It may be that the only thing faster than a laser scanner these days is the pace of change in the laser scanning industry.

"Its moving quickly toward more speed and accuracy," says Michael R. Frecks, head of the 3D service department at Lamp, Rynearson and Associates Inc., engineers, surveyors and planners in Omaha. "The hardware and software are rapidly getting new tools and development."

RETROFIT Laser scanning made new equipment for Detroit power plant a clean fit. (Photo courtesy of WGI Laser Scanning Services)

LRA has used a variety of products since it began offering laser scanning services more than two years ago. "They all have their strengths and weaknesses," Frecks says.

"The biggest changes are in getting the information to the end-user faster and cheaper," says Greg Lawes, a manager at Washington Group Laser Scanning Services, Princeton, N.J. "The way to do that is through less processing so the end- user can use the point cloud directly."Washington uses laser scanning to assist complex retrofits, such as the insertion of a huge selective catalytic reduction unit into a 10-story Detroit Edison boiler building that is just wrapping up.

"We're also seeing a proliferation of new scanner companies, while existing companies are coming out with new models that collect larger volumes of points and denser clouds of data. Data management is becoming more of an issue," Lawes says.

Eric Hoffman, CEO of Quantapoint Inc., Pittsburgh, another scanning service firm, agrees that scanning is in a state of rapid change. "Certainly the technology is getting better. It almost has to, given the early state of the industry," he says. Hoffman's "existing conditions documentation service" company also builds, but does not sell, its own very fast scanning equipment.

Until recently, most scanners have used pulsed lasers, which emit rays like bullets from a machine gun and record the time of flight between emission and return to locate surfaces.

Alternatively, continuous wave lasers emit a beam with constantly changing amplitude. Each reflection from a point has an amplitude signature that also reveals time of flight. Quantapoint's laser uses continuous wave technology. It also uses a spinning mirror lens that sweeps the beam over a wide field of view, capturing virtually everything within 100 meters at the rate of 125,000 points per second, missing only what lies directly below the scanner.

But Quantapoint is facing new challengers in the speed derby. The iQsun scanner, from iQvolution AG, Ludwigsburg, Germany, collects 200,000 points per second at 50 meters. It can can paint a sphere 360� horizontally by 320� vertically in 160 seconds. The device is being tried on a few projects in the U.S. now and will be marketed starting in October, says Thomas Satterley, director of business development for the U.S. in Richboro Pa.

But high resolution and speed are not always the best tools for the job, says Geoff Jacobs, vice president of marketing at one of the other stalwarts in the business, pulse-laser maker Cyra Technologies Inc., San Ramon, Calif.

Pulse scanners often can collect data at longer ranges and up to 10,000 points per second. Most have narrower fields of view, although MENSI Inc., Norcross, Ga., has a new pulsed 360� laser with a wide field that weighs about 25 lb and can be controlled by a personal data assistant (PDA).

Cyra's Jacobs contends that the smaller point clouds typical of pulse lasers, rather than being a disadvantage, often are more useful than the massive point clouds from high-speed scanners. "I call them ‘dumb' scanners. Everything is at high resolution," Jacobs says. "The users have a very big problem managing the data. All scanners are ridiculously fast. The challenge has been to extract useful information." Jacobs says the answer lies in better software and smarter scanning methodology. "Be selective," he advises.

When scanning, software for Cyra's Cyrex scanners lets them be "addressable," Jacobs says. They can be told to capture fine detail from specific parts of a scene, and coarser detail elsewhere. "You're just capturing the areas you really care about," he says.

Nebraska's LRA has used Cyrex scanners on projects, such as recording highway overpasses and scanning the faces on Mount Rushmore.

Quantapoint's Hoffman agrees with the smart scanning approach. "A lot of it is taking time to understand what the customer wants to do," he says. A typical plant retrofit job may have 2000 tie-ins and may have 300 scans, he says. But by knowing in advance what designers need, Hoffman's crews can shoot to make data navigation as easy as possible. "When you deliver half a terabyte of data to people, you had better be able to help them find their way around it," he says.

Quantapoint's software can take a designer to a particular flange and define it to help design a connection. "We have tools to grab that pipe, give slope and orientation, center point and diameter. That substantially improves efficiency," Hoffman says.

OVERPASS CLEARANCE Nebraska's LRA scanners deliver as-builts quickly. (Image courtesy of Lamp, Rynearson and Associates)

Cyra's cloud management software also lets users select a low level of detail for navigation so computers don't have to grind through millions of points of data just to cruise the image. The newest version of Cyra's Cyclone cloud processing software also has filters that can automatically remove extraneous detail, such as shrubs, trash cans and cars, to clean up files for projects such as digital terrain models. Jacobs says that alone can reduce computer processing time dramatically.

But many say the most significant advances in usability come from new tools that let CAD operators work directly over point clouds from within their design programs. Cyra's CloudWerx plug-in, for example, opens point-cloud views in Bentley's Microstation or Autodesk's AutoCAD software, so users can see objects as templates and avoid conflicts, without first having to interpret the clouds into models. "That knocks down a big barrier," Jacobs says.

Another software advance is starting to rock the scanning industry with a new way of dealing with terabytes of 3D data. LASERGEN software, from BitWyse Solutions, Boston, automatically and rapidly creates CAD-ready 3D models from laser scan data, without ever actually touching the data. The software preserves the original point cloud, but masks it with an automatically generated modeling layer that uses a sampling technique to vastly speed up view processing. Users instantly can check interferences between the CAD and laser design data while they are placing pipe, equipment or structural shapes.

"Their software makes our data look great," says Quantapoint's Hoffman. "You're not trying to fit cylinders to points, not trying to decide whether to model the one-inch lines or handrails and structures. All that stuff is in there. It is very useful, and now we're starting to see engineering companies embrace it."

"They're very forward-thinking people," agrees LRA's Frecks.