Connecting the Dots

January 29, 2009
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Creating a compelling case for investing in new technology can feel much like a game of dot-to-dot. The crusader starts at point one--the demystifying dot--and slowly moves from one dot of persuasion to the next, waiting for each stakeholder to experience his or her “aha” moment, until all the business-case dots are finally connected, the new business picture is complete and the big box with the new technology arrives at last.

Survey champions of GPS technology will likely remember that journey well. And now a new team of crusaders is following that same quest with laser scanning technology. Professional land surveyor Todd Beers is one such person who has successfully completed two laser scanning campaigns. Although Beers has been triumphant, he readily admits that championing technology can challenge a surveyor’s resolve more than any ordeal in the field.

“Laser scanning is still a foreign concept to people in the industry, which makes them fearful and skeptical of it,” says Beers, an associate and survey group director for Nolte Associates, a 500-person engineering, survey and construction management company based in Sacramento. “The most typical question you hear both from surveyors and executives is, ‘What can you use it for?’ And that’s because they don’t understand the technology, its value and its benefits to the business. To change that mind-set, you have to be prepared to educate them, prove that the technology works and that it makes good business sense. Some connect the dots quickly; for others, it can take a very long time to appreciate the business case.”

Todd Beers, PLS, associate and survey group director for Nolte Associates Inc.

Beginning the Journey

When Beers joined Nolte’s Denver office in June 2007, he had already been carrying the laser scanning banner for several years and understood the dot-to-dot game well. Six years ago, the small survey firm Beers was working for in Texas did not have laser scanning capabilities in-house. But after reading several articles on the technology and speaking with experienced colleagues, Beers searched for the chance to change that. The opportunity came in the form of a large survey project that historically has always been the domain of total station and leveling technology: an as-built survey of an airport runway. Beers, however, saw the project as a “no-brainer” case for laser scanning. “The scope and demands of the project made laser scanning the perfect choice,” Beers says.

The project required surveyors to collect an as-built survey of 40,000 feet of runway and associated taxiways at Denver International Airport, including surrounding features such as lights and the asphalt edge. However, the airport had to remain operational during the survey. “Technically you can survey at night with conventional tools, but it would be very painful,” Beers says. “It would require much more setup and more surveyors and would take much longer.

“We needed to complete the work as quickly as possible with as little impact on the airport operations as possible. We needed to work very efficiently, and, most importantly, we needed to ensure that we captured all the feature detail they needed the first time. We didn’t want to have to request permission to return if something was missed. With HDS [high-density scanning], we were confident we would collect all the required data.” 

Not everyone at Beers’ firm viewed laser scanning as the appropriate technology for the job. However, Beers and his team convinced the client--the Federal Aviation Administration--that laser scanning would provide the accuracy, design and feature detail and efficiency the project needed.

A colorized point cloud of the statue.

Beers subcontracted the survey work to another company to enable his firm to gain in-field experience with the scanner and validate the technical feasibility of using laser scanning for as-built runway surveys. However, because scanning was new territory, Beers was careful to take extra “conventional” steps to ensure the methodology and results would be above reproach. Such verification entailed the use of a digital level and prism to establish highly accurate bench-mark tie-in points for vertical control as well as running a conventional-scanning comparison test area.

Targeting a 1,000-foot stretch of taxiway, the team mounted a prism on a digital level rod and then shot about 500 points along that section. They then used a Leica HDS3000 to scan the same stretch. According to Beers, of those 500 digital points, 98 percent of the Leica HDS3000 scanned points matched vertically to within 1/100th of a foot.

“To my knowledge, that was the first runway as-built project performed with HDS, and it certainly proved the technology,” Beers concludes. “We completed the survey in eight days. It would have taken us multiple weeks with conventional technology for the same--if not slightly less--accuracy.”

The proof-of-concept exercise was not enough validation, however, to secure the needed buy in for the firm to purchase its own scanner. After all, subcontracting laser scanning services and owning a scanner are two very different costs. Beers would need to subcontract several more laser scanning projects over the next two years before company executives would agree that laser scanning could add value to the bottom line and elevate the firm’s image as a market leader. In 2004, the survey firm purchased the newly released Leica ScanStation 2.

“After my experience with the HDS3000, I researched other vendors’ scanners, software and support and found Leica to be superior,” Beers says. “Leica is at the forefront in the HDS arena. It invests heavily in R&D and provides very good support and has a superior product. The ScanStation 2, for example, offers a dual-axis compensator to enable surveyors to closely parallel traditional survey traversing techniques but at a much faster speed--you can record up to 50,000 points a second.”

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