A plan view drawing of 300 museum figurines spanning three rooms was created using a laser scanner; the coordinates of each character helped to reassemble the entire display to a new museum.

It has been well recognized that 3D laser scanners are a useful tool for a wide variety of surveying and engineering projects where existing conditions need to be documented. Many organizations are incorporating 3D laser scanning into their daily workflows either as specific scan jobs or as regular surveying activities. Both the amount of accurate data a scanner can quickly acquire and the highly visual aspect of the data allow for potential uses outside the normal realm of surveying and engineering applications. This article explores some of these unique projects and demonstrates how service providers have succeeded in giving their clients satisfied results using laser scanning technology.

Three-dimensional models of Native American petroglyphs allow for virtual visits.

The Sky's the Limit

In 2002, when Midwestern Consulting purchased its first laser scanner, an HDS2500 (Leica Geosystems HDS, San Ramon, Calif.), we wanted to be sure we knew how to properly operate it before we started marketing the technology as a new service. So, as with most of our new technology, a testing period was initiated. In that period we scanned many scenes and objects that were interesting to us, including office staff, homes and cars. The best out-of-the-ordinary scans, though, are the ones a client actually pays for.

In order to find clients willing to pay for this new technology, we had the challenging task of changing our clients’ mindsets so they could see the added value a laser scanner offers. We learned that once customers understand the technology and its capabilities, they are limited only by their imaginations.

Exhibiting Accuracy

Our first unique use of our new scanner sent us in an artistic direction. Our client needed to move a museum display consisting of 300 handmade characters in an 18th-century Italian alpine village setting. The scene was created by two gentlemen over a 25-year period. The contractor needed to disassemble and move the display, which was spread out over three rooms, to a new museum--and they wanted to preserve the original layout of the display. Since one cannot take measurements with a standard digital photo, we used our HDS2500 scanner to perform 43 scans of the three rooms; using Leica Geosystems Cyclone software, we created a 3D digital inventory of all 300 characters. The job was complex because of the number of characters to track, which is why our scanner offered us an advantage. Our final deliverable product to the contractor was a plan view drawing that showed the layout of each scene. Each figurine was labeled with a coordinate that could be used to reassemble the entire display.

Preserving Petroglyphs

David Evans and Associates Inc. (DEA) headquartered in Portland, Ore., has surveyed handmade art using laser scanning technology. But the art they’ve scanned is not new--one of the company’s clients needed a virtual representation of Native American petroglyphs (carved rock designs) in an area in the northwest region of the United States a couple of years ago. “The project was completed so that the archaeological site could be preserved in a 3D computer model because the area was being flooded due to the rising of a lake surface elevation,” says Sean Douthett, LS, senior associate and survey manager of DEA’s Tacoma, Wash. office. “The rock was going to be under water soon and the natives wanted the ability to virtually visit the site once it was inaccessible.” To create this virtual model, DEA used a Leica HDS2500 to scan the face of the rock. The fieldwork lasted about eight hours, most of which was travel time. They used the data to create a triangulated model of the area. Once this model was created, they could trace the petroglyphs with polylines in their true 3D locations on the rock face. The triangulated mesh and polylines were ultimately exported to ESRI’s (Redlands, Calif.) ArcView.

A point cloud of an Adidas shoe provided the backdrop for a television commercial.

Slam-Dunk Scanning

The film industry and clever marketing agencies have used laser scanners to create virtual computer models for years. DEA was able to offer a unique laser scanning solution when shoemaker Adidas wanted to create a backdrop for a television commercial. “The premise behind the commercial is that the basketball star had a flight crew in the sole of his shoe helping him launch for slam dunks,” Douthett says. DEA used a Minolta (Konica Minolta Holdings Inc, Tokyo, Japan) Vivid 910 scanner to scan the shoe, which took about two hours. Once they had a point cloud of the shoe, they used 3D Studio Max (Autodesk, San Rafael, Calif.) to create a smooth model of the inside sole of the shoe. In the commercial, three people are shown sitting inside the smooth model that DEA made.

A scanned area of 180 hectares of land affected by a forest fire provided a governmental agency with an inventory for a quantitative investigation.

Forest Fire Feedback

Korea-based Dasan Engineering has been using laser scanning since 2002. While the company mainly focuses on civil engineering applications, according to the company’s executive director, Seong-ha Cho, PE, one unique project used the firm’s HDS2500 for a quantitative investigation of a forest fire. On Arbor Day 2005, a forest fire destroyed approximately 180 hectares of land. “After the disaster, the government wanted to know how large the destroyed area was, how many trees got burned and how the area will recover naturally,” Cho says. "We decided to scan the area so we could accurately determine the height and diameter of the trees and make a biological base map.” From the point cloud data, they were able to create plan and section maps showing an inventory of the trees and vegetation. The inventory serves as a 3D record that can be used to assess the biological recovery over time.

Laser scanning of boat hulls provides 3D as-built information for naval architects to assist with design of vessels.

Scanning Down Under

Another company that has found unusual uses for its laser scanner is AAMHatch of Australia. Many of its projects regularly use either a Leica Geosystems HDS3000 or HDS4500 laser scanner. The firm’s typical laser scanning projects involve mines, plant infrastructure and processing facilities, but they also have had their share of exotic projects. “We have conducted laser scanning of boat hulls to provide 3D as-built information for naval architects to assist with their design of vessels,” says Dr. Stuart Gordon, senior surveyor at AAMHatch. “The objective is to generate a 3D model of the hull for use within design software. The software uses the 3D models for design, simulation and analysis purpose.” AAMHatch has scanned two boat hulls and a hull mould with its laser scanners to create a dense point cloud with tight coordinate precision. Though some of the vessels have been greater than 100 ft, the scans and modeling can be completed in one or two days. One challenge they have faced, and is quite common to unique scan jobs, is that AAMHatch’s clients are not always ready to handle such large data sets. “One of our greatest lessons from all of these experiences has been working closely with our clients to integrate the laser scanner data into naval engineering and architecture software,” Dr. Gordon says. “Another challenge has been working with optical devices on the hull surfaces of these high performance yachts that possess various reflectance characteristics.”

3D measurements of molten steel mixers and ladles lets steel mills know the accurate volume of ladles to yield a significant return on investments.

Measuring Mixers

Laser scanners can also open doors to working in challenging environments like the steel industry. Riegl USA, Orlando, Fla., has found a niche in accurately acquiring 3D measurements of molten steel mixers and ladles. These rather large vessels are typically 34 ft tall, 26 ft in diameter and have a volume of 8,000 cubic feet. Knowing the accurate volume of these ladles helps steel mills yield a significant return on their investments. On a recent project performed by Riegl, an LMS-Z210HT laser scanner combined with a Riegl single point laser rangefinder were used to create a complete volume measurement system. They scanned the inside of a ladle and created an accurate 3D model. Then, when the molten steel was poured into the ladle, the rangefinder was used to measure down to the surface of the molten steel to find how high up in the ladle the steel filled. Not only does this system accurately find the volume of this large vessel, but it also has proven to be an effective way of spotting needed repairs in the ladles. “This process has allowed steel mills to use their vessels over 22,000 times before a rebuild rather than the 100 heats that were standard in the old days,” says Jim van Rens, Riegl USA’s vice president.

Opportunities Abroad

All of these projects show that unique and creative uses of laser scanners go beyond traditional surveying jobs. When we at Midwestern Consulting purchased our first laser scanner we were excited about the new opportunities it would bring. While we never dreamed that we would actually be paid to scan handmade figurines, the variety of projects that we have completed with our scanners proves that there is a wide variety of projects that are well suited for the technology. It has been fun to work on projects that are not typical surveying- and engineering-related jobs. And we are sure this market will grow as more clients understand how to integrate today’s technology into tomorrow’s projects.