Industry Pioneers: Steve Ball

A 505Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine complete with images is available by clicking HERE

It is always nice to receive an email from someone that is trying to be helpful. In this case it was from Dr. Paul Rivers, the Technical Director at Measurement Devices, Ltd., recommending his CEO Steve Ball for this column. I was surprised that I had not connected with Steve over the years, but that was my loss because as you will soon learn Steve Ball is as much a 3D industry pioneer as anyone I know.

The Early Years
At 16 Steve began his career by leaving school and taking a job as an apprentice Mine Surveyor near Wakefield, England. As he learned the ropes of mine surveying he was also working on his "Mines and Quarry Board Surveyors Ticket’ , the equivalent these days to a Higher National Diploma (HND) in Surveying in the UK. For extra money Steve would clean the mine pumping equipment on weekends. He also became a qualified "Shot Firer" (underground blasting assistant) during this time and all this for the tidy sum of $4.00 per week!

Steve reports, "Although it was hard work and quite dangerous, at the same time it was fascinating and challenging. I loved it. I didn’t realize it at the time, but working in the dark 1000 feet below ground and never being actually able to `see’ the extent of the work we were doing, honed my natural ability (something my boss commented on at the time) to `visualize’ the 3D mine workings". That ability to "see in 3D" would become a central theme in Steve’s pioneering career.

In 1970 Steve left the challenge of surveying underground for surveying under water. For the next three years he worked for Decca Survey Company as an assistant Hydrographic Surveyor traveling the world on exploration ships. He assisted and eventually took charge of Hydrographic Survey Operations where they produced sea bed topographic charts for underwater pipeline and offshore oil production facility construction surveys.

Steve left Decca in 1973 to return to college (North East London Polytechnic) during the winter months, obtaining an HND in Hydrography in 1976. Steve remembers "My tutor there was the fantastic and inspirational (Ex Royal Navy Commander) Alan Inghamto whom I owe a great deal of thanks for mentoring me and encouraging me to develop my survey hardware designs and ideas."

During the summer periods Steve worked `freelance’ for some of the oil majors and their subcontractors on hydrographic projects as far away as India, China, the Middle East and Africa. He spent two years working closely with and operating `two man submersibles’ (submarines) in the North Sea off the coast of the Shetland Isles.

Steve recalls, "I taught myself software programming skills on PDP 11 computers using FORTRAN whilst "off shift" on board seismic ships in the North Sea and West Africa. I developed software and hardware solutions to assist in offshore construction and underwater operations using the very early HP 9810 and HP 9820 computers to `automate’ chart production. Again, surveying the sea floor `remotely’ from moving vessels, honed my `visualization’ skills to the full and I quickly became an expert in underwater construction survey at a relatively early age."

The ability to sketch and draw the man-made world in proportion is another important skill that Steve has been working on since his uncle Earnest gave him his first camera at the age of 12.He quickly figured out how to compose, cut and paste (manually) photographs to form `panoramic’ and mosaic views of scenes, but perhaps the most valuable skill that Steve possesses is his ability to make and fabricate things, first in wood and later in metal. Steve’s father taught him how to weld when he was eight.

In what reminds me of one of my favorite books, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Steve began riding and working on motorcycles when he was six. Steve points out, "Riding (but mainly fixing) motorcycles gives a young person confidence, a feeling of control and exhilaration. I firmly believe that good `spatial awareness’ is an essential requirement for those who wish to `fully master’ riding motorcycles in extreme conditionswhich I have done a lot of!"

Major Accomplishments
Steve first became aware of the usefulness of lasers in the surveying business in 1974 (it’s going to be hard to top that) when he was tasked with developing a solution to the problem of `Anchor Control’ during the construction of deep water oilfields. The `spaghetti’ networks of pipelines and underwater hardware posed a serious hazard to the ongoing development and maintenance of the structures. No equipment existed in the early 70’s and radar and radio positioning technologies were either too inaccurate or too unreliable. Working for BP Chevron I conceived and developed the `GOLF SYSTEM-gyro orientated laser field ranger system’.

Steve explained, "Basically, once we had a fixed structure like a platform in place (far from land), I could measure ranges and bearings to the stern rollers of anchor tugs to accurately position and guide the tug to its anchor drop location. We quickly digitized the readings and coupled the data to the first low power telemetry systems (Microtel) to transmit the position data automatically to the tug masters bridge steering display." Alan Haugh, former Chief Surveyor for BP took quite a risk when he employed Steve (who was 26 at the time) as the Field Survey Supervisor for the Forties Field platform construction in the North Seaincredible.

Steve first became aware of Dr. Riegl (then a post grad student in the early days of setting up his now famous company) in the early 80’s. Utilizing Dr. Riegl’s early (eye safe) semi-conductor laser modules, Steve designed and built the first `Quarryman System’ (1985) to profile and scan rock faces in mines and quarries. This capability made safe the ability to measure, design and optimize the best way to drill and blast hard rock using explosives. Steve noted that Dr. Riegl’s knowledge, passion and technical skill in pioneering semiconductor laser design inspired him to adapt the technology to a number of new uses and applications.

MDL (Steve’s current company) has become quite successful worldwide in exploiting this technology, due to the productivity and safety benefits which ensue as a result of accurate 3D rock face surface geometry measurement. Steve officially founded MDL in 1983, but it was actually the result of some ten years of growing two other ventures that specialized in deep water survey and oil installation positioning and survey as well as the R&D of highly specialized hydrographic survey instruments such as early gyro/underwater gyro and acoustic positioning systems.

MDL continued this business and initially became Trimble’s first ever international dealer and OEM systems engineer, before designing its own miniature DGPS systems known as `Diffcell’. Steve commented, "Though technically successful, MDL did not have the resources to compete with the `big boys’, so I culled out our product portfolio and concentrated on `Eye Safe’ laser products from 1986 onwards."

In 1995 MDL motorized the manual pan and tilt operation of the first generation Quarryman System to provide automated laser scanning, which was a number of years before Ben Kacyra’s Cyrax scanner. Early tests with large scale scanning (though a rather slow 1 to 2 points per second) quickly showed us the way forward and MDL moved on to develop its own high speed laser modules to increase the data collection rate.

The history of MDL’s popular Dynascan mobile scanning system began in 1987 MDL with the development of a product known as `Fanbeam’ a `marine laser radar’ used to position ships at sea and to provide precise position information (+/- 10cm) to enable large construction vessels to `dynamically position and hold station’ whilst working alongside offshore platforms.

The high data rates needed to do this work were quickly put to use for mobile mapping and MDL introduced its first `Dynascan’ mobile mapping system by the late 90’s. The equipment was used from small survey vessels to profile canal Banks and beach’s while simultaneously echo sounding. This enabled a composite (above and below water) 360 degree cross section and 3D model of the river or canal to be produced. The first system was sold to British Water Ways circa 1999.

The need to survey dangerous and in accessible mine cavities drove MDL to develop the C-ALS system (Cavity, auto scanning, laser system) in 1996. This 50mm diameter `tube like’ laser scanner is equipped with its own MEMs gyro system and can be deployed down boreholes as little as 3 inches in diameter at depths up to 1000 feet, to laser scan and map underground cavities. This technology is now in use in hundreds of deep mines around the world and in addition to improving survey safety and mine productivity, has been accredited with saving lives on several occasions.

Thoughts on the Industry
Steve sees the most pressing need for the industry being the lack of talented, qualified engineers. He blames governments and educational institutions for not producing the next generation of engineers and scientists needed to keep our industries and infrastructure progressing. Steve believes we need to do a much better job of letting kids know that we have a rewarding, challenging, interesting and most of allexciting profession to offer the younger generation.

As far as the future goes Steve thinks the use of LiDAR will easily surpass GPS, which can only tell you where you are, if you occupy the point. He thinks LiDAR data collectors will be installed on package delivery vehicles, like UPS and even garbage disposal vehicles where the data can be essentially collected for free, stored in the cloud and accessed via the web. It will then be available to an unlimited number of applications.

When asked for his parting "words of wisdom" Steve noted, "Conventional and accepted technologies never get usurped from within their industries. Survey and mapping has been revolutionized by products and technologies from `outside the box’ including GPS, computing and LiDAR. This process will continue. The impact of the computer gaming industry is only just beginning.

Steve commented, "So my advice to all is: Keep looking outside the box!"

Steve officially retired in December, but he is not going to be hanging up his entrepreneurial hat just yet. While his daughter takes over the reins at MDL (she has been the CEO for the past 5 years) Steve is going to be working with his son on a new venturedeveloping an Autonomous UAV Surveying Craft. I for one can’t wait to see the results of that effort.

Steve has always had a vision of being where he is today. In fact he is disappointed that he was not able to accomplish more. Steve may be moving on from MDL, but I have a feeling we will be hearing more from him. Thanks Steve for all that you have done for this industry.

Gene Roe is the Managing Editor and Co-Founder of LiDAR Magazine.

A 505Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine complete with images is available by clicking HERE