Industry Pioneers: Michael R. Frecks

A 458Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine complete with images is available by clicking HERE

Editor’s Note: Thanks to Cyn for authoring this article highlighting the career of this industry pioneer.

Michael Frecks, founder of Terrametrix, LLC, has more than just a mobile mapping company in his portfolio of LiDAR technology start-ups. In fact, thanks to Michael Omaha, Nebraska has three pioneering, 3d laser scan companies all located within a mile of each other.

Those that know Michael will tell you that he speaks his mind when it comes to advancing the technology. As an early consultant in hardware and software interaction for the land surveying market he once told Leica that he thought their latest and greatest new product was a $15 million waste of Research and Development. What sets Michael apart from other opinionated users is that Leica and other major manufacturers have sought out his expert opinion as a land surveyor for over 30 years.

Michael knows he is a restless soul and will be the first to tell you he is always looking for the next technology to "advance" the survey profession. It was that restlessness that started the survey journey with LiDAR.

The Formative Years
Michael’s foundation for hard work began early. "I spent my youth helping my dad build the family home purchasing supplies paycheck to paycheck. He dug the basement with a shovel and a wheel barrow," said Frecks. "That’s brawn."

Admittedly a farm boy who raised cattle to finance his education in Land and Water Technology from the University of Nebraska at Curtis, Michael promotes the fact that anyone who has lived or worked for any length of time on a farm will tell you about the strong work ethic that "now serves him well in business". He parleyed this foundation and love of nature into being a documenter of the land since 1978. With Nebraska celebrating the 200th anniversary of the great surveying trek of Lewis and Clark, Michael feels comfortable knowing he has played a small part in furthering that pioneering tradition by advancing his land surveying aspirations into the 21st century.

Surveyor Mentality
Michael’s evolution as a licensed surveyor didn’t always follow the traditional progression from rodman to survey party chief, but it was his father’s work ethic that helped him rise to the top. If you knew your job you wanted to be on Michael’s crew because of its efficiency. If you didn’t know your job the days became long and were filled with hard lessons. It wasn’t uncommon to be dropped off at the office half way through the day if you couldn’t cut it. Those that did survive under him ended up being some of the most experienced surveyors in Nebraska using some of the most updated tools.

Michael learned early on that land surveyors have a special duty that no other professionals have because of their unique understanding of spatial relationships when it comes to documenting and interpreting the land. "This inbred spatial recognition does not change regardless of the tools we use," said Frecks.

Tools were always the catalyst for Michael as a land surveyor. "I remember in 1983, the awe watching a pen plotter draw a line in the office by coding the total station from the field book," said Frecks.

In 1997, a large 120 person+ survey/ engineering company, Lamp Rynearson and Associates (LRA), located in Omaha, was hired to document 46 miles of fiber optic cables across southeast Nebraska. As the project surveyor, the standard approach of documenting along a route that was inaccessible by foot using existing technology seemed inefficient. At the time Leica debuted their long range vector binoculars so Mike bought the only existing pair in the United States. Coupling an RTK solution on an all-terrain vehicle with information from the vector binoculars the integration of technologies cut the project time by 1/3.

In 2000, while still at LRA, only now on the Board of Directors and head of surveys, Michael needed a way to document a church with a unique truss system for reconstruction after relocation. "That’s when I found Cyrark’s Ben Kacyra and Jerry Dimsdale. Their technology of capturing multiple laser returns from what can only be considered a total station on steroids was just the solution." Michael convinced LRA to purchase one of the 2400 static scanners which was quickly updated to the 2500 model. That’s how fast the technology was moving.

Starting Small?
Michael said he was going to start with small projects. True to form, his first three projects using LiDAR static technology was the grandstand seating in the NCCA College World Series Baseball stadium, the entire Kansas City Capitol building (inside, outside and roof) and a nuclear power plant. Small by no one else’s standards, unless you compare these to some of his other static projects–a 3 million square foot plenum space at the Las Vegas Convention Center; a BMW automotive assembly line plant; The Ramesseum in Luxor, Egypt; and the dome at Caesars Palace.

For Michael, LiDAR documentation had proven itself. Now what else could it do?

By this time in his career Michael had walked thousands of miles of topo. "I knew the banks of the Missouri River from the Kansas / Nebraska border to Ponca State Park from setting monuments every two tenths of a mile for the US Army Corp of Engineers hydrographic studies. I spent three years walking rail from Denver to Omaha, to Kansas City, to St Louis, to Chicago," said Frecks. He noted, "Only surveyors that have been in these kinds of situations, who know the roar of a tunnel survey or the alertness needed in traffic on a highway survey long for a safer way of doing this work."

So in 2005, he began exploring LiDAR from ground level moving platforms. "If airborne can do it why can’t we do it from a moving truck that is out of harm’s way," Michael wondered. He spent two years seeking out innovators and beta testing prototypes but like any new technology it just didn’t do what it claimed. That is not until 2007.

Again, because of his industry reputation for "pushing technology to its limits" Dr. Graham Hunter with 3D Laser Mapping in the UK, developer of StreetMapper sent Michael a mobile mapping system for a test run. Michael’s approach of "seeing what it can’t do so you know the limitations of what you want to do" soon revealed why they consider the StreetMapper system the most accurate system in the world. It was on that confidence Michael formed Terrametrix in 2008 as a safer way to acquire civil transportation data.

Final Thoughts
"I’ve worked through the advancement in technology and know fad from proven. As surveyors, each new advancement has us questioning the longevity of our profession. Yet, each new step if we embrace it creates unique challenges, new opportunities for land surveying and a more efficient way of mapping the land," said Frecks.

From the chain, to the electronic distance measurement device (EDM), total station, robotic total station, GPS, static scanning and now terrestrial mobile LiDAR scanning (TMLS), Michael has walked the walk. Because technology is constantly changing so must the surveyor’s tools. So, he says it is not uncommon that TMLS technology again has our profession asking "what is next for us?"

Cyn Ren Whitfield is a nationally published journalist who has been involved in marketing for land surveying and 3D/4D laser scanning documentation since 1986.

A 458Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine complete with images is available by clicking HERE