Conference Review: 2007 Leica Geosystems HDS Proves Practical, Inspiring for Users

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It wasn’t that long ago, maybe six years, that I was looking at a peculiar little ad for something called a `scanner’. It was about the size of a dorm room refrigerator, and if I was reading it right, the device promised to be the next big revolution in land surveying. Well, I can pat myself on the back for that insight, but if I’d been smarter I’d have jumped in immediatelynot only has scanning turned out to be the next big thing, it seems to be growing and maturing even more rapidly than GPS.

It appears that humankind has a nearly insatiable desire to recreate the world digitally, in games, models, GISs, and other media, and no technology is better suited to slake this appetite than scanning. Scanners are rapidly getting smaller, faster, and easier to use, computers and software are evolving to work with large scanning files, and engineers and architects around the world are adopting design processes to work with 3D models from the very start of a project.

Allen Nobles of Allen Nobles & Associates says, "In five years, every firm will have a scanner." Even the public is starting to be aware of scanning’s capacity to change everything: in 2008, per Leica’s Geoff Jacobs, scanning will be featured on one of the many crime procedurals so popular on TV.

But the 5th Leica High Density Scanning (HDS) Conference, held in San Ramon, California, was still a small, almost clubby affair with about 300 attendees, most of whom were actually working with scanners and eager to share information with each other. The scanning market is turning out to be huge and service providers are scarce, so these folks aren’t really competing with each other: it’s more like they’re cooperating to get the work done, and keep it coming.

In fact, ‘not enough talent’ was a common refrain at the conference. Bill Campbell, Supervisor of General Motors Global Layout Group, explained that GM has already scanned 15 assembly plants to date, and anticipates scanning every GM plant every two years. GM now owns a scanner and runs its own crew, but is still actively seeking subcontractors. Craig Fries is in the same situation. As the owner of Precision Simulations, Inc., the first firm to successfully use HDS data in court, Fries uses HDS dozens of times a year because, "if it looks realistic it’s easier to believe," and also because his teams have a very limited time frame for access to forensic scenessince he’s not going to be able to go back, he needs to get everything the first time. But since he doesn’t want to invest in his own scanner, he’s constantly on the lookout for providers, and collected a lot of cards at the conference. And this basic storyestablished businesses recognizing new opportunities and efficiencies in 3D scanning and looking for providersis happening a lot; just the plant as-built market alone promises to be gigantic.

In short, HDS has arrived, but the market is arriving faster. At Leica HDS, about 40 presenters in two tracks survey/architecture/civil and plantsspoke on practical matters like field and office procedures, new types of work, remarkable projects and, generally, helped each other get up to speed in this profitable, rapidly expanding survey niche.

Getting Started
Allen Nobles’ story is a good one for those thinking about jumping into scanning. His six office engineering and surveying firm takes on a variety of projects and is always on the lookout for new techniques. "Last year," he says, "the [scanning] hardware and software started to fit our work." So he invested in a Leica ScanStation, and spent a few months telling people to, "get this thing out of the office!" In other words, there was training, but his main method for getting results from the scanner was to simply insist that it be used. And eventually, the effort paid off and scanning data became a routine part of life at Allen Nobles & Associates. Nobles kept a log of all projects worked on with the scanner, and concluded that there were a few special issues with scanning, like the need for a van and big batteries, but basically, "It’s the same problems we have with other gear. And you don’t need a specialist in scanning, you just need a good party chief. The learning curve isn’t bad, it’s still just gathering points."

Similarly, Nobles found that office staff were able to cross train, and that the new technology became profitable surprisingly quickly. And he discovered a new source of profits"I think collateral data will become a new income stream." In other words, scanning gathers data so quickly, it’s easy for crews to come back with more information than the client needed… but there’s a good chance it will be needed sometime. Since Nobles doesn’t sell the point cloud (unless it’s negotiated for) he can go back to the same field work to produce, and charge for, more deliverables.

Steve Phillips of ESM Consulting Engineers, LLC, also spoke about getting started. Scanning is helping his residential-focused firm to diversify as the housing market flattens. One early project, a plant retrofit, was, "The first job we ever got as the highest bidder!" ESM has also used the scanner to survey hazardous sites from a safe distance and to create models of ships for marine retrofit. Has the effort to diversify paid off? Well, Phillips says that HDS stands for "High Dollar Surveying" so something must be going right.

New Gear
Leica has a research and development facility in San Ramon, and had a lot to show off at the conference. Demonstrating just how fast scanning technology is evolving, Leica’s ScanStation 2 has made eye-popping improvements over the ScanStation 1. Thanks to improvements in pointing lasers, timing circuitry, receiver, and now with tilt compensator, the ScanStation 2 can gather 50,000 points per second, compared to the ScanStation 1’s 4,000 pps, and overall, beta users like Carlos Velazquez of Epic Scan, Ltd. have found that they’re completing typical field work four to twelve times faster.

Software is also making gains, and several presenters admired Leica’s TruView, a free download that can be used to view and measure within point clouds. Since it works with most point cloud formats, you might think of it as "Adobe Acrobat for Scanning" and Leica would be happy if you did just that. This conference of satisfied Leica customers were even talking up Truview at the expense of one of Leica’s other products. Cyclone Viewer was "pretty much useless" according to presenter Melchior Ossenberg-Engels, Managing Director of OE Planung + Beratung, a German firm. But TruView is, "the link we’ve all been waiting forwithout it, I might not have stayed in laser scanning." For Ossenberg-Engels, TruView is the product that allowed him to connect with clients. Since he’s able to very quickly give clients "something to play with," a grey scale model of their site that can be used immediately for accurate measurements, he’s able to convey the value of his service. The added credibility means more work. Based on downloads, Leica estimates that several thousand copies of TruView are in use.

Another product presented was new ‘picture cube’ technology. With the aid of a custom bracket, a camera can take six pictures (six faces of a cube) from the same focal point as a scan setup and in the office, with just three picks on common points, the picture can be mapped to the point cloud, providing a quick and accurate visual overlay. This must be a real need in scanning, as the audience was clearly impressed.

A Bright Future
At past events, Leica has treated conference-goers to dinner cruises on San Francisco Bay, but this year the gala dinner location was kept a secret until the last moment. It turned out to be Danville’s Blackhawk Auto Museum, featuring four galleries of some of the world’s most beautiful cars. It was inspiring and even humbling to be in the presence of Rolls Royces, Deusenbergs, Hispano-Suizas and even more exotic cars, all of which seemed bigger, more imposing, and far more beautiful than modern cars.

Humans have been tremendous engineers for millennia, and we live in an era when available tools are staggeringly capable. It’s fashionable to be pessimistic about civilization’s prospects, but as I walked around, admiring the rolling sculpture, I couldn’t help but think that the species that built cars like this, with relatively basic tools, will be able to handle anything that comes up with scanners, satellites, lasers, GISs and all the other amazing technology that’s changing our world forever.

Angus Stocking worked for 17 years as a land surveyor in several different states. nowadays he writes professionally ( and specializes in surveying and related topics. and also, of course, he is occasionally called to settle survey-related happy hour disputes.

A 1.337Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine complete with images is available by clicking HERE