Laser Scanning at Universal Studios Japan

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In the spring of 2006, JMR Surveying Group went to Osaka, Japan to perform 3D laser scanning services for our client Universal Studios Japan. JMR is somewhat of a rarity these days, as we specialize in heavy construction surveying and layout for contractors and owners throughout Central Florida. This most definitely was our greatest project thus far. Traveling halfway around the globe, loaded with hundreds of pounds of survey equipment and not speaking the language made the project even more interesting!

Our first lesson in international business was just getting ourselves and our gear there. As advised to us by our helpful Leica-HDS team, we obtained a carnet (pronounced karNAY) for our scanner and support equipment. A carnet is an official permit that allowed us to transport our gear across an international boundary. Without it, heavy taxes and the possibility of having our equipment seized, especially a deadly looking contraption like a laser scanner, would have spelled doom for our project. With the carnet and many other requirements completed that would allow us to do business in Japan, we set off on our trip.

Flying a parabolic curve from Orlando to our connector in Detroit, we arrived some 12-13 hours later in the chilly 35-degree climate in Kansai Airport (the one that floats). It was an immediate culture shock stepping into this foreign land and trying to get transportation to the hotel, about 45 minutes away.

After a brief rest over the weekend, we met on Monday with our translator, Miss Yutaka Izutsu, to make the trip over to the park. In the inner city of Osaka most people use the JR (Japan Railway) on the surface or the subway some four floors beneath the highway. A 20-minute train ride to the park (less than half the time it would have taken to drive there) became our daily commute. Upon arrival, we were warmly greeted and introductions were made. Then it was time to get to work.

The scope of the project was about one-quarter of the park (type in "Universal Studios Japan" on Google Earth to see what scale we’re talking). That meant a lot of scanning in the short two-week period we were scheduled to be there. Our Leica HDS 3000 scanner was well suited for this application. We used our SECO 11-foot tripod to get up over some of the scenery to maximize our field of view. Scanner technicians reading this may attest to how helpful our AC power supply was instead of having to lug heavy batteries around. This cut our downtime to almost nothing. With a borrowed USJ golf cart and tripods that were provided, we were the gossip of the park with people wondering what the heck we were doing there. Lunch was at the crew cafeteria that offered many common Japanese foods rice, fish and noodles, which are of course the staples here. The trim and healthy appearance of the Japanese is a testament to the quality of their diet (a much different representation of the population than back in the States). I tried my best with the chopsticks whilst my partner, Jerry Rinnert (president of JMR Surveying Group) stuck with his fork and knife. I have to admit that the food was very good.

If you’ve ever seen the movie Lost in Translation with Bill Murray, you might imagine what it was like for us, still on Eastern Time, to be on a timetable 14 hours different. I spoke with my wife at 5:00 a.m. Osaka time, which meant it was 7:00 p.m. in Orlando. We happened to be closing on our house while I was in Japan, sending contracts via fax at two dollars a page. Nonetheless, it wasn’t long before the cold temperatures, the stress, and all the walking landed me sick in bed. I really didn’t want to die in Japan, so I called room service. They immediately brought up a single pouch of medicine the size of a sugar packet. I didn’t put much hope in it, but it was all I had, so I quickly washed the white powder down with a glass of water… and that’s all I remember. Whatever it was, that single pouch cured me and we went back to scanning the next day.

We scanned buildings, roads, tunnels, rock facades, light poles, columns, trees, landscaping, you name it. The advantages to scanning are tremendous in an environment like a theme park. This being our 7th theme park project in the last year, we rely on scanning more and more to perform our common surveying tasks just because of the confidence we’ve built into our process.

On this project there were no second chances, so we could not afford a surveying blunder. Because it was imperative to get it right the first time, scanning was our method of choice. The days flew by as we fine-tuned our process taking three to four scans per day. We scanned during the day, and at night switched to work "on-stage", meaning inside the guest area of the park. Some nights the gusty winds threatened to blow over the scanner and the wind chill factor felt like it was below zero.

Altogether, this project consisted of 31 scans and almost 43 targets in strategic areas for later use. The file size of our Leica Cyclone database was about 6.5 gigabytes of data. For a topographic survey, this was enormous to us, representing 12 days of scanning 8-10 hours per day. The local surveyor, Mr. Kangi Sasaoka, tied-in our target points, some of which were small X marks drawn with a Sharpie marker on the sidewalk near water mains and such, since driving a huge nail and disk in that setting was out of the question. The entire job was georeferenced to the park grid and elevated accordingly.

Upon review of the data compared to the design plans, the elevations and locations of most all of the improvements were identical. It was a true testament to the Japanese Way, the magnificent discipline that these wonderful people embody.

The deliverables to the design team consisted of a detailed topographic survey, a Digital Terrain Model (DTM) of the site, and also certain areas of interest modeled in 3D. Further use of the panoramic images that the scanner obtained and even just the raw point cloud in Cyclone that we provided them was enough to draw out all the execs during our return meeting. The effect is dramatic and constitutes the position we try to establish with new clients why just survey when you can bring the site to your desktop!

Needless to say, the client was satisfied with the product and further development is underway to continue using the same scan data for other residual projects. In the meantime, we’ve been trying to recover and get used to the 10 pounds I lost, and 12 pounds Jerry lost during our trip. Our experience was once in a lifetime and the images shown are a poor reflection of the amazing landscape that is Japan. Jerry Rinnert deserves much credit for jump-starting the JMR’s scanning division and making what could have been a risky venture into a success story.

We’d like to hear what other surveyors are also doing. Drop us a line or visit our website at to see more photos and lots of other cool photos of surveying and scanning in action.

Ed Oliveras is director of the laser scanning division of JMR Surveying Group in Loughman, Florida.

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