Topcon’s Brad Burgess Talks Laser Scanning

Much insight can be gained about the future of laser scanning from an eagle-eye perspective on industry trends. We spoke with Brad Burgess, Topcon’s National Sales Manager for laser scanning, to hear his expert opinions on several timely topics.

LiDAR News: LiDAR is considered by some as an emerging technology. What are the biggest challenges facing a laser scanner manufacturer today?

BURGESS: While the manufacturing of 3D laser scanners has been going on for well over a decade, adoption of the technology by the user-community is still very much in an emerging state. For any manufacturer today, its not enough to produce the fastest, the smallest, or even the longest-range measuring device. You must also offer the customer a quantifiable value proposition.

In my opinion, the biggest challenge is being able to provide a complete solution one that includes not only the laser scanning hardware itself, but also the software tools for efficiently creating deliverables. In addition, it should also provide simplified links to industry-leading design / analysis applications. The final piece of the solution is the ongoing development of committed distribution channels. Distributors must be capable of professional-level customer support, whether it be in the form of technical phone support, project consulting, or short-term equipment rentals.

LiDAR News: Over the last two to three years we have witnessed some dramatic changes in the landscape for laser scanners. What changes or advancements in static laser scanning hardware can we expect to see in the next five years?

BURGESS: It seems like a self-fulfilling prophecy that each new generation of laser scanners are smaller, lighter and capable of increasingly fast measurement speeds. I think this trend will continue. But I believe we will see major advancements in on-board storage of point cloud data, and communication links to the cloud. I also see a continuing trend towards static scanners with total station functionality to further enable survey-like workflows. This functionality would include checking a distance to a back sight or setting a forward traverse point.

LiDAR News: Four years ago, software designers were challenged to create programs that could effectively manage the huge point clouds produced by laser scanners. How has that situation improved today?

BURGESS: I think software capabilities have been a challenge since the inception of LiDAR technology. For every step forward in computer processing technology, it seems there has been an equal or greater advancement in scanning speed and density – its been a never ending cycle. Today LiDAR is more widely accepted and point cloud data is more commonly used in project design and analysis. As a result, software engineers have devoted more time to developing code for handling the larger point cloud data sets. So the situation as I see it is much improved.

I would also suggest that the professionals in the field actually collecting point cloud data are getting smarter about how they approach their work. Perhaps through trial-and-error, or hard earned experience, scanning service providers are coming to the understanding that not every scan has to be high-spec – full 360 in the horizontal and / or one (1)mm resolution. Developing a proper scope of work helps manage the overall size of the resultant point clouds. Collection of point cloud data should be governed by a manageable level of detail sufficient to meet the project requirements.

LiDAR News: What have been the biggest milestones / accomplishments for scanning technology over the past few years?

BURGESS: There have been several incremental technology advances over the years, each helping the industry to advance forward yet one more step. I believe that the development of high-speed time-of-flight (TOF) technology has been one of the most significant. I have heard countless times from customers that they wish they could find one scanner that had the measurement speed of phase technology, but the longer range and accuracy of TOF. I think we are nearing that reality. The latest TOF scanners are now capable of measurement rates at 120 KHz and above, making them arguably the most versatile on the market today. For many organizations, this may be the tipping point for which they have been waiting.

LiDAR News: Have you seen any new interesting application areas emerge that readers may not be familiar with yet?

BURGESS: I never stop being amazed at the innovative ways our customers deploy our scanning technology. What I find most compelling is that often there would be no other practical way to accomplish the task if it were not for the technology simply being available. One such application is mounting a scanner on an elevated tripod, extending it above a drop ceiling.

LiDAR News: We have seen significant growth in scanners used for BIM applications. Where do you see this going in the next few years?

BURGESS: I see BIM (in all its variations) as perhaps the single largest driver of future laser scanning adoption. BIM and laser scanning will become nearly synonymous for as-built surveys, construction QA/ QC, and MEP clash detection. As more Owner/ Operators specify BIM for their building projects, the use of laser scanning to document utility installations in the walls prior to drywall placement will become an integral part of the construction process. The final as-built (BIM) model will continue to provide economic and efficiency benefits to those Owner/ Operators in the areas of maintenance and facility management for years to come.

LiDAR News: For an organization that might be just starting their investigation of laser scanning, what might you suggest as their first steps?

BURGESS: The first thing I always tell people in that situation is that they should never feel rushed to make a decision to acquire the technology. Depending on the firm, and the professional services they provide, they may actually be better served by outsourcing to a 3rd-party service provider (e.g., land surveyor) that already owns the technology. These service providers should be trained to collect the data for the prescribed application and provide deliverables in the appropriate formats.

Secondly, as they perform their due-diligence, Ill often suggest that they rent a couple of different systems. This enables them to get a better feel for the true quality of the data in a real-world environment. The truth is that some scanning technologies are better suited to one application over another. In some situations, it may also make sense to hire a technician to operate the scanner system (many Topcon laser scanning dealers offer that service). The end-user can then evaluate how their current internal workflow processes handle the influx of such large data sets.

Many organizations tend to overlook the fact that the cost of ownership goes beyond just the price of the laser scanning hardware and software. It can be an unpleasant surprise to find out that a new computer with a high-end processor and graphics card is suddenly needed. Hardware systems that support the management of point cloud data must also be considered in the budget.

Thirdly, I remind them that integrating laser scanning technology into a business is not a simple arms-length transaction. I believe that those that have been the most successful introducing laser scanning into their business have had a close relationship with their local dealer, as well as the manufacturer.