Smart Scanning

April 20, 2011
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Colorized point cloud images of a hotel in Orlando, Fla. Left: Flexibility is key. Scanning crews can use the scanner on a vehicle (background) or on a tripod as needed. The cart in the foreground allows batteries and accessories to be easily moved with the scanner. In this application, the scanner was being used for an as-built survey of new construction.


In general, surveyors love technology-especially when it holds the potential for enhancing project approach, improving workflow efficiency and, ultimately, expanding the bottom line. When new technologies emerge on the market, a comment I often hear is, It’s not a matter of if but when.

Through magazine articles, advertisements and trade shows, we saw the first signs of terrestrial laser scanning technology enter the surveying profession nearly 10 years ago. Like many new surveying products on the market, laser scanners seemed to be very specialized systems that had limitations. As with most complex systems, early implementation seemed impractical and very costly. With the obstacles of enormous costs, massive learning curves and marketing challenges, not many surveyors were eager to jump into the uncharted waters of laser scanning.

In 2008, our company decided to take a serious look at the technology to determine whether it fit our business model. In the process, I talked with many surveyors who had already made the investment. Although most were quick to comment on the “cool factor” of laser scanning, many also admitted that their scanner sat idle on the shelf, collecting dust. Occasionally, my surveyor friends would laughingly ask if I’d be interested in buying it from them (and usually not at a very attractive price). That’s a rare occurrence in our profession with regard to technology advances. When electronic distance meters truly came into the surveying market in the 1970s, for example, many surveyors were quick to add them to their “tool bag” and put them to use in the field. And I’ve never heard a surveyor say their robot sits idle or that their GPS equipment rarely gets used. What made laser scanners so different?

We were convinced that scanning was the wave of the future, but we knew we would need precisely the right technology and implementation strategy to make the investment pay off. I once heard a Jaguar owner say that when you buy a Jag, you also have to buy a mechanic to go along with it. We didn’t want to buy a Jaguar. We wanted something more along the lines of a Jeep--rugged, durable and easily maintained.

After months of research, product demos and work group discussions, we decided that maybe the challenge to successfully implementing laser scanning technology wasn’t the technology itself. After all, it does what we want it to do--it collects huge amounts of 3D data in a very short amount of time. Perhaps it was the workflow that needed a closer look.

We developed a set of criteria that had to be met before we would invest in a new system. Laser scanning can be a very specialized market, and we weren’t looking to chase niches. Our No. 1 criterion for the decision was that the scanner had to enhance our workflow and help us do even better what we already do well. It had to be efficient and user friendly with minimal training required, and the processing software had to be effective and intuitive.

Most of our work involves topographic and boundary surveys, so the scanner would need to provide practical value in those applications. Although private developers wouldn’t be interested in 3D deliverables and point clouds, we believed we could use a scanner to streamline our own processes.

After looking at all the different brands and vendors, we chose the RIEGL VZ-400 system for its high accuracy and high speed, compact size, wide field of view and lightweight design. Because software always lags behind hardware, we knew that finding the right processing software would be a challenge. However, we were impressed with TopoDOT from Certainty 3D. The software was complete and intuitive, and the company offered good customer support. They were very much interested in growing their software to the next level, so they were willing to work closely with us to help us achieve our objectives.

Although we had decided on the two major components of our system, we still wanted to find an easier way to move the scanner around to multiple locations on a project site. Everyone else we knew with a stationary scanner used their system on a tripod along with multiple cables, batteries, books and laptops. Moving to a new scan position required moving all of that associated equipment, and valuable time was wasted with multiple setups. Because we were already looking at Certainty 3D for processing software, we saw that they had another new development in the works, called the TopoLIFT. This stable, easy-to-use device could be installed on a pickup truck and would allow us to create a mobile platform for a stationary scanner with all the cables, batteries, books and, of course, the laptop neatly in place and in the comforts of our air-conditioned cab.

Using the TopoLIFT system from Certainty 3D with the RIEGL VZ-400 scanner allows crews to average as few as seven minutes per scan position.

Confident in our selections, we moved forward with our investments in June 2009. We had a backlog of projects and were immediately able to put our new scanner to good use. Minimal training was required for our crews. Rather than trying to market the technology to our clients, we simply integrated it into our workflow as a new tool. We continued to price each project based on conventional methods and used the scanner wherever it made sense. We soon found that the scanner helped us save time and money on many projects, which improved our bottom line and helped us deliver the end product to the client much faster. In some cases, were also able to provide additional benefits to the client with our scanning capabilities. For example, a highway construction project would traditionally involve closing several lanes for a lengthy period of time to do a topographic survey or as-built survey. With the scanner, we’ve been able to reduce those lane closures by 75 percent or more.

By raising the scanner above the height of a pickup, we soon realized that not only do we get above most traffic obstacles, we also increase the scanner’s range dramatically. This benefit translates to fewer scan positions and, ultimately, even more improvements in our workflow.

We’ve virtually eliminated rework due to missing data or a project that expands in scope after the original surveys are complete. Our software helps the crews ensure that all the data from a scan meets the precision requirements before they move on to the next scan. Our crews never have to go back out to the field once they’re finished, which provides a substantial cost savings for us and improves our turnaround time on projects.

When using the scanner, we have been able to reduce our field crew time by up to two-thirds compared with traditional technologies. A topographic survey project that would normally take three days to collect the data can now be completed in one day. The technology has allowed our business to remain viable despite the challenging economy, and it continues to open new doors for us as the software evolves.

Far from sitting on a shelf collecting dust, our scanner is being put to good use in a number of practical, everyday applications. It’s keeping us on the leading edge--which is exactly where we like to be.

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