Conference Review: SPAR 2008

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One of the overarching themes of SPAR 2008and, indeed, of laser scanning in generalis that the existence of a carefully constructed virtual world will enhance our use and enjoyment of the actual world. Accurate 3D models facilitate analysis, design and construction, allow collaboration across continents, sell ideas, and make it possible to experience and test buildings and equipment prior to actually manifesting them. And though these are pragmatic, level-headed goals, laser scanning and model creation are the latest iteration of the same human urge that produced cave paintings, sketching, photography, mapping, movies, video games, and so onthe difference is only a matter of degree, and the underlying motivation seems to be an amalgam of business interests and a deeper urge to respond to the world imitatively and artistically.

At the same time, scanning the world and digitally remaking it seems like a logical endpoint of the process that began with cave paintings. Perhaps it’s because 3D models and virtual worlds finally offer the possibility of immersion, the chance to interact with a world that looks `real’ while also being tantalizingly controllable, subject to our whim. As evidenced by widely disparate groups such as dissolute teenagers, bohemian movie makers, and left-brained surveyors and engineers, who are all finding ways to spend much of their time playing around in realistic digital environments, we humans clearly enjoy this.

Therefore, when it comes to laser scanning, we’re just getting to the "business end" of the hockey stick curve: from here on out, the growth and innovation of this relatively new technology is going to be asymptotic. Those who think it’s a fad that’s going to pass, or that scanning is, at best, a niche technology… well, they’re wrong. When big business and good engineering are perfectly aligned with an appetite for discovery that is as old as humanity, the result is not a trend or a niche, it’s a sea change. Laser scanning is going to change surveying, infrastructure design, plant management, GIS, construction … laser scanning is going to change everything. Quickly.

Spar Point Research, LLC, has been sponsoring conferences devoted to laser scanning since 2004, and attendance at SPAR 2008 was 700, up 30% from last year. They’ve all been in Houston, so far, and this year’s was held at the Intercontinental Hotel, which you’d think would be near the Houston Intercontinental Airport, but it’s not, it’s a $60 cab ride away, and there’s no shuttle… but I digress. Spar Point deserves kudos for an excellent conference that presented high-quality information very efficiently. During the entire event, I witnessed no significant AV glitches, and even anomalies like a phoned-in presentation were handled with aplomb.

In his keynote, Spar Point’s Tom Greaves pointed out that, "The world’s brain trust for scanning is right here at this conference," and it showed in the lecture topics, which ranged from accessible, like "Using Point Cloud Data Alongside CAD Data to Minimize Construction Errors," to, somewhat less accessible, like "High-Definition Super-structure & Submerged Substructure Inspection Mapping & Integrated As-Found Model Construction," which, despite the eye-glazing title, was an interesting account of underwater scanning techniques. Greaves also said that a lot of the equipment on display was brand new, and that the innovation since last year was phenomenala sign that "The demand will never be sated because humans, once they’ve tasted 3D, want more and more of it."

Kevyn Renner of Chevron, who leads Chevron’s efforts to apply new information technology to refining, followed Greaves with an account that I found fascinating. One of Chevron’s flagship facilities, the El Segundo Refinery, has been accurately captured in 3D, thanks to about 5,000 scan setups, and the resulting model is serving as a proving ground for a variety of cutting edge techniques. "We can’t move pipes or vessels quickly," said Renner, "but we can move information quickly. So, can we use a virtual world to enhance operational performance?" The answer appears to be a resounding `yes’. Renner demonstrated applications that attached real-time sensor information to the model creating, in effect, a constantly updated 3D GIS. With this intelligent model functioning, experts from around the world can interact usefully with it by means of avatars in a Second Life type environment.

Renner used an interesting analogy at one point: he showed a graph of sudden improvements in high jumping, due to radical changes in technique, culminating in the famous Fosbury Flop. The point was that new technology enables dramatic improvements in production and that’s true, in spades, for laser scanning.

The whole talk confirmed an impression that I’ve had for a while: scanning adoption is accelerating at least as fast as GPS. Why? Because virtually every industry can find benefits in digital models, especially the high-dollar manufacturing, infrastructure, and energy industries. The potential for surveyors to be providers is immense. And there will eventually be secondary markets like as-builts of virtual environments and verification services, updating of models, etc. Some of this work will lean on the skills of boundary surveyors, that is, accuracy of location and management of spatial rights will eventually be important in virtual worlds and will require adjudication. It’s as if a new planet is being constructed, and one of these days it’s going to need surveying.

Mobile Surveying Arrives
The idea of `mobile surveying’ (basically, a truck moving down a highway at 60 mph, gathering survey grade information) has been kicking around for a while, but it’s here now, judging from this year’s SPAR. Several vendors gave convincing talks based on accomplished projects. One firm, Optech Incorporated, had an actual vehicle, the LYNX Mobile Mapper at the show. I took a ride, mainly so that I could say I’ve been in a vehicle that costs nearly half a million dollars, but in fact the interior wasn’t all that impressive; just a laptop in front and a bunch of battery packs in the back. But up top, two scanners and a Trimble/ Applanix positioning system were mounted, facing backwards and reader, they were impressive. The combination not only gathers data at up to highway speeds, it gathers it at much higher resolution than I used to bother with when I was on a Caltrans crewshallow shoulder divots, for example, were routinely picked up. Optech’s Brent Gelhar told me that the computing power and software will handle two additional front-mounted scanners, presumably for use in crowded corridors and dense urban areas. (See "Rapid Surveyor" [May 2008] for more information on Infoterra’s urban application of LYNX.)

I also talked to Clay Wygant of WHPacific, who had just negotiated the first North American purchase of a LYNX Mobile Mapper. He looked a little amazed by himself, as befits a man who has just made a $500,000 dollar bet, but didn’t seem too concerned about finding work for the device; there are, after all, plenty of road miles in the United States.

Another look at mobile scanning was presented in a keynote by Chris Urmson of the Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute. His team had recently won the DARPA Urban Challenge, a contest that pitted autonomous, self-guided vehicles against each other to see which rigs did best in urban situations. Previous versions of the challenge took place in open desert country, but this one proved that the robotic vehicles, which depend heavily on scanning and positioning technology, were able to negotiate city streets and traffic at reasonable speeds. It was impressive, but also a little creepy; something about these empty vehicles, festooned with pricey sensors and passing each other in the silent streets of a manufactured city scape, gave me the shivers.


The big convention hall was stuffed at this year’s SPAR, though not all of the vendors had products relevant to land surveyors. Here are a few highlights:
AutonoSys Inc.
demoed the LVC-0702 Lidar Video Camera, which is essentially a real-time scanner; that is, it produces 3D images instantly, like a video camera. AutonoSys foresees use in surveillance. I’m not sure what I’d use it for, but it sure is cool.
FARO Technologies Inc. was showing off their latest Photon Laser Scanners, and a device I found very interesting: a FaroArm, which is an armature used to precisely measure relatively small objects, combined with a scanner, so that a precisely positioned, extremely high-accuracy laser can be swept around just about any object, capturing intricate details. One remaining problem of scanning in plant environments is the capture of interior information, that is, machinery parts that are underneath covers and hatches. FARO’s Laser ScanArm provides a way to resolve this `last mile’ issue.
InteliSum takes a high-resolution CMOS camera, syncs it with a scanner, and then takes thousands of pictures, far more than other scanner/camera setups. The result is a 3D environment that’s `zoomable’, because each pixel stores visual data. "The pixel knows the texture, color, position, and georeferencing data," says InteliSum CEO David Bailey, "and our product is hundreds of times faster at processing graphics." Bailey mentioned one current use of InteliSum technology: a hundredyear-old London tube station is being scanned to document and preserve historical detail.
kubit USA addresses scanning with a comprehensive suite of software tools. Scott Diaz told me, "The whole point of kubit is to bring existing conditions into AutoCAD." It’s perfectly possible that the software that comes from your hardware maker isn’t right for you; kubit is worth checking out.
Maptek I-Site‘s John Dolan says, "We’re a software company that builds hardware, not vice-versa." Given the software intensive realities of scanning, this is not so crazy, and the company’s 4400LR Terrestrial Laser Scanning System may be a hit thanks to seamless post-processing.
MDL Laser Systems has been in laser measurement for 25 years, mainly with applications for mining and offshore drilling. They believe there’s an opening for fast, lower resolution, and less expensive scanners. "The market is concentrating on the high-end, and to some extent the low end is being ignored," said Bradley Husack. He believes there’s plenty of uses for lower accuracy scanners, for instance in rapidly calculating volumes or in monitoring toxic sites.
METCO Services, Inc. is a service provider, not a manufacturer, the only provider I saw at SPAR 2008. "We’re here to establish relationships," said Pamela Beaupre, "other providers aren’t here because they aren’t thinking in terms of partnering." One of the impressive projects that METCO featured was a survey of Easter Island’s Mo’ai, the iconic stone heads. On that project, Leica Geosystems teamed up with Autodesk to scan historic sites and relics across the island.
Topcon was touting the IS Imaging Station, which seemed to be a response to Trimble’s VX. Both instruments are aimed at surveyors, incorporate familiar control routines like backsights, and gather relatively few points per second. "It’s a natural progression from a robotic total station," said Topcon’s Hank Boudreau.
Trimble was showing off the FX Scanner, a phase-based scanner small enough and light enough to be transported as carry-on luggage. In regards to 3D scanning, Trimble’s Tim Johnson had this to say to surveyors: "Think of it like GPS, except that it’s already doing 100 times more than GPS did in the early days."
Z+F, which has been in the market since 1992 and pioneered some of the earliest major innovations, is actually one of the oldest firms in scanning. But this German firm is not big stateside yet, and they obviously intend to change that. "What we thought was just a niche turned out to be a massive niche," says Director Gary Farrow. The firm was giving a hands-on look at the Imager 5006, their latest phase-based scanner, which is definitely a gun to look at if you’re getting into factory scanning.

There were plenty more vendors at SPAR, more than can be covered in this article. Innovation is fast in this growing field, and I can only skip a stone across the top.

Driving through Houston on my way back to the airport, I couldn’t help but wonder if the whiz-bang technology that humans are assembling is going to be the savior of our civilization, or merely its enabler, allowing us to extend our run of resource extraction another decade or two before the inevitable crash.

On the one hand, it’s a dumb question; history, after all, stretches back several thousand years and here we all are, still truckin’. So it doesn’t seem impossible that our species might keep it all together for another millennia or two, at which point it becomes, well, not my problem.

But on the other hand, Houston and cities like itvast concrete scabs on the skin of Mother Earthseem inconceivable without humongous inputs of fossil fuels and wishful thinking. They make me quail with dread; they’re the movie sets of apocalypse, and the call for action seems long overdue.

Or perhaps we will always be "going to hell in a hand-basket" without ever quite getting there; always in peril, but never entirely bereft. Perhaps it is the very presence of imminent peril that drives our innovation, and innovation that makes our culture possible.

In any event, it’s clear that we humans are beginning to marshal amazing forces, and that laser scanning is one of the most interesting of these. Surveyors are uniquely suited to take positions of prominence in this, the latest technological revolution that might save all of our skins.

Angus Stocking worked for 17 years as a land surveyor in several different states. Nowadays he writes professionally (see www.ColoradoWriting. com) and specializes in surveying and related topics. And also, of course, he is occasionally called to settle surveyrelated happy hour disputes.

A 1.475Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine complete with images is available by clicking HERE