Industry Pioneers: Raymond Mandli

A 906Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine complete with images is available by clicking HERE

Ray Mandli, founder of Mandli Communications is somewhat reluctant to see himself as a LiDAR industry pioneer. He feels he has "borrowed" much from many individuals who have come before and after. However, once you have had a chance to read this article I think you will agree that Ray is being too modest, particularly for someone whose firm is celebrating 30, yes 30 years in the mobile mapping industry. I don’t know of a service provider who can top that.

The Formative Years
In his youth Ray Mandli was a big fan of the US Space program. He recalls, "I hand built and painted many of the Monogram and Revel Model kits of NASA rockets, capsules and moon exploration equipment."

As a Boy Scout, Ray was introduced to the art of mapmaking. He remembers, "I was drawn to the concept of describing an area and it’s attributes in a visual medium. During my time in scouting, I developed many maps that were used at camps and events. If I want to get some place, I am much better with a map than I am with written directions."

Growing up Ray learned to cope with very poor eyesight as a child. Although it can be compensated for with corrective lenses, he spent a majority of his formative years in a blur. Ray commented, " I perceive challenges and experiences from a view of the forest and I find myself struggling when all I can see are the trunks of the trees. One thing for certain is that I am a big picture guy and I think that is an asset that allows me to see the many multiple paths to a solution."

Education and Early Work Experience
Ray is a 1981 graduate of the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He earned a degree as a communications specialist with an emphasis on Business Communications. The program was part of an attempt to explore the potential of a hybrid degree that took advantage of the advancement in communication methods and technologies with an understanding of business processes and practices.

During that time, Ray took two courses as electives that may have had a great impact on how he arrived at his current place in the 3D industry. The first was a class in meteorology and the other was a two-part course in mechanical drawing and architectural design, but it was Ray being a member of the nationally ranked UW wrestling team that became the impetus for Mandli Communications, Inc.

Ray recalls, "I became a bit of an expert when it came to recording the matches of my teammates for analysis. After graduation, the coaches came to me to develop a concept to inexpensively record the individual matches, simultaneously on four mats, for the Wisconsin State Wrestling Tournament. On February 25th 1983, Mandli Communications, Inc. was born."

Ray notes, "As time went on and personal computers became available, my team at Mandli started to develop systems and software used in interactive training for businesses and museum displays. It was in 1985 that we won a contract with the Wisconsin DOT to convert their film-based photolog over to analog optical discs. We developed the workstations that they would use to do analysis of the images and in 1987, we were part of the first "point and click" interface using a map to bring up images on an Arc/Info workstation.

Involvement with 3D LiDAR/ Laser Scanning
Ray’s first experience with laser technology came with the implementation of several pavement management systems that Mandli used in the mid 1990s. One of those products was the Phoenix Scientific Inc. (PSI) Laser Scanner, which captured a 3D texture map of the pavement. In 1995, Ray visited the headquarters of the Norfolk Southern Railway where he discussed the potential of using the PSI Scanner to map the clearance area around their track.

Ray recalls, "The goal was to determine if incursions into that safe envelope could be discovered and remedied. I worked on a solution that would use two scanners mounted back to back to get the coverage they were looking for but as good as the idea was in theory, it would have been very difficult to implement in practice. We dropped the idea to focus on RGB imagery and the rapid advancement in that technology."

Ray never lost sight of what they were trying to accomplish for Norfolk Southern as Mandli continued to develop solutions for the transportation data collection industry. In 2005 they took another stab at the art of measuring vertical clearance at highway speeds from a mobile platform. They used single point, time of flight lasers to accomplish this task and although it worked well, Ray still was not satisfied.

In June 2007, while attending a robotics conference in Chicago Ray came across a booth with an object spinning on the end of a pole. Ray remembers, "I stood there for about 15 minutes studying the device and finally walked up and asked the question, `can you turn it 90 and still have it operate?’" The engineer in the booth said, "I don’t know for sure, but I can find out."

Ray notes, "The specifications in the device brochure looked like it would be capable of meeting most of the requirements for fulfilling my dream of collecting measurement data in a 360 field of view. It wasn’t until August of that year that I received a call from the president of the company stating that he wanted to come and visit me to see what I was thinking about. He also informed me that it would work perfectly well in a perpendicular orientation."

On August 3rd 2007, Bruce Hall visited Mandli’s office in Madison, Wisconsin to formally introduce them to the Velodyne HDL-64. Bruce graciously left the unit with Mandli for four weeks. A short time later Mandli demonstrated the Velodyne at a national transportation conference in Nashville, Tennessee and by March of 2008 they had their first statewide LiDAR collection contract with the State of Texas.

Now that Ray had the data collection system in place he then had to figure out what to do with the extremely large volumes of data that he was acquiring. Since there was very little support available for the reduction and management of data on this scale, Ray assembled a software team that developed the environment that they use today.

Ray proudly explains, "Our product describes over 125,000 miles of state and federal highways annually, through LiDAR and Imagery. We have worked hard and long to refine our technology and methodology to come up with a complete and economically sound solution for the industry. This includes the integration of advance sensor packages, LiDAR, pavement, and imagery, into a system that allows for the extraction and precision geolocation of assets and infrastructure for analysis. To further support this effort, we have built a division of our organization that employs over 100 individuals who collect, reduce, manage and package the data for customers use. It takes the inertia of that group to keep up with the output of up to 12 separate collection systems simultaneously."

Looking to the Future
When asked about the influential people in his life Ray first credits his parents for instilling in him a strong work ethic, compassion for others and the importance of family and community. At 83 his mother is very active with her computer and uses social media on a daily basis to remain connected with her family and community.

On the professional front he credits William T. Baker, the "father of highway photolog and data collection" with inspiring him. Ray recalls, "Bill Baker was an FHWA technical services project manager who saw what I was doing in Madison, WI from his office in Washington, DC and took an interest. He placed upon me the responsibility of advancing the state-of-the-art in network level data collection."

Ray cites the efforts of Tom Greaves for helping to define the community by bringing the players together at his conferences. He also notes that the DARPA Grand Challenge became a fertile arena for the exploration of smart sensor applications. Ray points out, "Many of the methods and technologies that we take for granted today can trace their origins to that event."

Ray believes that the laser scanning/ LiDAR industry is "way underperforming." He notes, "It is my belief that if the industry were to achieve its true potential, you could take all of the current providers and vendors, put them together and you would only have the capacity to do a very small percentage of the available work. There needs to be an industry wide strategy for growth."

To that end Ray has been working with a concerned group to create the GTMA–Geospatial Transportation Mapping Association. Ray’s vision for this group is to unify the industry with a national level strategy that will allow us to be ready for the next decade and beyond.

Ray believes that by 2020 we can expect to see our cars implementing smart sensor technology to autonomously drive from place to place. He thinks we will summon the vehicles to pick us up at the door through our personal communicators which will have embedded scanning and photogrammetric imaging capability. Accuracy will not be limited by the ability to get a GPS signal any more as our personal devices will keep us properly located.

Ray believes that billions of dollars will need to be invested, but that the industry will have to unify in order to capture the potential. Ray thinks, "The development will take time, patience and plenty of dollars dedicated to research. For the time being, there has to be an incentive for the effort or we won’t attract the brilliant people needed to overcome the barriers to an economic solution."

Final Thoughts
Ray’s equal partner in this adventure is his wife, Tracie. She is his strength and the "string that keeps him grounded and productive." Ray and Tracie’s children are their favorite "hobby" along with gardening on their 13 acres of Wisconsin prairie. In addition both are avid movie fans and have already seen most of the Oscar nominated films for this year. Ray commented, "We participated in the making of a commercial for Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game a couple years back and used our LiDAR to create a digital model of Anaheim Stadium."

But Ray is most passionate about sports. He is a lifelong Green Bay Packer fan and attends around 15 Milwaukee Brewer games a year to collect the various bobble heads they hand out. His office is full of them. Ray’s number one sports passion is his alma mater–the University of Wisconsin. Ray concludes, "I have missed only 6 home football games since I was a freshman in 1977. Some would say that I bleed Badger Red."

I always thought Ray was a high energy guy, but now I understand why. Everyone in the industry owes this pioneer a note of congratulations on a truly inspiring past 30 years. I can’t wait to see what you do with the next 30 Ray.

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

A 906Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine complete with images is available by clicking HERE