Pangaea: SPAR International 2013: An exciting year of industry insight

Once again, the annual Spar International Conference, which was held at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs this year, lived up to all my expectations. Each year, I take a different person from my company, and each year, we both learn tons of new information. I say this every year, but if you are in the laser scanning, lidar or photogrammetric mapping industry—or plan on entering this field—this conference is a must.

Opening Session

This is always one of the conference highlights, and this year was no different. Michael Jones, chief technology advocate with Google, did an excellent job of broadening the outlook of how to collect data by alternative means, now called “crowdsourcing.” He related how Google could take photographs posted on Flickr and generate point clouds of cities and places and even topography.

Google has been able to download information from ship location satellites and not only graphically display most of the ships in the ocean, but also paint the shipping lanes to show which are the most used in the world. Fascinating.

He related how Descartes mapped the Mediterranean Ocean in the 16th century using course and direction information from all the ships in the ocean. Each captain was required to turn in data and notes when he hit land. From this data, Descartes was able to create an accurate map of the Mediterranean.

Jones’ point was that, like all data collected with cell phones today, this data was basically free and there was a great need and use for it—just like the maps of the shipping lanes or the data for 3D models of cities collected from free photographs. This very same crowdsourcing technique was used the same week as the conference to catch the Boston Marathon bombers.

Greg Bentley with Bentley Systems talked about some of new products they are building into their forward-looking program Descartes. One of the most intriguing features is its process of streaming point cloud data into a design file. In a transportation application, if a designer were redesigning a section of road or bridge, for example, he or she could hit a command button, and the point cloud would stream into that section of the design open at the time. This way, the designer would not have to work through the entire point cloud continuously. This new tool also provides access to the point cloud data throughout the entire process, which will prove to be invaluable on future projects.

Professor Heinz Ruther gave a presentation on “lessons learned” from his scanning and documentation of the Petra Heritage site in Africa. The site was over three square kilometers and the relief was 100 meters tall. There were 1,750 scans that created a point cloud with 12 billion points. His group, the Zamani Group, is trying to document as many of the African cultural heritage sites as possible.

He noted that laser scanners with the same specifications collect completely different point clouds and that cleaning a point cloud properly prior to modeling can take many hours per scan and should be put into the budget. Modeling of rock faces is rudimentary at best, he explained, and in a canyon environment, it was not possible to collect a complete point cloud without shadows and holes.

After seeing his work environment, it’s evident he definitely loves his job. There were pictures of his team carrying scanners down streams over their heads to keep them dry. This is very physically demanding work in the harshest environments imaginable.

The Vendors

Everything gets better, faster, cooler, easier and more expensive every year. I may have overstated this because if you measure the technology by cost-per-dot, it may actually be getting cheaper.

My company, LandAir Surveying Company, is in the process of evaluating laser scanners as we have maxed-out our capacity with one scanner.


Two technical approaches were converging at Spar International: Z+F had their Imager 5010C on display, which is a phase-based scanner with a range of almost 200 meters. It is the longest phase-based scanner in its class. Leica has the P20, which is a time-of-flight scanner that can collect 1,000,000 points per second, which is one of the fastest time-of-flight scanners in its class. Both are excellent scanners, and the choice should ultimately be made based on the client’s needs.

Surphaser was also displaying its new 100HSX, which has a range 120 meters and collects sub-millimeter data. This could be a game changer for clients with super-high precision needs.

I should also mention the Faro Focus 3D, as it is a good scanner and collects the most points for the dollar. I used it recently on a project in Haiti, and it definitely has advantages being small and light.

All the other scanner companies were there, and most of the equipment was new and improved over last year.


Software continues to be a key component in the laser scanning world. The scanners do a good job in many environments, but it is the software that makes the process easier and the data more useful. As the software gets easier, requests for point clouds will become the norm.

In addition to the advances Bentley has made that I described earlier, they have also added point tools to their software suite, which makes their plant process and modeling that much better.

Autodesk showed their Recap program, which is a great step in making point clouds much more user friendly. Designers have always had an innate distrust of point clouds just because of their size and complexity. Recap will allow designers to begin quickly using the data and placing it in and around their design.

Kubit is now developing Revit tools that use photography programs to produce a lot of high-quality data from close range photography.

The Presentations: Drones and Point Clouds

I attended more than 15 breakout sessions at SPAR this year, including two on drones, which, in my opinion, may be one of the biggest changes coming to the surveying and mapping world. The work and design of these aircraft and the types of sensors they use is amazing. If you are in the business, you cannot ignore this emerging technology.

These drones are already capable of collecting digital terrain data, high-resolution photography, and a multitude of sensors such as thermal and infrared that will definitely change how data is collected. Though they will not replace large aircraft on large county or statewide projects, there will be new markets that will open to conduct close range aerial mapping of complicated facilities. These were the first sensors to go into the Japanese nuclear facility after the meltdown, and they certainly showed the value of an unmanned data collector.

Trimble had its impressive Gatewing X 100 drone on display: if you look at the specs, it will do a lot of work. But remember, this about drone technology: you can use it everywhere in the world except the USA, at least right now.

Here, it requires a lot of upfront work that may include a pilot, yearly license and flight plan.  It is very cumbersome to navigate through the paperwork. Most of this will go away by 2016 when the rules and regulations are to be published.

Close range photogrammetric-producing point clouds

There are big advances in producing high-density point clouds from photography that are intersecting technically with point clouds produced from scanners, but the difference in cost can be extreme.

I attended a presentation by the University of Colorado at Denver that tested the point clouds produced by a laser scanner and a camera on a stick (about 15-feet tall) to map a single building. Both produced useable point clouds. In this particular case, when a point cloud of a smaller, accessible building was required, the camera did an excellent job and produced a cloud with no noise. This technology is catching up and will be a useful tool moving forward. For this specific project, it was cheaper, faster, and just as good as a high definition scanner.

Though they did “borrow” software for parts of the process, the overall detail was very good. I can see a lot of architectural and heritage uses for this technology. This will continue to be developed and push the use of point clouds into many new applications.

There are so many things to see at SPAR International. Each year, I wonder if I will return next year, and every year, I come back and am glad I did. Being able to sit down next to a service provider like myself who works in New York, Portland or California and ask them how they handle difficult scanning tasks can give you great ideas and new best practices or confirm what your staff has been telling you for years.

The exchange of ideas is definitely worth the time. Next year, go and learn what is going on in the amazing world of 3D data collection. 

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