Industry Pioneers: Doug Flint

A 756Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine complete with images is available by clicking HERE

Question–when you were growing up how often did you take advice from your big sister? Never, in my case, I didn’t have a big sister, but in Doug Flint’s case it started him on a LiDAR industry pioneering journey and eventually to his current position as the Vice President–Business Development at the Geospatial Solutions Division of Leica Geosystems. Doug is based in Westford, MA in the same facility that produced the company’s first high performance airborne LiDAR 15 years ago. Let’s see how he got there.

Doug grew up in an engineering environment; his father was an electrical / mechanical engineer. As a kid Doug was always fixing stuff around the house–from bicycles to washing machines–and working hard at math and science in school! Doug remembers, "Somehow I was looking for something beyond the boundaries of electrical and mechanical engineering when my sister happened to interview at the University of Rochester."

He continues, "They asked her if she had any siblings considering colleges and what their interests were. She told them she had a brother interested in engineering and was presented with a course catalog that included their unique Institute of Optics, Optics Engineering degree program. I was hooked, applied and was accepted "early decision" I stayed on for an extra year of graduate school after earning my B.S. and picked up an M.S. in Optics Engineering with a specialization in optical thin-film coatings. "

Early Career
From there Doug headed for the high tech capital of its time, Route 128 and his first position as, you guessed it, an Optical Coating Engineer at the Itek Corporation in Lexington, Massachusetts. Itek specialized in large and/or complex optical imaging systems such as reconnaissance cameras, satellite payloads and even the Mars Rover Imager. Doug recalls, "One of my projects there was a 6-ft diameter, protected aluminum reflective coating for imaging down to the Lyman Alpha (121.6 nm) wavelength." This was a proof-ofconcept coating for the now famous Hubble Space Telescope.

After only a couple of years, Doug was made manager of the group. He notes, "I had to go from designing and fabricating the coatings to generating proposals in response to RFP’s, calculating costs and prices, and managing our R&D projects." Gradually Doug found himself enjoying the challenges of management, sales and marketing a little more than engineering. In fact, he earned an MBA part-time (nights) from Boston University as evidence of his new interests.

In 1979 Doug joined Honeywell in their Electro-Optics Division where he worked on business development for NASA and DoD projects. This is where he first met Ron Roth, a colleague that would eventually become quite influential in Doug’s career.

Entrepreneurial Period
In 1983, Doug began the entrepreneurial `start-up company’ phase of his career. This is where he had to put all of his past experience to work–engineering, production, sales, support, people skills, management and even accounting–in "survival" rather than "paycheck" mode. Doug recalls, "I went from running the U.S. sales and support operation of a successful Israeli high-tech printed circuit board inspection equipment start-up, to a thermal properties analytical instrumentation venture, to buying out a small group (2 engineers) specializing in long distance laser rangefinders that could measure distances out to 18 miles."

This became Azimuth Corporation, founded in 1991 and soon included co-pioneers Bob Eaton (electronic), Ron Roth (systems / business), Scott Bender (mechanical) and Paul Galla (software and eventual creator of the LAS format) who are all still his colleagues today. They are the technology heroes of this story. Doug commented, "The best compliment that Azimuth routinely received from various organizations was that they were shocked to find out how small we were. Our business practices and products reflected those of much larger companies."

Without any external funding, Azimuth developed laser rangers and profilers that measured ice deformations on the order of 2-in. caused by volcanoes 4,000 feet under Antarctic ice, fired braking rockets on parachute-dropped military cargo pallets and have helped track countless airborne and groundbased vehicles on military test ranges. In 1997, EarthData (now a part of Fugro) asked Azimuth to develop a high-altitude LiDAR system to fly with imaging systems taking USGS DOQQ images at a 6000m flying height and 75 deg FOV. Doug notes, "No other vendor had that capability, so we won the contract."

Doug’s team assumed that they would do the sensor and EarthData would do the software. They assumed wrong; EarthData feared that if the system didn’t work Azimuth would blame their workflow and they would blame Azimuth’s sensor! Ron Roth hit the textbooks to brush up on WGS84 geoids, atmospheric corrections and other trajectory and system factors to figure out where a scanned laser pulse from a moving aircraft is hitting the surface (not an easy feat). "Eight months later, we had the first test flight–and the first successful data collection from the original AeroScan airborne LiDAR system," Doug proudly recalls. What was then a 15 kilopulse-per-second system has developed into the 500 kilopulse-persecond ALS70 LiDAR product family some 15 years later.

By the year 2000, Azimuth was manufacturing four systems per year and selling them worldwide. They began to get visits from companies interested in a "partnership" and they selected LH Systems (now Leica Geosystems) as their new owner in 2001. "We even had a brush with terrestrial laser scanner development via a visit from Ben Kacyra (Cyra Technology) looking to select a laser ranging technology," recalls Doug. Cyra and ERDAS were also acquired by Leica Geosystems all within a threemonth period. Doug notes, "Now after 12 years with Leica Geosystems, the original, small core team is still together in Westford, MA–still setting the pace in airborne LiDAR technology."

Doug notes," I have had the great fortune of having many bosses that were unrelentingly driven to achieve, succeed and generally not let failure get in the way of their goals. From them I have learned good marketing skills in hightech, high-dollar optical capital equipment markets–both commercial and aerospace. Most importantly, I learned from each of these mentors how to think strategically and tactically for product development and market exploitation. There are still not many organizations that consistently define their corporate vision and then devise the strategy, roadmaps, goals & objectives, tactics and operations to successfully pursue that vision."

Concerning the current state of the industry Doug believes that airborne and terrestrial laser scanning technology doubles its hardware performance approximately every two years. That now the real race is in integrated workflows, fused sensor data and information management and distribution. It’s all about end-to-end 3D–reality capture, reality modeling and visualization. BIM, indoor and mobile mapping, and photogrammetry / machine vision join LiDAR as the hot technologies and markets chased by the industry today.

"The problem with cutting-edge, high-tech systems is they create a constant stream of development challenges. Anyone in this industry occasionally longs to be a bartender, or some less stressful profession. I love laser scanning, but competing in lower complexity product markets could add years to my life," comments Doug.

Doug notes that Google Earth and Bing have brought 3D and maps to everyone. This has greatly accelerated the demand for indoor and outdoor 3D solutions and content. Cheap memory and servers / distributed processing / cloud computing / and internet distribution are just some of the computing capability advances that have led to the industry’s integrated workflows and supercomputer-like performance on your laptop. They have brought incredible data acquisition and processing capabilities that work for and with LiDAR technologies–think waveform digitization and photogrammetrically-derived info clouds, for example.

Doug reminds us, "One of the original drivers of the airborne LIDAR market was the fact that elevation model production from photogrammetric point measurements was too slow and costly with the computer and software technologies available a decade ago. The cost of IT capability has dropped so radically that so-called dense matching has made real inroads."

On the issue of pressing needs Doug comments, "When younger generations, who are brought up on 3D visualization, begin to take charge, this will spur acceptance of the innovations that are occurring now and in the future. The major barrier to our industry is `resistance to change’ and a slow process to adopt the new capabilities coming on line."

Looking to the future, Doug notes, "Depending how you count, we are about 17 years into commercial airborne LiDAR and 13 years into HDS scanning. What we are seeing now in mapping, topo, construction, infrastructure, plant and mobile scanning advances is the tip of the iceberg. We have sensors, workflow, visualization and distribution to work on, to name just a few challenges. We will be amazed by what we will see and do on/with our screens, laptops, tablets, wrist tops and Google Glass by 2020. And that is just regarding the applications we have thought of already!"

As you can imagine Doug does not have a lot of free time, but when he does he loves to ski–both snow and water. He dreams of what it might be like to be an artist or a musician. Imagine if his sister had tried to steer him in one of those directions…

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

A 756Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine complete with images is available by clicking HERE