Editor's Points

Laser Scanners on Prime-Time TV

July 22, 2014
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Lights … cameras … laser scanners.

In July, laser scanning historic structures went prime time with the PBS TV series “Time Scanners,” and that’s a good thing for the professionals who read POB.

The airing of a television show focused on scanners shows just how the technology has spread. The series marks a progression in the overall awareness of the technology that’s changing the work lives of surveyors, engineers and others in the geospatial profession.

After viewing the series premiere, my favorite line from “Time Scanners” is this: “The real key to this technology is the interpretation.” An obvious thought, but worth stating because it’s the philosophy that forms the foundation of this series.

The debut episode examines the pyramids of Egypt with scanning of four sites: the Pyramid of Djoser (Step Pyramid); the Pyramid of Meidum (Collapsed Pyramid); the Bent Pyramid of Dahshur; and the Great Pyramid of Giza.

Like a modern-day mapping detective, structural engineer Steve Burrows uses the laser scanning technology to answer specific questions about these 4,500-year-old buildings.

For the Great Pyramid, Burrows wanted to find out how precise the engineering and construction was on the massive structure. For the Bent Pyramid, he wanted to know if a structural failure caused a change in the project part-way through. The Collapsed Pyramid is scanned to find the most likely dimensions of the outer shell. And the laser scanner gives the underground dimensions of the burial chamber of the oldest of the still-standing pyramids, the Step Pyramid.

Along the way, there are some surprises that only a laser scanner could reveal. The burial chamber inside the Great Pyramid is in the southeast corner of the structure, surprising even an Egyptologist on the show. The chamber was always throught to lie on the western side of the Great Pyramid. The southeast is an important area of the pyramids of Giza, which are aligned from southeast corner to northwest corner so that the pyramids progress towards the home of the Egyptian sun god, according to the show.

The series, which can be viewed online at pbs.org, doesn’t get into the process of scanning. But the examination of the 3D models does get a lot of screen time, which shows the audience the value of the information collected by scanning. Having both an engineer and an Egyptologist look at the same model also shows how the same data has multiple uses … a theme from this summer’s HxGN LIVE conference in Las Vegas.

So in a one-hour show, laser scanners helped to clarify how the classic pyramid form took shape in less than a century, how the Bent Pyramid was intentional and not a mistake (to the surprise of Burrows), why the Collapsed Pyramid failed, and just how precise the Great Pyramid is (horizontal lines vary by just 1 inch over 500 feet).

Despite all of that, this might be the biggest surprise taken from “Time Scanners” – whoever thought that the explanation of a point cloud would be part of prime-time television?

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