The 'Can' Man

February 1, 2010
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Clay Wygant is relentlessly optimistic in his approach to mobile scanning technology.


In many ways, Clay Wygant is a typical surveyor. His tanned, weathered face and comfortable manner evince 20-plus years of working outdoors. Like many of his peers, his knowledge about the profession has come primarily through hands-on experience. After completing a two-year program in civil and survey technologies early in his career, Wygant immersed himself in the technologies and methods of his craft, first through private firms and then through an eight-year stint in the public sector working for the New Mexico Department of Transportation. The knowledge gained through these positions gave him the confidence to launch his own successful survey consulting firm, which he later sold before accepting a post as senior surveyor at WHPacific Inc., a multidisciplinary firm headquartered in Anchorage, Alaska. It’s a commonplace story of a surveyor working his way up the professional ladder.

But anyone who has met Wygant can attest that he is also anything but typical. Attend any conference on laser scanning, and you’ll likely find Wygant in the middle of a small crowd, sharing stories, asking questions and pressing for details about mobile technologies and projects. His quick wit, easy laugh and friendly nature make him instantly likeable. Yet beneath his affable personality lies a fierce determination. His pioneer spirit and tenacious attitude have earned him the respect of both colleagues and competitors. “I’m impossible to be around sometimes,” Wygant says with a laugh. “But that’s part of what it takes to drive this technology forward. A willingness to take risks and a never-quit, never-say-die attitude are imperative.”

It’s this mentality that has propelled Wygant and WHPacific to the leading edge of the mobile scanning frontier. The trail has been largely uphill with plenty of obstacles along the way. However, the payoff in new business and emerging opportunities has made the journey well worth the effort.

Scans captured along the Snake River in Idaho.

Taking the Leap

Wygant’s excursion into scanning began five years ago when WHPacific decided to invest in Leica’s Cyrax 3D laser scanning system. “We weren’t the first company to buy a laser scanner, but it was still a relatively small club,” Wygant says. The firm focused on developing a business model that would allow it to capitalize on the efficiency of the technology, and it began carving out a successful reputation in the scanning market.

When mobile scanning was introduced several years later with Optech’s launch of the Lynx Mobile Mapper, WHPacific was poised to take the next step. “Our understanding of terrestrial scanning gave us the insight to see the possibilities,” Wygant says. “It looked like the future.”

Still, seeing the future and jumping aboard are often two very different concepts--especially when it involves a large corporation heading into uncharted territory. Wygant says that it took more than just his own ideas and vision to convince the WHPacific board of directors to take the leap. “We were the first company in North America to purchase a mobile mapping system,” he says. “There was no empirical data to support our ideas--only history. But Andy Potts, the firm’s survey director, immediately saw potential in the technology and was instrumental in working with the board. Without his vision, and without the favorable response from the board, we wouldn’t have been able to move forward.”

The firm purchased the Lynx system in March 2008 and hit the ground running--or, rather, moving at rapid speeds in its new scan van. Within a matter of months, Potts and Wygant had secured projects modeling eco-environments for endangered and threatened species, mapping some of the busiest interstates in the nation, and scanning complex rail corridors and bridges, including San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. It was a snowball effect, with each success building on the one before. “The job [of convincing everyone] got easier over time,” Wygant says. “But it was still a big task, even for two people.”

And at every turn, the team encountered new challenges. “Mobile scanning is very difficult and very demanding,” Wygant says, “and every time you turn around, you’re set up to fail because everyone has such incredible expectations. The technology is really fantastic, but it isn’t magic, either. Things sometimes go wrong, or projects go sideways. Every time you go out, you’re basically pushing the envelope again.”

Wygant recounts one instance in which the firm was conducting proof-of-concept scans along a 5-mile stretch of the Snake River in Idaho in an effort to secure a future project in that region. “We had trouble getting the equipment working in the morning, and we only had a two-hour window to determine if it was go or no-go,” he says. “I was working really hard. We hadn’t had the system more than a couple of months, and I saw something that I wasn’t familiar with. Before the sun came up that morning, I talked to people at Optech on three continents trying to get everything straight.”

The team resolved the issue about 15 minutes before the deadline and was awarded the project, which it completed this past fall. In honor of the achievement and his attitude in general, Wygant’s colleagues gave him a bracelet engraved with the phrase “relentlessly optimistic.” Wygant keeps the bracelet on the steering wheel of his car both as a memento and a reminder when the going gets especially tough. “The jobs we had in 2009--every one of them was a make-or-break situation,” he says. “They came through and were successful, but there was a tremendous effort involved. When we hit an obstacle, there was no choice--we had to find a way around.”

He notes that success in mobile scanning--or any new technology--takes a tremendous effort and requires a good team, effective marketing, technical savvy and determination. “You can never stop,” he says. “It’s too scary when you pause to look around, so you have to keep pressing forward.”

A scan of the MacArthur Tunnel on the Presidio of San Francisco.

Envisioning the Future

Of course, Wygant’s dedication isn’t driven by fear. In fact, it’s quite the contrary. Look closer at the lines on his face, and you’ll see that many of them are laugh lines. Although he’s under a tremendous amount of pressure to succeed--a pressure that he admits he primarily places on himself--the sparkle in his eyes when he talks about the potential of mobile scanning technology is evidence of just how much he enjoys his work. “There’s a huge potential for different applications--we haven’t even scratched the surface yet,” he says. “That’s what excites me. If we’re going to be in business and going to work every day, we might as well have some fun.” 

The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco is among WHPacific's mobile scanning projects.

A number of challenges remain to the widespread adoption of mobile scanning technology. Chief among them is a lack of software that can reliably process point cloud data in a format that is usable across the industry. While numerous software products exist and still more have recently been introduced specifically for processing point clouds, Wygant notes that incompatibility issues abound. “As soon as someone comes along with a graphics engine that can handle mobile scanning data and allow people to easily interchange data, that’s going to provide a significant advantage,” Wygant says.

Changing the mindset of the design community to incorporate data-rich models into their workflow and bring the mobile scanning experts into the project early on are also hurdles that need to be overcome. Wygant notes that a common tendency is to wait until midway through a project to engage the mobile scanning professionals, but this approach can lead to miscommunication and frustration. A better approach is to include scanning in the conceptual stages. “Entering the discussions at the beginning and applying experience and knowledge to the ever-tightening budget and schedule could very well mean the difference for a client in the success of their project and future business with that client,” Wygant says.

WHPacific is working with Caltrans to develop standards for mobile scanning.

For Wygant, however, the challenges are part of the thrill of being a technology pioneer. “Our friends at Optech use the phrase, ‘Welcome to the revolution.’ It’s both poetic and true,” Wygant says. “WHPacific set out on this path partly due to its tremendous potential. Having control of the base map data in-house on large-scale transportation projects was previously the domain of photogrammetry, but now smaller firms can ramp up with a variety of software and produce similar-quality products.”

The end result is that firms can now provide their clients with more data, which, in turn, will drive the desire for more data as clients begin to see the long-term value. It’s a win-win proposition.

As WHPacific continues to build on its mobile scanning experience, the firm has begun to partner with other surveying and engineering firms to provide assistance and expertise as a consultant. The company is working closely with the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) to develop standards for mobile scanning. Wygant is also exploring potential opportunities for the firm to integrate its scanning technology into applications other than topographical surveying.

Although he doesn’t know how far the technology will go or how it will adapt to different environments, he says he’s confident that mobile scanning is the future. “We need to evolve,” he says. “Survey is the logical discipline for the collection and distribution of quality topographic and planimetric data. Everyone need not own a mobile scanning system, but everyone can bring a data provider on board as a consultant and own the project.” 

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