With the rapid pace of evolving technology, the ever-expanding options of geospatial choices can be daunting to end users, especially to those who may be uncertain when – or if – to pull the trigger on innovations that claim they can solve a specific problem. There’s also the question of whether the end user has the right knowledge base or experience to be able to get the full value from a solution.

The case of 3D laser scanning, which is quickly becoming a significant part of surveying today, is an excellent example of one of these choices.

According to a United Nations report, “Future Trends In Geospatial Information Management: The Five- To Ten-Year Vision,” prepared by the United Nations Initiative on Global Geospatial Information Management, the trend of moving from 2D to 3D – and on to 4D visualizations – is both user- and technology-driven and will accelerate in the coming years. In essence, the report informs that 3D is increasingly becoming an intrinsic part of core geospatial data, versus a distinctive add-on as it has been previously.

However, some geospatial professionals see limiting factors to scanning adoption. They anticipate the new technology will present them with an unfamiliar workflow and an endless and overwhelming amount of data they aren’t sure what to do with.

Data context, speed and other benefits

To many, laser scanning remains a complex, and often perplexing innovation. In some cases, this is due to the sheer range of its applications and industries it affects. 

While traditional scanning methods have played an important role in geospatial for many years, 3D laser scanning has been gaining attention based on the volume of precise data it can capture, making its speed and efficiency unmatched by other methods. 

Today’s 3D laser scanners are based on light detection and ranging (LiDAR) technologies that measure and record precise distances and locations to produce a point cloud file. The technology allows users to develop highly accurate digital measurements and images easily and quickly for use throughout a project’s lifecycle.

The technology’s ability to capture millions of highly accurate data points quickly on a project can vastly boost productivity and minimize rework by distinguishing any deviations from design before they affect the schedule and budget. In principle, the 3D scanner bounces its laser source off terrain or a building and then calculates distance by measuring time difference from the reference pulse to the receiving pulse. By assembling millions of these data points into a point cloud, surveyors can obtain a precise, accurate representation of the feature they are scanning, which they can then utilize to support the development of a detailed as-built survey and model.

That’s the part you probably already understand. Here are just a few of the value-added benefits for those geospatial professionals who utilize laser scanning as part of their daily workflows:

  1. You capture more complete information. With traditional surveying methods, you can capture discrete points one by one, yet are forced to relate these points to one another through line work or feature coding to show context. Both of these processes are prone to errors and confusion. However, with 3D laser scanning the point density is so rich that the context is immediately recognizable, and you can simply extract the meaningful information from the digital copy of the physical world.
  2. It’s faster. What historically took days or weeks now takes only one or two days – at most – with 3D laser scanning. The technology allows surveyors to collect information quickly and accurately in less time, which translates to fewer site or field visits. This approach not only saves time but money as well. The availability of such robust, time-saving technology means geospatial professionals can complete a more significant workload in a shorter amount of time.
  3. It’s easier and safer. Accurately and carefully measuring areas, buildings, and landforms with hand-held tools manually can be time-consuming and challenging. Also, some terrain is simply inaccessible to humans. And even for areas that are accessible, they are often difficult to measure, due to obstacles like rocks, trees and other objects in the surveyor’s path. 3D laser scanning doesn’t require direct physical access to features and areas, making it an ideal tool for hazardous environments, such as unstable slopes or high-volume traffic areas. 

Who are 3D Laser Scanner Users?

Scanning users can be found in all different types of geospatial disciplines and in a wide range of company sizes. 

While research shows 3D laser scanner users to be highly educated with degrees in surveying, engineering, architecture and design, skill levels vary along with their frequency of use of the technology. One missing component is limited exposure to laser scanning techniques early on in one’s career. Many users are therefore self-taught and must develop the best practices—and sometimes entire business cases—for their companies to utilize 3D scanning. 

Some of the more traditional applications of 3D laser scanning include:

  • Replacement for traditional survey methods
  • Land topography and structures (such as tracking erosion and mapping caves and mines
  • Roadway and bridge design, construction and repair
  • Water and sewer facilities/lines
  • Parking lot building and repair/pavement grading
  • Site planning and fitting of components (involving constant rescanning)
  • Building construction, design, remodeling and maintenance
  • Piping, HVAC and electrical design
  • Internal and external building mapping
  • Structural integrity and fit (insurance)
  • Old building/architecture preservation, reconstruction and documentation
  • Forensics/accident and crime scene capture
  • Manufacturing (measuring precise dimensions, angles and curves)
  • Archeological records
  • Sculptures and artwork
  • Hollywood movie sets

With increasing demand to map the physical world in a more sophisticated and detailed way, it’s clear that 3D laser scanning is finding its way into most areas of the survey profession. Whether that professional is on a busy street intersection mapping for right-of-way expansion, inside a building measuring steel verticality or on a construction site delivering quantiles for take-offs, 3D laser scanning can have immense benefits to the everyday measurement task. 

As scanning becomes more accessible, all kinds of geospatial professionals will use the technology to accomplish everyday tasks both in the field and via office deliverables. 

Some Final Thoughts

Increasingly, 3D laser scanning is making the day-to-day job of survey and scanning professionals faster, easier and more productive, but it requires a new way of thinking for the surveying community.

That thinking acknowledges that surveying and 3D laser scanning fit together well, and the benefits of scanning can help geospatial professionals, particularly surveyors, take on more of a consultative role with their clients.

It also is expected that improvements in ease of use, versatility, cost and software will help geospatial professionals more easily surpass one of the biggest barriers to 3D laser scanner adoption: proving to upper management that the return on investment is real by reducing the time in the field and increasing the usability of 3D data back in the office.

Ultimately, the ubiquity of efficient 3D laser scanners across geospatial project settings will increasingly lead to a larger acceptance of scanning deliverables from the wider audience of geospatial data users. In step with that growing acceptance, every successful project and surveyor who adopts and embraces this innovative way of thinking about a project will help move the geospatial industry forward.