Scanning New Horizons

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Four years ago, we considered laser scanning to be an "emerging technology." By using this term, we expressed the idea that it would someday reach a market saturation point and be widely accepted as a tool for specific tasks. But as I pen this article today, I wonder if there will really be an endpoint to product development and real-world applications for this highly precise data collection technology. We may find that laser scanning will continue in an evolutionary stage for several decades to come.

Why is this? Other technologies and devices have been developed and made exponential improvements in measurement and data collection. Take the handheld GNSS data collector for example. These devices made huge improvements over existing methodologies at the time they were introduced. But there are limitations. Applications are limited to single-point data collection tasks in an outdoor, open-sky environment. Typical accuracies range from sub-meter to centimeter. Further developments improved accuracy by the incorporation of various augmentation systems, but finally met an endpoint.

Now consider laser scanning: millions of XYZ points can be collected in the time it would take to acquire four or five GNSS points. Accuracy is in the single-digit millimeter range. There are no environmental limitations as to where they can be used–outside or in confined spaces. When we compare the functionality and flexibility of laser scanning to prior technologies, it is easy to see that this technology has actually created an entirely new venue for data collection and measurement.

Laser scanning has also created new and different business opportunities. Part of this equation is the relatively high cost of acquisition. Initial outlay for a laser scanner and software that can handle massive point clouds is roughly five to 10 times the cost of a GNSS system or a total station. The typical buyer of these data collection and positioning systems are surveyors and engineers.

For an established civil/survey firm the decision to expand into laser scanning includes more than simply buying hardware and software. It isn’t as easy as buying a new survey instrument. The firm must first study the potential market enough to be assured of a positive return on investment. To be successful, the change will usually require a shift in business relations. A new customer base that needs high-density, high-accuracy point clouds instead of single-point surveys must be acquired. These new clients will require a wide diversity of services, such as BIM for mechanical contractors and accurate volume calculation for mining operations. Due to the technological sophistication of laser scanners and software, hiring a new person with specialized knowledge will likely be necessary.

The complex business and economic investment required, coupled with the recent economic recession, has limited the number of civil/survey firms that have been willing to take the plunge. As a result, a door has opened for a new enterprise–the laser scanning specialist. This venture involves someone who has intimate knowledge and experience with scanning technology; someone who can justify and absorb the initial costs of hardware and software acquisition; someone whose comprehensive understanding of industry needs and scanning capabilities enables them to conceive visionary applications.

True World Services (TWS), based in Austin, Texas has taken advantage of the open door of business opportunity. Owned and operated by Fred Moser, the company was founded in April of 2011 with the concept of renting laser scanners and providing scanning services. Moser’s vast experience with this specialized technology dates back to 2000. His work with a diverse land surveying firm in the private sector gave him thorough knowledge and experience with actual on-the-ground applications. Prior to starting TWS, Moser gained intensive knowledge about laser scanning hardware, software, and business models while working for Topcon Positioning Systems as a national sales manager.

Moser’s business philosophy is based on a multi-pronged approach. He offers scanner rentals for customers that chose to collect and process the data themselves. If desired, TWS will travel anywhere in the U.S., collect the required data on-site, process the data, and format it to meet the requirements of the customer.

Since producing relevant and usable deliverables from scanner output is critical to his business, Moser has acquired a distributorship for Topcon’s ScanMasterTMsoftware. In his capacity as a "Workflow Solutions Consultant," Moser has provided his expert assistance to a number of Topcon laser scanning dealers. His services range from assisting with the ongoing training of dealer sales personnel to educating end-user clients on some of the more challenging aspects of project planning and scanned data processing.

Flexibility and rapid response are the hallmarks of Moser’s enterprise. TWS describes itself as an "agile" company– an excellent term to communicate the company’s ability to mobilize quickly and responsively. There is no pre-set methodology or workflow. Using his understanding of field work as well as laser scanning technology, Moser creates a targeted program to meet the requirements of each job and customer that TWS serves.

One great example of a successful TWS project involved scanning the dome of the Capitol building of the State of Colorado. With no reliable as-built dimensions for the dome, the restoration contractor faced a major challenge in erecting scaffolding to fit the constant curvature. TWS was contracted to perform the laser scanning and provide a BIM from roof level to the top of the lantern.

The project schedule was tight, allowing only four days for the completion of the field work. Mobilizing quickly, TWS finished the field scanning in three days in compliance with the time constraint. The scanned data was quickly processed and delivered to the contractor in Autodesk Revit format. This detailed dimensional information enabled the proper scaffolding to be ordered and erected efficiently.

Onsite, on-demand laser scanning is invaluable when unknowns are encountered during construction. While trenching for a new sewer line in an established residential area, the City of Austin Utilities Departmentencountered a void area under the street. This type of unexpected discovery can result in time delays and inconvenience for residents using the roadway. Accurate dimensional definition of the void was required in order to engineer a fill solution. Typical hand measurements would be time consuming and difficult due to the fact that the area was very wide horizontally but shallow vertically. Laser scanning was the perfect solution.

After the field work was completed, Moser used Topcon’s ScanMaster software to create cross-sections and mesh surfaces of the void. The point cloud generated from the laser scanning provided very accurate dimensions and a precise volume could be derived.

By creating a responsive company focused on very specialized knowledge of laser scanning and its applications, Moser has successfully filled a gap in measurement and positioning services. He offered his perspective of the intrinsic value of this continuously emerging technology. "Organizations from many diverse disciplines are realizing the value of incorporating laser scanning into their operations", Moser said. "They now understand that they cannot be competitive without it."

The ongoing success of diverse business opportunities in laser scanning demonstrates that this technology will continue to "emerge" for some time to come. My crystal ball isn’t smart enough to tell me when it will become a "conventional method" superseded by some yet unknown superior means of data collection and measurement. In the meantime, I will continue to look forward to the next great laser scanning story.

Richard Rybka consults with Topcon Positioning Systems as an Applications Journalist. He retired from full-time employment at Topcon in January 2012.

A 1.539Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine complete with images is available by clicking HERE