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Editor's Points: The next peak.

December 1, 2009
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I learned to ski when I was in my early 20s. After a couple of lessons and some practice, I was able to swish somewhat gracefully down the easy slopes of some of Michigan’s premier ski hills.

A decade or so and a lot more practice later, I consider myself a capable intermediate skier. I can handle a black diamond run if I’m cajoled into it. But I still prefer the slow-but-steady pace of the easy beginner slopes for one primary reason: That’s where I’m comfortable. To me, the risk of sustaining a serious injury is not worth the exhilaration of flying down the hill at breakneck speed. Many people (including my audacious husband) would strongly disagree.

I don’t know whether Jean Carter, president of Tulsa, Okla.-based Aerial Data Service (ADS), or Eric Andelin, the company’s vice president, ever hit the slopes. But they’re certainly not timid in their approach to business. The geospatial services firm has more than 40 years of experience in aerial photography and photogrammetric mapping. But when mobile LiDAR technology first emerged a couple of years ago, Carter and Andelin were quick to envision the potential. “We had already been experimenting with terrestrial LiDAR to see if we could use it from a mobile perspective,” Andelin says. “When we saw the mobile technology, we knew it would be a game-changer.”

ADS was among the first U.S. firms to invest in mobile mapping technology. And trailblazing with any new technology carries substantial risks. “It requires not giving up, not overselling the product and not overselling your capabilities,” Andelin says. “We have to invest a lot of time in educating our clients and working with other firms that have the same technology to keep things moving forward.”

It also requires a substantial amount of creativity and optimism--traits that Andelin has in abundance. Since clients don't often understand the value of point clouds, Andelin gives them the data they need in formats that are familiar to them while quietly gathering and processing substantially more data behind the scenes. He lets clients know he has those data and then offers some ideas on how they could use that information to achieve their goals easier, safer and faster--bite-sized samples that make them eager to try the main course. He tirelessly explores new ways to apply and market the technology, often without seeing an immediate return on that investment. It’s the true meaning of the phrase “on the bleeding edge.” But according to Andelin, it’s not a question of whether the technology will pay off; it’s simply a matter of when. “When you’re on the bleeding edge, you have to create the opportunity and make the technology work,” he says. “There are a lot of sleepless nights. I enjoy it, but not everyone can do this. You have to be a risk taker.”

I spoke with a number of risk takers at the Leica Geosystems Worldwide HDS User Conference in October. While the main focus of the conference was terrestrial laser scanning rather than mobile, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the firms that continue to push the envelope in applying the technology. Substantial challenges remain in areas such as data storage and manipulation, packaging and pricing deliverables, and educating the market. But the leaders are boldly headed toward the next geospatial peak.

The good news is that there’s still plenty of room on this run, as well as in GIS, building information modeling and other exhilarating slopes, for anyone brave enough to venture out of their comfort zone. “I want to be able to say, ‘I did that; I charted my own course,’ said Leica conference attendee Brian Dougherty, president and owner of Batavia, N.Y.-based TerreCoDa Inc., a recently launched firm that provides laser scanning equipment rental and scanning services. “To be competitive and stay on the cutting edge you have to constantly learn. You have to be a sponge and just absorb all the ideas that people are coming up with today. And then you have to figure out how to do it quicker and better.”

Whether you’re trying out new peaks or honing your skills on more broadly carved slopes, all of us at POB wish you a happy holiday and a successful run in 2010.

P.S. Don’t miss Eric Andelin’s article on pages 12-14 in this issue, and be sure to check out our coverage of the Leica conference at www.pobonline.com.

Share your thoughts on this column at www.pobonline.com. To contact the editor, send an e-mail to pobeditor@bnpmedia.com.

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