Industry Pioneers: Ted Knaak

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Ted Knaak’s connection with 3D laser scanning began rather unceremoniously in 1992 while working for a small company in Florida. His boss asked him to translate a brochure written in German that the company had received from Dr. Johannes Riegl’s laser technology company. One year later Ted would found Riegl USA.

After graduating from Brown University in 1982 with a Masters in Electrical Engineering Ted Knaak spent the rest of the 80’s working in the space industry as a satellite control system analyst for General Electric. During his spare time Ted attended Drexel University where he got a Masters in Mechanical Engineering. Although he enjoyed the technical challenge of his job–he was always fascinated with the space program, Ted came to the conclusion that he was really not meant for the corporate life.

So in 1990 he moved to Orlando, Florida, his current home taking a job with Schwarz Electro-Optics–SEO. Ted wore a number of hats for the small company including program manager, marketer, sales engineer and yes–translator. After a number of exchanges between Ted and Dr. Riegl, including a trip to Austria an agreement was reached for Ted to found Riegl USA in 1993. He always had the high tech entrepreneurial spirit–now he would have his chance to see what he could do with it.

Ted was in on the ground floor of the laser scanning and LiDAR industry. Over the next 17 years Riegl grew dramatically. By 2011 it was clear to everyone in the Riegl family, that Riegl USA operating directly within the worldwide Riegl organization would be much more efficient and productive. Thus Ted sold his Riegl USA interest in 2011. Part of the amicable agreement allowed Ted to retain rights to TopoDOTTM, a LiDAR data processing software product developed within Riegl USA for several years, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Ted’s first encounter with a laser scanner was in 1997. He remembers, "We had sold a Riegl LD90-GF3100EHS rangefinder to Carnegie Mellon University for scanner development. The guys at the CMU Field Robotics Center integrated a few spinning mirrors and that was the first scanner I saw. I remember them opening the point cloud data and zooming in on a little blob. As the blob expanded you could "hear" everyone’s jaw hit the floor as our first point cloud spun around. The roads, bridges, buildings, everything; it was all there! We all believed we were seeing the future."

As the laser scanning market was developing in the early 2000’s at first the scanners were slow, complex and end users were not finding much profit in their use. While Riegl scanners performed well, the lack of productive processing software placed Riegl at a competitive disadvantage. This encouraged Ted to begin work in 2006 on what would become TopoDOT.

Through the rest of the decade, driven by the market requirement for productive software, Ted and two interns from the University of Central Florida, Mauricio Terneus and Jennifer Triana, continued to develop the TopoDOT software product. Mobile laser scanning systems were generating incredible quantities of data that had to be processed into formats that transportation agencies and others could easily integrate into their existing workflows, but what really drove up the interest in the use of laser scanning in 2009-2010 was a 50x increase in the speed of time-of-flight scanners, like the Riegl VZ400. Ted felt the pieces were now in place for laser scanning to directly compete with traditional surveying methods.

In 2011 the stars aligned and Ted sold his interest in Riegl USA so that he could focus full time on developing Certainty 3D and its flagship product TopoDOT. The new venture, which Ted admits he never imagined himself doing, completed its first year in business in 2012 with more than 130 companies and 1,500 software seats devoted to extracting high quality CAD models from LiDAR data.

In his spare time Ted spends a lot of time in the gym, but his favorite pastime is landscaping. Ted commented," It’s not just about working up a sweat, which in central Florida you most certainly will do. Landscaping is more about having and then realizing a vision. There will be changes along the way, some parts don’t work out as you intended and some work out better. But you create something that’s useful and beautiful–not so much unlike building a company."

Ted credits Dr. Riegl for having the confidence in him to start Riegl USA with little business experience, little market knowledge and even less money. It was a "go with your gut" decision they just don’t teach in business school. Jim Van Rens, the current President of Riegl USA was also a positive influence. Of course, Ted acknowledges and appreciates the entire Certainty 3D team, specifically Mauricio’s and Jennifer’s amazing contributions these many years. And finally, Ted’s family and friends who provided early funding and support with his wife Robyn being at the top of that list. Ted reminds us, "One should never underestimate the influence of trust, love and support of your family and friends. I couldn’t have done this alone."

Ted thinks that the current state-of-the-industry is very positive. With the significant reduction in data collection times there is more budget available for QA/QC and post processing." Ironically," he points out, "the economic downturn actually forced people to look at alternative technologies in order to do more with fewer staff." In the good times people were not that interested in change. It has to be forced on organizations, especially those that are slow to change.

As far as the future goes Ted thinks laser scanning will have at least as much impact as GPS and that the two will continue to complement each other. If he were to switch careers he would be interested in working to build a better country for all of us and our children through the political process.

When asked for his words of wisdom he noted, "You can be outwardly confident, but always be inwardly humble. You may find that your instincts may not be based on reality and the task might require skills exceeding your abilities. Humility allows us to be flexible, to seek out support, yet remain confident."

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

A 287Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine complete with images is available by clicking HERE