Surveying & Mapping Education

As laser scanners become more popular, the need for training grows

May 20, 2014
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The speed is intoxicating: Doing more and more work in less and less time; producing faster results; doing a larger variety of tasks than ever before. Laser scanners have been around for a while now, but the convergence of more affordable models with increased bandwidth and hard drive storage has brought laser scanners into play for more and more surveyors, engineers, architects, forensic scientists and a myriad of other professions.

“Laser scanners are going to follow the course of GPS (global positioning systems),” said Allen Nobles, president of Nobles Consulting Group Inc., a Florida-based consulting firm that provides services throughout the southeastern United States. “We’re really pushing towards a 3D world and scanning is really going there. The next five years, this market is going to change phenomenally.”

Early on, GPS was used mostly by the military, surveyors, pilots and boaters. Now, GPS is part of many common devices, including phones, cars and computers.

According to BNP’s Laser Scanning Surveying Trends study of its readers this year, more than 40 percent of respondents feel that the surveying profession has the opportunity to lead in laser scanning implementation. Of those surveyed who use scanners, 40 percent weren’t using a laser scanner three years ago. That number was down from 2013, when 60 percent of laser scanners hadn’t used one three years earlier.

“This is like the growth of GPS,” said Michael Harvey, product marketing manager at Leica Geosystems. “Back in the early 90s, GPS had a bar chart of growth that was a 15 degree line. When you moved into the 2000s, that line went straight up.”

But with the spread of technology comes the need for training and education.

In BNP’s Laser Scanning Surveying Trends study, we learned that there is a need for more laser scanning-related training/courses. Two-thirds of laser scanner users plan to take training but only one-quarter of users believe there is adequate training available.

Back In Time

Laser scanning has been around since the 1960s. It didn’t find its way into field work for surveyors and engineers, however, until the late 1990s.

Nobles’ firm purchased its first laser scanner in 2003. Big and bulky, it was not only different from modern scanners in its outward appearance, but also in its functionality.

“Back then, you weren’t cutting edge if you had a laser scanner … you were bleeding edge,” said Nobles. “We bought a ScanStation 1 and took a two- or three-day class by Leica. Then we just started working with it, running test jobs. We pretty much figured out what we could do with it. We’d run 8-10 scans a day and take a couple of hours. The speed has really jumped up.”

For anyone who had been surveying long before laser scanners came along, learning to use the new technology can be intimidating.

“Most don’t know anything about laser scanning,” said Nobles. “When you don’t do it, it looks like you’re jumping into a whole other field. It’s intimidating. It’s a total station on steroids. I can do the same thing with a normal total station, but I’d just be there forever. Laser scanning is a big cultural change. The process of scanning isn’t simple. But it’s worth the investment.”

Those who ventured into laser scanning in the early days were getting what was then considered fast results … results that are much less impressive by today’s standards.

“Back then, there was a limited field of view … 40 degrees by 40 degrees,” said Harvey. “To do what it would take 4-6 hours back then, you can do in a mere 30 seconds now. It took an extremely special individual who could figure how to make money to jump into laser scanning. It was disruptive to what was a normal work flow back then. Now, they collect one million points per second. For a typical survey company, they can transform their business with laser scanning.”

Getting Help

With new technology come new problems, not the least of which is learning how to use the technology to your greatest advantage.

According to BNP’s Laser Scanning Surveying Trends study, 67 percent of current laser scanner users feel that colleges are not adequately training the next generation of surveyors to correctly apply the technology. The majority of laser scanner users did not take training in the past year with 70 percent responding that they have not. At the same time, 67 percent of respondents plan to take laser scanning training in the next year.

“There’s not many places you can go to get training,” said Nobles. “You can do it at some of the conferences like SPAR or HxGN. With all the workflows, everyone goes in different directions. If you use a course that’s generalized, you don’t get very far. Everyone really wants specialized training. We’re focused on training as a whole and more of it as customers grow with the market.”

Training opportunities are expanding. Harvey said that Leica’s first user conference was 12 years ago and offered one training class. At this year’s HxGN LIVE, there were more than 20 classes.

“It’s a great motivator to come to a conference,” said Harvey. “Customers aren’t looking for the 100,000 feature overview. They want specialized training. We have aggressive programs. There’s a hunger out there.”

One factor that Harvey sees as helping firms incorporate laser scanning into their workflow is the age of the workers.

“Most surveyors today grew up in the world of video games and are used to technology and change,” said Harvey. “To some, technology is disruptive. To some, that’s their comfort place.”

Regardless of workers’ backgrounds, laser scanning are becoming more and more prevalent in the workplace. According to BNP’s Laser Scanning Surveying Trends study, the mean number of scanners used by respondents is 2.63. A year ago, that number was 1.88.

“As the tools are becoming easier and easier, laser scanning is growing,” said Harvey, who said that Leica’s TruView software is downloaded 40 times per day. “You’re starting to see laser scanning everywhere. You’re seeing imagery in real estate. They’re putting laser scanning on drones. That’s has exciting possibilities. The future of laser scanning is exciting. We’re still just scratching the surface.”

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