Educational SPAR 2012

By Tate Jones, PLS

Many people from across America call me to discuss 3D laser scanning and lidar technology. My most consistent statement about the technology is: if you want to learn about all things scanning go to SPAR, and if you cannot afford to go to SPAR you cannot afford to get in the business.

SPAR 2012 (under the leadership of Lisa Murray, director of SPAR Point Group, and the new staff) was professionally run and flowed well. Houston is a great city, and I counted eight sky cranes overhead, my measuring stick for how healthy construction is. Houston’s connection to scanning is significant: 3D laser scanning was first invented by Ben Kacyra with the purpose of being able to accurately map pipes in the petroleum industry, and Houston is the center of the petroleum industry in America. However, having attended for my sixth year, it was nice to know that next year's conference will be at a new venue in Colorado Springs.

Along with the fascinating speakers and new and mysterious software packages, there were several noticeable themes. First was that Lawrie Jordan, the director of imagery for Esri, was one of the keynote speakers. The GIS industry is recognizing that 3D data, lasers, and lidar (and the professionals involved) are “leading the way into the 3D world.” This is an important step as all the GIS departments across the land will need new programs and the storage to manage all the terabytes of 3D data they will begin receiving in the next few years.

Fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters, mobile mapping systems, and terrestrial lidar systems are being sold, and the price point is being dropped so that more professionals are beginning to use them on a project-by-project basis. The days of GIS data being shown on flat maps with 2D deliverables are coming to an end. Lawrie said it well in his presentation: “The map of the future will be in 3D, and you will be able to fly through it and interrogate and test it.” He first said that 25 years ago at a military conference and noted that the 3D professionals at the SPAR conference were leaders in taking us there. His vision was prodigious, and now that time is here.

Lawrie also displayed the work of a small company that Esri discovered and bought that produces a software package called “City Engine.” It can build realistic metropolises and large cities based on rules and assumptions set up within the software. It can then create a real city and model the city and create computer-generated fly-throughs and walk-throughs.  

Abe N. Reichental, president of 3D Systems, explained with a great deal of conviction how 3D printing would change the next decade. He showed an example of gestural sculpturing where a person stands inside a grid and, by moving their hands, can create shapes displayed on computer screens and then printed in 3D. The point was: Why does software have to be driven on computer keyboards? Why not from the hands of designers?

The latest small-scale 3D printers are down in cost to $1,200. Predictions of 3D printing in the fashion industry (shoes and dresses as examples), the food industry (chocolate designs), and the manufacturing and construction industries were fascinating to imagine. One quote that struck me was: “3D printing will be one of the most transformative technologies in the next decade.” Sending a printable 3D model can be accomplished easily, and there is no reason that the 3D files created by designers cannot be printed and tested and ultimately used by large industrial printers to build construction pieces.

Another notable speaker was Elmer Bol with Autodesk labs, who demonstrated many of their 3D visions of the future. Joseph Chumbley, senior systems engineer with Lockheed, demonstrated how lidar’s being used in making satellites that have extremely short launch windows. He brought up some good points about lidar. His strongest message is that when they are designing a system and he needs to add or modify or adjust it, it is much quicker to re-scan the prototype model than try to reuse old cad drawings of what the system was supposed to look like.

Consider that for a minute. A current and fresh scan is of more value than the best cad work. Why? Just by being built, the model has changed in some measurable way from the plan. I see this being the norm in many types of industries, including construction, manufacturing, and other fluid processes. This is a dynamic change in thinking. When hired to do an as-built lidar survey on a major interior renovation, my client remarked, “Why would I want just an as-built drawing when, if we scan the interior, we can have all the information?”

The other important theme repeated by many speakers is that a lidar point cloud by itself has marginal value. The days of wowing clients with really good-looking point clouds are over. It is the information that is derived from the point cloud that’s important and whether or not it solves a real problem in a cost-effective manner. If there is no perceived problem by a client, then the solution provided has to be better or cost less, or the chances of a repeat sale are slim.

Definitely emerging and growing are the trends of delivering data in easier-to-use formats and software packages that work more on a graphical platform and are able to actually do automatic or semi-automatic feature extraction. One notable company in attendance was ClearEdge3D, probably one of the most cost-effective leaders in turning point clouds of piping into automatic models. Another very interesting company is Topo Dot, as they gave three views of their data, and their data extraction is very graphical, with far fewer key strokes required to extract data by points or polyline.

The Focus Laser by Faro garnered a lot of attention and is having an effect on the industry. With a starting price in the range of $45,000 to $50,000, it seems effective for certain types of projects. Its light weight and suitability for use indoors makes it a good choice for localized projects in forensics or plants.

One major new hardware package was displayed by MDL from England. They came out with a mobile package starting in the $135,000 range up to $260,000. For a scan requiring higher precision, the company created a mount system that can accept the Faro Focus, and I suspect you could add other scanners like the Z&F or Leica. (How well it performs is unknown as it usually takes a year or more for the industry to test a new system sufficiently.)

Other interesting hardware, software, and photographic systems:

earthmine: This company uses photography and graphic programs to map city infrastructure from a mobile platform. Because it’s photography-based it’s easy to use and intuitive.

Mantis Vision: They offer a new handheld mapping system that produces accurate, detailed files and is light and can get into extremely small places.

iStar from NCTech: This cube photo imager can take a 360-degree photograph with one shot, which with the right software can be mapped into a point cloud.

acute3D: An example of photogrammetry meeting lidar, this system can take multiple photographs which, when processed, can create detailed point clouds and mesh.

The scanning industry still has a lot of growth potential. There are many groups of professionals who still do not know about the advantages of this technology. I noted this as I traveled to the Society of American Archaeology the day after the SPAR conference and gave a presentation to about 50 to 60 forensic archaeologists, and not one had ever seen the technology. There will be much more growth in many more industries.

Tate Jones is a registered land surveyor in Alabama, Florida, South Carolina and Georgia and a member of this magazine’s editorial board. He began in his business 1988 and has been in the land surveying business ever since. His firm, LandAir
Surveying, is currently a nationwide provider of aerial mapping, land surveying, and 3D laser surveys. For more information, visit www.landair 


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