The growing arena of laser scanning technology is showcased at SPAR2004.

SPAR2004 wasn't a fighting event, but it certainly ended in a victory. Imaging processes, specifically the use of laser scanning for existing conditions assessment, have come such a long way since their introduction to the surveying and plant industries that two gentlemen from a newly founded self-run company saw the potential-and the need-for a collective conference focusing on this sector of technology. Thus, for two days, May 19 and 20, more than 200 registrants and a dozen suppliers gathered in Houston to share details on technological offerings on both the hardware and software sides, to launch news about business alliances and to present case study success stories. Following the short but effective conference, Tom Greaves and Bruce Jenkins, hosts of the event and partners of Spar Point Research LLC, an independent research firm based in Danvers, Mass., reported that "many of our attendees expressed their satisfaction that now this industry has its own forum." The second SPAR event is in the planning stages already and it's understandable why this is so. The compendium of information one could reap at this conference was quite abundant.

Offerings for Tomorrow

Much sought-after improvements in the hardware and software offerings of laser scanning equipment and solutions were announced at the show and are currently being implemented or being readied for implementation. Case studies of laser scanning use by surveyors, many of which were presented at SPAR 2004, are piling up, proving the success this technology can offer. For the equipment and solution needs that remain unavailable, worry seems to be unwarranted-because suppliers are listening.

Take BitWyse Solutions Inc. for instance. As a pioneer all on his own, President Mark Klusza has been setting a foundation for scanning solutions since the early 1990s. With the launch of the company's star product LASERGen in January of 2001, BitWyse offered the first solution to allow users to utilize raw scan data with great accuracy and speed within minutes of data capture, and immediately work with all captured data inside MicroStation. And soon, hardware independent BitWyse will offer this technology in the AutoCAD environment as well; it is currently in the beta phase.

Released at the SPAR conference by BitWyse is SceneManager Registration & Review, a solution that lets users line up point cloud data and create photorealistic images without having to go into a 3D environment. A free project viewer now available allows customers to distribute scan data deliverables. A new functionality, the add-on Interference Manager for LASERGen, allows users to create a 3D review model from a fusion of CAD and scan data. LASERGen Interference Manager takes a snapshot of interference in the user's data and reads out to the interference, manages clashes, assigns approval, writes work processes and generates reports with color graphics. Klusza said he and his team continue to work on customer wish lists.

Klusza said the business challenge in using laser scanning technology today is that many firms realize they need to change their work processes and update their infrastructure, but are hesitant. "It's small dollars when compared to the data obtained," Klusza said. Practitioners, according to Klusza, should plan. Period. Planning equals success. They need to understand the weaknesses and strengths of the technology and the systems, and apply that knowledge to their own application work. If the practitioners, current and curious, work with helpful vendors, the possibilities for laser scanning technology are nearly limitless.

For many service providers, there is proof of the technology in pictures. Fly-throughs sell. But, the effective use of the information captured in those fly-throughs is what the vendors need to fill or improve upon. For software makers, the race is on to integrate real-time fly-throughs from large data sets into select CAD environments. "There's a real prize in being able to navigate a million points like you could navigate points in a CAD model," said Spar Point's Tom Greaves.

Good, effective software will handle multiple scans, be intuitive to use, provide fast navigation around 3D point cloud data and detect clashes in the data. Some computers are maxing out in their abilities to handle the large data sets that the laser scanners are producing. And this rate will only grow, so firm owners and operators, and software makers, need to be planning. And what about transfer capabilities? Storage? These are all important parts of the equation.

Vendor Inventions

Many software offerings and alliances were highlighted at SPAR2004, including:

Trimble/MENSI (Sunnyvale, Calif.) delivered a new PDC (PointCloud Data Center) concept. The PDC concept is reported as allowing users to take advantage of specialized point cloud software and a CAD package simultaneously and seamlessly. The concept includes integration between Trimble and other software vendors, the first being AVEVA Group plc (Cambridge, England) in which point cloud data captured in MENSI's 3Dipsos software will be integrated with AVEVA's VANTAGE Plant Design Management System (PDMS), a popular 3D plant design solution. More alliances between Trimble and other software providers are expected, including Intergraph, Autodesk and Bentley.

A parallel alliance with AVEVA was also announced by Leica Geosystems HDS Inc. (formerly Cyra Technologies Inc., San Ramon, Calif.) to integrate Leica's Cyclone software with AVEVA's PDMS solution. Also on the software side, Leica announced the release of CloudWorx 3.0 software application. The new release allows importation of large point clouds directly inside compatible CAD applications. Navigation is enhanced by spatial indexing of point cloud data and the management of multiple "limit boxes" to hide unwanted data. A MicroStation-melded version of CloudWorx-Bentley CloudWorx 3.0-is distributed exclusively by Bentley Systems Incorporated (Exton, Pa.); an AutoCAD-capable version is available from Leica.

Z+F (Zoller+Fröhlich, Duquesne, Pa.) unveiled its new LFM Server software, which answers the call of handling very large point clouds. LFM Server has the capability of viewing and scanning up to 250 scans at a time in stand-alone mode or in MicroStation; other CAD systems including AutoCAD are currently being tested. The software is said to allow viewing of up to 250 high-resolution scans with no loss of scan resolution, ease slicing processes and free the user from having to think in images by breaking chains. Project size is limited only by the user's hard drive, according to Graham Dalton, technical director of the company's laser group. Z+F also promoted its Imager 5003 phase-shift scanner, its first imager introduced in 2001, which the Leica HDS4500 is based on.

Hardware manufacturers contend in many areas, including the speed, range, price and flexibility features of their products. Many announcements were made and many products launched in an attempt to keep up or break ahead of the others. IQvolution AG (Richboro, Pa.) presented a different kind of laser scanner: a modulated one. The iQsun 880 includes four modules: base module, distance sensor, mirror axis and an internal PC. The last three components are interchangeable, allowing for easy swap-outs in times of upgrades, expansion or malfunction.

The new MDL LaserAce scanner combines reflectorless total station technology with laser scanning and claims to survey up to ranges of 700 m.
MDL (Measurement Devices Ltd., Houston, Texas) featured the Waterborne Dynamic Laser Scanning System, the Cavity Auto-scanning Laser System (C-ALS MKII) and the new LaserAce Scanner. The Waterborne Dynamic Laser Scanning System, created for hydrographic surveyors and engineers, carries out continuous slow/high-speed laser scans of above-water features from small or large boats at speeds of up to 15 m per second to a range of 300 m. The Cavity Auto-Scanning Laser System is a 50 mm diameter, borehole-deployable 3D laser scanning system. This system is designed for shaft and cave surveys, tunnel profiling, backfill placement monitoring and civil engineering site works, among others. The new LaserAce Scanner combines reflectorless total station technology with laser scanning and claims to survey up to ranges of 700 m.

Optech Incorporated (Toronto, Ontario, Canada) featured its tripod-mounted, eye-safe ILRIS-3D LiDAR system and discussed methods for integrating data from multiple sensor platforms, including terrestrial, airborne, space-based, bathymetric LiDAR products and digital photography. The ILRIS-3D systems are available for rent as of March, 2004. Optech also partnered with Intergraph to combine Optech's Airborne Laser Terrain Mapper (ALTM) with Intergraph's Z/I Imaging Digital Mapping Camera to speed delivery of photogrammetric products.

The Riegl LMS Z-Series scanners can be mounted on the top of the worker's vehicle and remain in place throughout a project. The technique omits repeat setups, saving the surveyor time.
Riegl USA Inc. (Orlando, Fla.), which has focused on pulse TOF systems, gave a presentation on its integrated photogrammetric and 3D LiDAR technology plus spatial point cloud data system. The Riegl booth also highlighted the company's pioneering approach of "stop-and-go scanning," made possible with its LMS Z-Series scanners. This line of scanners can be mounted on the top of the worker's vehicle and remain in place throughout a project. The technique omits repeat setups, saving the surveyor time. Reflectors are set up on the jobsite once, and the surveyor can collect data without stopping to reset control points for each scan. In his presentation later in the conference, Reigl's President, Ted Knaack, noted that the system uses an invisible, infrared beam for its laser, reducing the effects on other workers and passers-by on the scene: a good point since operators are legally liable for the effect of their lasers on others.

Visi Image Inc. (Houston, Texas), the "spring chicken" of the show (the company was founded in 2000), showcased its new lightweight (15 lbs), highly portable 3Dguru scanner. The unit's size and weight cut down on shipping costs, allowing it to be carried easily and stowed in airport overhead bins, said President Joel Hurt Jr. New technologies promise to make future models even more portable and rugged.

Service Providers and Other Important Aspects

Another side of the scanning equation discussed at SPAR 2004 was that of the service providers and their clients who receive the deliverables of laser scanning for use in their own projects, and firms using or seeking information in this blooming market. As with other growing technologies inching their way into the A/E/C industry, laser scanning equipment, software and services should be overseen by experienced practitioners of the technology; otherwise, growth can be slow and results may be less than satisfactory.

In a newer established industry, poor results from inefficient service vendors can lead to cautious or even negative responses toward the technology-and other service providers. Since laser scanning is not understood by many clients, service providers carry a great responsibility to educate clients on the technology, including what it can and can't do, and when it should and should not be used (sometimes only conventional methods can do the job), in order for clients to gain trust in the technology and in the service providers. This education on proper use is necessary for the industry segment to prosper. Projects most often fail because of the application of the technology, not the technology itself. This again is why experienced practitioners should be called upon to perform the work. Although laser scanning can be applied at any phase of a project, it is wise to implement it as early as possible. Service providers must strive to make all of this clear to their clients. In turn, clients need to communicate their job requirements, including the purpose of the project, its site elements and the deliverables desired. It is worthless to capture data that can't be used in CAD models to support design work.

Resistance to change is a challenging factor in convincing clients of the technology's effectiveness. Clients and potential users must be educated in the benefits and the logistics of the scanning technology; this includes how the technology works (it isn't just picture taking), and the how, when and where it can be used. Managing client expectations is important in applying laser scanning and is an area where both service provider and client can work together. Clients should talk to others familiar with laser scanning for feedback, both good and bad, and test the scanner in various environments and at different times. Service providers should calibrate their instruments to ensure quality and accuracy of point cloud data. Proving it over other techniques and equipment is another factor, as many clients see it as an unnecessary line item. This is mostly due to the rudimentary nature of the technology in the market, which will change in time. Service providers must be patient with clients and prove a solid cost comparison between laser scanning and traditional methods.

Future Outlooks

Better, faster, cheaper, lighter, stronger, more flexible. These are the wants of the laser scanning hardware market and the goals of the makers. Many if not all of these areas can be improved based on advancements made in other technological products designed on optics and electronics. Software wish lists include better integration between tools from various vendors and more seamless options for importing large point cloud data sets directly into CAD environments. But, despite the growing wish lists, it is still evident that laser scanning has come a long way in a decade and a half. Firms both large and small can benefit from laser scanning technology; cost-effective data collection and effective work processes are what is needed to make it successful. Firms have reported that well-executed projects have the potential to reap 10 to 20 times their return on investment.

Mike Frecks, PLS, president of 3DS2 Inc., highlighted many benefits of the technology and stated that both hardware and software are "moving quickly." Laser scanning, Frecks noted, can be beneficial for users working in the night, or when data is needed around roads because it requires no land closures. Data can be obtained at sub-centimeter accuracy and at high speeds. In many cases, practitioners obtain more data than at first needed.

There is some way to go before laser scanning is accepted fully. Common terminology needs to be developed, as well as standards for data sets, calibration and target use (the National Institute of Standards and Technology is establishing a national performance evaluation facility for laser distance and ranging). But it is evident that this market is on the upswing and that vendors are evaluating the needs and requests of its users in order to create more effective means of data collection and usage. "In many instances, the risk of not deploying laser scanning is now seen to outweigh the risk of applying a new technology and unfamiliar work processes," reported Spar Point's Bruce Jenkins.

Perhaps our next review will include how scanners perform underwater.