There is a graveyard of first attempts in technology, from Microsoft Vista to the Blackberry and, most recently gasping for air, the Segue. Surveying technology evolution is not without its toolbox of hard knocks, too.


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In fact, there is a popular online message board dedicated for venting experiences with bad technology; visionaries searching for a better way often address many failed attempts on the path to fruition. When crossing the chasm of technology adoption, it is the early adopters who are willing to sacrifice for the advantage of being first.

As an early adopter and a land surveyor since 1986, Michael Frecks, PLS, president and CEO of the mobile mapping company Terrametrix, has been involved in many first attempts. “Getting in on the ground floor with visionaries has been a learning curve throughout my career. It has its challenges and it has great rewards,” Frecks says. “The advantages in advancements are hindsight, but they are a credit to the visionaries who are seeking a better way.”

Who Is Michael Frecks?

Michael Frecks, a PLS since 1992, has more than 37 years of experience in the field of land surveying. He has long been an innovator and his experience solving problems in the AEC disciplines has enhanced the efficiency of laser scanning by identifying which tools to use for specific results. He is a strong advocate of the use of 3D imaging systems to accurately characterize “as-is” conditions of existing structures. This approach to field measurement and documentation increases the accuracy, availability and usability of virtual, smart object modeling for BIM within the design. His career project portfolio includes:

  • documentation for worldwide UNESCO identified sites
  • plant environments including nuclear and processing facilities
  • architectural documentation of theatres, plazas and historic buildings
  • transportation/civil documentation using static scanners and mobile mapping systems

Static Scanning Visionary

In the summer of 2001, the firm Lamp Rynearson & Associates worked as a subconsultant to HNTB Corporation and the Kansas Department of Transportation to survey the alignment of a 28-foot-diameter stormwater tunnel for construction drawings preparation.

Turkey Creek begins just south of 89th Street in Lenexa, Kan., and flows due north until it passes under Interstate 35 near 87th Street. From 87th Street, the creek meanders along the same general route as Interstate 35 for nearly its entire length. After passing under the 7th Street Trafficway south of Interstate 35, the creek channel bends northward toward the Interstate and passes under in a tunnel that carries the creek to its end at the Kansas River.

Using a Cyrax 2500 laser scanner to collect the geometry in the tunnel, field technicians Russ Tamblyn, Jason Thompson and Frecks captured areas of two scours in the tunnel; they were joined on site by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Kansas City District. A bucket crane was used to access the area for the nine tripod static scans collecting 360 MB of raw data, which was then boiled down to a 2 MB MicroStation model. In 2001, the Cyrax 2500 was scanning points in 5 to 15 minutes at a range of 50 meters, achieving an accuracy of 6 millimeters for every measured point and 2-millimeter precision for modeled surfaces. The scans required targeting and relocation for a complete scene. “The Corps of Engineers had an answer to the deformation of the pillars due to scouring that day,” Frecks says. “It was a powerful application of the technology.”

Today’s tool would be the ZEB1 technology, a game-changing laser mapping system which has been designed to be used as an independent, hand-carried, self-registering GPS to capture data simply by walking around multi-level, three-dimensional environments. “Turkey Creek could have been accomplished today using the ZEB1 technology without targeting and the bucket lift,” Frecks says, “in one quarter of the time.”

Mobile Mapping Visionary 

“I guess if you have been in my profession as long as I have, you occasionally get to revisit a project years later with current technology,” Frecks says. One such project was obtaining data for a design project at the interchange of Interstate 235 and U.S. Highway 54 in Wichita, Kan.

Frecks’ team previously scanned the area in 2004 using the stop and scan system at 3DS2. This system had a single Cyrax 2500 mounted on a tower 10 feet above the truck bed with four stabilizers lowered to secure the system. Project approach at the time required a scan every 150 feet with targeting along the shoulder, which equated to 233 scans and 60 hours.

The return visit in 2008 used the StreetMapper mobile scan system, acquiring data at traffic speed without targeting, moving road blocks or stopping along the shoulder. The scope included data collection on 6.6 miles of Interstate, which was completed in two hours, at an average of 40 miles per hour. Deliverable was a digital terrain model, delivered in 13 man-days with 0.10-foot accuracy requirement, RMS error 0.06 feet.

“This is the current technology we use today, although we have been through three versions of mobile mapping ranging from four scanners aboard to as few as one since 2008,” Frecks says. “It is survey-grade designed to keep surveyors out of the red zone.” In addition, the Terrestrial Mobile LiDAR Scanning (TMLS) system provides video documentation and geo-referenced time stamped imagery.

Drone Visionary

In 2004, Frecks’ team led by field technician John Arnold was hired to provide survey scan control using a Leica TCRA 1103 total station to continue in the creation of a comprehensive digital documentation record of the Peruvian site for Pontifica Universidad Catolica del Peru in conjunction with the University of California, Berkeley.

Nestled in the foothills of the Andes, Tambo Colorado is located 35 kilometers inland from the port city of Pisco on the southern coast of Peru. This now fragile, 500-year-old site is still the best preserved Inca site in the coastal area of Peru. Between 1470 and 1490, it served as an administrative center for the integration of the conquered peoples of Chincha and Ica into the Inca Empire. Tambo Colorado was first studied in 1901 by Max Uhle, Ph.D., considered the father of archaeology in South America, which resulted in the architectural remains documented through numerous photographs and extensive notes.

In July 2001, a team from the Center for Design Visualization at Berkeley, led by John Ristevski, spent three weeks documenting the site with a Cyrax 2400 laser scanner, taking around 50 separate scans, collecting over 25 million point clouds of the Northern Palace. Given the complexity of the site and the need for sufficient overlap to allow the registration of the scans, a large number of scans was required to obtain full coverage of the site. Then, again, in 2003, another three- to four-week documentation period yielded 250 million point clouds, completing the scan of the North Palace.

The scope of this 2004 work was to build upon the previous two field sessions, extending the area of documentation beyond the Northern Palace and extending the range of media used to document the site. The administrative center contains more than 20 separate rooms in an approximate area 100 by 150 meters in size. Over 100 control points were laid at a 100-foot grid using a total station, and a coordinate system was set in place that included a benchmark outside the area of the Northern Palace for baseline monument. In addition, this project was to serve as a test bed for the collection of this type of data in an integrated and seamless manner.

“The data collection for this archaeological survey had to be non-invasive and non-destructive, because of the historic nature of these ancient Incan Ruins,” Arnold says. “Placing imagery equipment on a kite was a custom application to obtain aerial photogrammetry. It afforded the opportunity for aerial views of the site without the costly deployment of airborne photogrammetry. The evolved technology approach today would be a UAS/UAV, or drone.” 

3D Print Visionary

In 2004, Brigham Young University, of Provo, Utah, needed a method to enhance the worn inscriptions and relief qualities on ancient artifacts found in Mexico for hieroglyph research. The Olmec people introduced writing to the New World. It is believed their writings, which were left behind on numerous inscriptions on stela monuments, celts and portable artifacts, represent the earliest text written in America. Deciphering this text helps us to understand the culture, religion and politics of the Olmec. This syllabic, hieroglyphic script was used in the Olmec heartland from 900 B.C. to A.D. 450, and was later adopted by the Izapan and Mayan civilizations.

High-resolution laser scanning was selected by Frecks’ company to model a 7-foot-by-5-foot-by-1-inch-thick stone tablet and its inscriptions. Images were scanned using a Minolta 3D laser scanner and then modeled to sub-millimeter accuracies. The technology provided the ability for the creation of 3D print for the purpose of research and digital analysis for shared data across multiple institutions.

The 1970s was the start for generating three-dimensional objects by creating cross-sectional patterns making solid objects by successively “printing” thin layers of an ultraviolet curable material, one on top of the other. The technical name, stereolithography, was patented by Charles W. Hull in 1986, but today these devices are known as 3D printers. The major difference in the existing technology from 3D printers is that it added rather than milled, injected or removed materials to create a model.

“We created several 3D prints for our clients, making watertight CAD models for various projects from the expensive polymer Allosaurus claw to assist in the preservation of a rare archaeological find to the powder additive used in the Guatemalan stela stone prints,” Frecks says.

The technology today is being used from hobbyists right through the medical and dental profession printing prosthesis parts. Western Paleontological Laboratories Inc., based in Lehi, Utah, has a worldwide reputation for producing displays of the finest quality using 3D prints like the one acquired of the Allosaurus claw. Other areas of growth are in the fields of jewelry, footwear, industrial design, architecture, engineering and construction, automotive, aerospace and geographic information systems.

“It is a growing technology, limited only by visionaries who see the potential,” Frecks says.

In Summary

The big lesson Frecks has learned as an early adopter over the course of his career is precisely that — don’t waste time.

“Surveyors have to become involved early on to advance the technology for their profession,” he says. “We are the ones that know what we need, so we all need to get out there, become early adopters and aid visionaries by using new technology until it reaches it maximum potential or breaking point.”