“We need you to map this section of the Boston storm water system. By the way, the pipes are 10-feet in diameter and the tidal surge at high tide is 14 feet.”

Now that was an interesting phone call. Our firm has provided laser scanning services all over the U.S., but this request was one of the stranger jobs we have been asked to do. I knew my operations manager would have some serious questions—and he did.

In the end, we did the scan and the tides had little effect on our project even though they raised the water level 14 feet. How did we do it? Let me back up… 

From mid-2007 to almost 2010, most of the traditional surveying in the United States all but disappeared. We began laser scanning in 2005—in part because of the demand for these types of unusual scanning jobs—and not only did we survive, we grew.

Today, we get calls like this all of the time and we are able to successfully complete the jobs without putting anyone in harm’s way. A lot of this has to do with our history as a firm.

It Started in a Mine

Our roots come partly from the mining industry. We have been mapping and documenting quarries and underground mines since 1988.

When we began mapping the underground marble mines in North Georgia, we had to be MSHA trained and certified. (MSHA is essentially the same as OSHA, but they teach and require specialized safety methods for working in underground environments.)

We learned to use specialized gear like head lamps and gas detectors and worked in very dark conditions—and I mean dark. So dark that if all head lamps are off you cannot see your hand one inch from your face.

These were not small mines. The ceilings were 60 feet tall and the corridors were 100 feet wide and over 1000 feet long. At times, you could be as far as 800 feet underground. These are massive underground facilities that produce literally tons of minerals every month, so the amount of material removed and conformity to the mine plan must be continuously checked.  

While this is a dangerous environment, the risk is minimized with the proper training and surveying techniques.

One unusual point is that they only allow diesel power underground because it does not produce carbon monoxide. (This is why we wore the gas detectors.) The mix of carbon monoxide, no oxygen, and methane gas is very dangerous, but the risk is lessened with these detectors.
Over time, our reputation for underground surveying grew. Because of our reputation, we were asked by a client in the piping industry if we could use our 3D laser scanning systems to scan large underground pipes.

For this, we had to attend “confined space entry” training, where we learned a lot of very useful safety techniques we use when scanning large underground piping systems. Since then, we have completed many underground pipe scans for that original client, as well as others across the country.

One of the largest systems we currently map is a massive ancient storm system in Montana. This system is almost 30,000 feet or more in length, and every year we map another section of it. (This is a very unusual system that is handmade of small boulders and rocks about the size of a football. It even has steps!)

All of this experience has helped establish us as a go-to firm for subsurface laser scanning—and this kind of project requires a lot of support.

Going Underground

Generally, we have six to eight people around us to support our two- or three-person scan teams. For the project to be successful, we first find all of the entrances to the system we are mapping. We then pop the lids and install large fans to blow fresh air through the system. 

At the same time, we usually hire the local fire department to provide rescue support. The rescue group is in the pipe or tunnel with us and they have air tanks on hand. This way, if anything happens and someone is hurt, they are there to help. 

We also have special equipment and processes. For example, when we enter these tunnels, very strict safety procedures must be followed. There is a designated safety person charged with counting how many people go into the pipe and how many come out. (The number should be the same.)

3D scans are often requested because a detailed condition of the pipe is needed that cannot be captured with video alone. With a laser scanner, we can put a point on the pipe surface every ¼ inch, so the detail is almost perfect. When a round pipe bends in a curved section, for example, it is no longer a circle—it is an ellipse. This is important for the designer of the new systems to know.

When we scan pipes, we build a 3D surface model and can cut cross sections anywhere the client wants. If other pipes (known or unknown) intersect with the main pipe, we can document them as well.

Generally, we provide cross sections, plans and profiles, elevations and details of unique pipe sections. The client uses this information to design the new system, which is installed in a special liner inside of the pipe so that the pipe can be rehabbed in place and does not have to be excavated.

Bigger Value, Bigger Business

You can imagine the cost and lost time that would be created if you dug up a 10-foot diameter pipe in downtown Boston.

Scanning saves millions of dollars in construction costs and provides designers with all the information they need to design a new system—and it’s all done below the surface.

In the last five or six years, the value placed on standard ALTA surveys and other traditional survey projects has diminished for many reasons. One reason is that there is always a firm that needs the work and will therefore lower their price to get it. 

The result is that there is not a lot of perceived value in what they provide. In some markets, surveying has even become a commodity. 

Working on projects where there is a very high value placed on your deliverable is not always the easiest work, but with high value comes high reward.

The lesson here is that if you find something that is needed—and then learn to do it well—people will pay a fair price for your services. Instead of becoming a commodity, your business will grow and thrive.