go into a point cloud and click on a single scan point to represent a specific feature, such as a connection point on power cables.


A Clear Value

Despite some early challenges, our company’s use of HDS has proven to be successful. It’s delivered genuine, added value to our clients, provided clear benefits to our business, enabled us to survey more roadways off the pavement and attracted first-class staff to the company. While our survey work using HDS isn’t exactly high-profile here in rural Sandpoint, Idaho, Glahe and Associates has proven its success using advanced laser scanning technology.

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