Eyeing the Point Clouds

February 25, 2011
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Laser scanning isn’t exactly bleeding-edge technology anymore. Many surveying firms are now more than five years into using 3D data capture, have purchased their second (or third!) scanner, and are well acquainted with the value laser scanning can offer their clients and their businesses.

As laser scanning becomes a mainstream technology--something that clients expect from their surveying and engineering firms--certain trends will emerge that should be familiar to anyone who watches technology-driven markets develop: Pricing is more competitive, consolidation occurs, other technology producers begin to build on the mainstreaming platform, and a whole new generation of professionals begins to enter the workforce with this technology firmly ensconced in their beliefs about the best way to do business.

So how are those trends developing in the laser-scanning world? I’m glad you asked.

CSA’s PanoMap application for the Android operating system can hold more than 1,000 360-degree scans and 3D CAD models merged into the scans.

1. Price

Perhaps nothing has the 3D imaging market buzzing like FARO’s announcement at the INTERGEO exhibition in October 2010 that its new Focus3D laser scanner would go to market for less than $40,000. Less than $30,000 if you get the 20-meter-range model.

This means the new model is priced at roughly half the cost of the previous model. FARO’s stated goal is to expand the market for its wares, and the company believes that making price less of a barrier to market entry will open the doors for insurance adjustors, forensic scientists and any number of other professionals who are interested in accurate documentation.

This also, of course, makes the investment much less for surveying professionals. It might get a few people off the fence. But it will also affect resale value for those looking to trade in older models from every manufacturer, and it makes price a much bigger piece of the conversation.

Add to this new pricing announcements from the likes of software manufacturer Pointools, which has bundled its products into a more affordable “suite” of tools, and it’s becoming clear that pricing is a new competitive landscape in 3D imaging. Where before the discussion was much more about capabilities and performance, price will now have a more established place at the table.

2. The Move to Mobile

Why scan station to station when you can scan at 60 mph? That’s what a number of surveyors are asking as they unveil new mobile-scanning solutions. At the recent SPAR Europe conference, keynote speaker Erik Siemer, general manager of M3DM, sparked discussion with his presentation, which focused on the radical way mobile scanning can change the traditional surveying model. Now, he said, “we can do the same work that we used to do,” meaning traditional transportation-based survey work, “but there’s no work on the road.” There’s no longer a reason to get out of the car at all.

Doesn’t that sound attractive? Perhaps you’re already scanning bridges because it’s a lot safer to set up the scanner, hit the button and walk away than it is to laboriously take the measurements while trying to dodge traffic. Now imagine that you need simply to drive underneath the bridge once from either direction. Maybe twice, just to ensure enough points are collected. Doesn’t that sound better?

Reigl, Optech, Topcon and other manufacturers are leading the effort to put more scanners on more vehicles, increasing the durability of the scanners themselves and making it easier to work with the huge datasets that can be gathered in a single day.

In fact, manufacturers like Trimble are already working on mobile solutions for the indoor space. Trimble’s TIMMS solution is a scanner on a cart that you push around at walking speed, allowing the scanner to capture indoor spaces as it goes. Yes, the absence of GPS means relying on survey control and dead reckoning navigation methods to tether laser scanning, digital photography and other sensor data to known coordinates, but solutions for doing this automatically are being deployed, and this could quickly drive automation of scan-to-BIM workflows, unlocking the value of BIM for existing buildings. In the near future, anyone who owns an office tower, hotel or factory will likely be obligated to provide accurate as-builts to first-responder organizations. Ten-year-old faxes of obsolete floor plans based on 2D design documents will be inadequate shields against civil liability.

There are still questions about accuracy and what’s acceptable for different jobs, but it’s certainly true that a trend to watch is the movement of terrestrial scanning away from fixed scanning stations and toward scanning in motion.

The use of point cloud information in Safe Software’s popular FME software will allow the data to be parsed and analyzed in many new ways.

3. The Other Move to Mobile

Capturing all of this point cloud data is terrific, obviously, but more important is putting it to good use. Making that data available on our mobile devices is one way to increase the usefulness of 3D imaging, and companies are already pushing the boundaries of what you can do on your “phone.”

At SPAR International, for example, Amadeus Burger, of Construction Systems Associates, will be presenting CSA’s PanoMap application for the Android operating system, which can hold more than 1,000 360-degree scans and 3D CAD models merged into the scans.

How much clearance do you have under that bridge? It won’t be long before an employee at DOT can simply take her phone from her pocket, find the scan of that bridge, and take a measurement by dragging her finger across the screen. How much material has been removed from that hillside? An employee of a contractor will soon be able to point his tablet device at the hillside and overlay yesterday’s scan with today’s reality, taking note of how much has been removed and how close to goal the project is.

This is a good thing. As that scan data becomes more easily accessed, it will be seen as increasingly valuable.

4. Point Clouds in More Places

As point cloud data is increasingly seen as more valuable, people are going to want to work with it in new and different environments. That doesn’t just mean new and better deliverables, it also means new and different software platforms will want to integrate that data and manipulate it.

We’ve already seen that Safe Software’s popular FME software, used in the spatial information management world, has begun to incorporate point cloud information, which will allow that data to be parsed and analyzed in many new ways. Leica, similarly, is making it possible to plug its Cyclone, CloudWorx, and TruView products into other popular software platforms, like AutoCAD, PDMS, SmartPlant and Microstation.

It is much easier to view these point clouds, too. Creative Dimension Software has a Flash-based point cloud and 3D model viewer that can easily be plugged into a website. Online Interactive, with its brand-new CloudCaster and PointcloudToolbox, is pushing the envelope constantly, attempting to deliver on its company motto of “3D goodness for everyone.”

Where point clouds previously needed to be converted into models before they could become useful to other software packages, they are now more often being left intact so that none of the valuable information they contain is lost. This will further increase the value and usefulness of scan data.

The low price point of FARO’s new Focus3D scanner drew a lot of attention at INTERGEO 2010.

5. Engaging the Next Generation

The surveyors of tomorrow will use laser scanners as a matter of course. The academic community is embracing these new technology tools and using the 3D information they produce to hook the next generation into the surveying profession.

As just one example, consider the activities of the University of Texas at Dallas. There, students are operating a host of laser scanners in the field, using that data to build 3D models, and then taking iPads out into the field to take measurements of what they’re looking at just by moving their fingers across the screen.

Better yet, the calculations they make and the conclusions they draw are sent automatically back to a centrally housed database and are collected in real time so that they can be analyzed back in the classroom and the instructor can talk to them about the decisions they made. Students gather around large 3D displays, all wearing those goofy glasses, so that they can examine their findings in 3D.

Think back to your classrooms. How was the theory of surveying taught? What images were you shown and in what form? How would your experience have differed had you been working with 3D displays of point clouds on 72-inch screens?

Surveyors coming into the profession now are bound to be both well-versed in the traditional survey methods that have built the profession and in the new-age methods that are defining the future. Making your office environment more welcoming for those with that kind of skill set will make it more likely you will attract the best and brightest talent entering the field.

Clearly, the good news here is that there ought to be increasing demand for that scanner in your trunk. But with increasing demand will come increasing competition, both from those who are laser-scanning specialists and from end users who think they can just do all of this themselves.

It will be paramount that surveying and engineering professionals stay out ahead of these trends and capitalize on them if they want to stay relevant and profitable in years to come.

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