Conference Review: The Second Optech Innovative LiDAR Solutions Conference

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Optech’s CEO Don Carswell opened the second Innovative LiDAR Solutions Conference by noting that their timing was much better than two years ago when the inaugural event coincided with the depth of the worldwide financial meltdown. Don informed the 200+ attendees that business was strong for Optech, thanks in large part to their 30 + years of experience in kinematic LiDAR. In addition to their airborne systems, the new Lynx Mobile Mapper is now beginning to gain traction. Optech also manufactures a tripod-based, static scanner­the ILRIS.

Don recalled a customer that visited their booth at their first ASPRS conference back in 1995. They were displaying a point cloud image, which most people were seeing for the first time. The customer’s comment was, "That’s a pretty bad photo."

Overall the conference was very well organized and other than a few of the usual A/V issues it was delivered without a hitch. There were a total of five keynotes, each of which offered a valuable and distinctive message. The USGS was represented by Dr. Gerald Bawden, who described a number of earth science applications for terrestrial laser scanning that have begun to transform the profession, and Karl Heidemann from the EROS Data Center who has been working on Base LiDAR Specification. This document establishes the minimum standards for airborne LiDAR data being submitted to the USGS.

Professor Raymond M. Hoff, a long time colleague of Dr. Allan Carswell, the Founder of Optech, and now located at the University of Maryland, provided a nostalgic recap of more than 40 years of research and development of atmospheric LiDARs. The earliest LiDAR research dates back to the 1930s when flashlights instead of lasers were used to measure the aerosol particles in the atmosphere. Hoff and Carswell, along with others, recognized the value of the ruby laser and the rest is history, as they say.

If you have been wondering about the use of airborne LiDAR in Asia, as I had, Professor Teng-To Yu’s keynote provided a strong indication of the adoption of the technology, at least in Taiwan and China. Professor Yu’s major message was that since his region of the world is one of the most likely locations for natural disasters, governments should be investing in the use of LiDAR to build better emergency management plans. He was pleased to report that after a great deal of personal effort there are now eight airborne LiDARs in Taiwan, and to the best of his knowledge, 37 in mainland China.

All of these keynotes were outstanding, but for my money I have to give the top spot to Paul DiGiacobbe from HNTB. I suppose some of this is my bias having had the first job of my civil engineering career as a surveyor on an interstate highway construction project. As a risk-taking 19-year-old, I was the rodman taking 50-foot cross sections in live traffic on the New York State Thruway.

Today, as Paul pointed out, the cost of a mobile LiDAR scanning system, which is typically in the million-dollar range (the mapping grade are less expensive), can be justified on large highway construction projects based on the cost savings in maintenance and protection of traffic alone. HNTB is making it their mission to educate the major highway contractors on the benefits of mobile scanning, although HNTB does not own a system, nor do they have any plans to purchase one. They sub out all of their data collection to a group of service providers around the U.S.

Paul also revealed a very impressive LiDAR data management system built on Oracle Spatial that hosts the data in the cloud and serves it via a Silverlight web app. The system is patent pending, but HNTB intends to leverage this impressive tool to grow the use of mobile scanning and 3D transportation project design.

On Tuesday, the day before the conference officially opened, Optech provided a number of in-depth training seminars. The focus was on software with Optech also inviting Cardinal Systems and Virtual Geomatics to present training sessions. Airborne, terrestrial and mobile systems were covered.

Overall the technical conference sessions were organized into these same three platform-centric tracks. On the airborne side there were a number of presentations on the use of airborne LiDAR to better manage electric power transmission lines. Part of the interest in this application is the new FERC requirements for rating power line capacity and vegetation management programs.

A research group from York University, which is located just around the corner from Optech’s headquarters, reported on a project to automate extraction of power lines and towers. They noted that they had been successful in identifying individual trees, but only in conifer stands.

Automated feature extraction was also the theme of a presentation by the Sanborn Company on a project for a telecom client. For those not aware of the specs on these mobile mapping systems, they have an effective range of 150 meters and collect 200,000 3D points per second.

The Lynx system includes two GPS receivers and they establish a static base station in the vicinity of the project to further tighten the control. Sanborn splits the work into survey and feature grade. For the latter they typically achieve an RMS of ±5cm. The data processing workflow includes six separate software packages, including TopoDOT from Certainty 3D.

A utility customer located in the UK demonstrated that with even just a few points being collected by the mobile scanner as it drove by a gas line replacement project, a low cost, as-built could be developed. With even minimal returns as a result of the trench barricades, and the fact that the pipe was below the street grade, the requirement of 300mm +/- was achieved.

Your author gave a briefing on the recently approved ASTM E57 laser scan data exchange format to somewhat mixed reviews. With most of the conference attendees having an airborne background, the ASPRS LAS data standard seems to be meeting their data interoperability needs.

Janos Faust reported on a "shootout" style event that a professional surveying group hosted in Germany. They invited a number of the leading vendors to scan the same building and report on their results. Optech, Leica, Riegl, Trimble and Z&F participated. Many were disappointed that Faro declined. Unfortunately the rules were not well defined so in the final analysis it was difficult to directly compare the results and procedures.

The Optech technician chose to use the long range capabilities of the ILRIS scanner, which resulted in the need for only five scan locations. This significantly reduced the post-processing and registration as compared to some of the others who had a faster scanner but needed more than 20 scan locations. Optech also noted that they were the only vendor to provide a georeferenced data set.

In the Market Directions segment each of the vendors was given a 30-minute presentation slot to describe their products. Two of the more interesting sessions were by the competitors Ixsea and Applanix. Ixsea manufactures their own fiber optic gyroscopes while Applanix purchases most of their components. In fact, Applanix thinks of themselves as a software company. Ixsea’s vision of the future is that you will only need to buy one GPS/INS for land, marine or airborne applications. Applanix notes that they are free to purchase a better GPS or IMU whenever it comes on the market. Food for thought.

I found the most interesting session to be the one given by Chris Siebern from HNTB. They had been hired to support the reconstruction of the pavement at the home of t
he Daytona 500. This incredibly challenging project with its 32-degree banked turns had a requirement to "preserve the character" of the track so that the drivers would not have to learn a new surface. Once the project was completed, all agreed that the new track was just like the old, "but fast".

In summary, one of my key takeaways was a general observation that the maturity of the airborne LiDAR systems was quite noticeable when compared to mobile. Even though the underlying technology is quite similar, it is clear from attending the presentations in both tracks that mobile scanning is just beginning its technology adoption curve.

Outside of the show confines I had a chance to go for a ride in the Optech mobile LiDAR vehicle. I was struck by the simplicity of the installation and the ease of use of the operator software. The real time feedback was mind boggling. And just to put the icing on the cake, in my final 30 minutes at the event I was given a fast-paced tour of the Optech corporate offices­really impressive. This purpose-built building can support the design and testing of all of Optech’s sensors, as well as software, training, support­you name it.

Congratulations to the team at Optech for delivering a high-powered, informative and personal event. I could not think of a better name for the conference as all of us left with a variety of new and "innovative solutions".

Gene Roe has more than 40 years experience in the surveying and mapping field with a particular interest in disruptive technology. He is the Editor of LiDAR News and provides strategic consulting services worldwide. Roe has his PhD in Civil Engineering, is a registered professional engineer and a licensed land surveyor in New York.

A 1.099Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE