Advances in laser scanning and photogrammetry have reached the tipping point.

In mid-April, at SPAR2012—one of the few trade conferences devoted to scanning technology—there was a universal buzz that a big drop in cost, improved usability, better software and growing customer understanding and acceptance are creating a surge of uptake on the use of point clouds to document as-built conditions and ensure construction quality.

"I'm here to see the new stuff," says Chad Rabitoy, a Houston-based laser-scan specialist with Jacobs. "It's key to stay up with trends, where things are going to go and to keep ahead of the competition. I have to help educate our project teams to keep their plans in tune with what's going on."

Rabitoy predicts that laser scans, which are also known as LIDAR systems, soon will be a part of every surveyor's tool bag. "We have been using laser scanning almost 12 years now. We were in on the early frontier.  Our teams use it pretty effectively to reduce field changes and help us design better quality," Rabitoy says.

"GPS was the same," Rabitoy adds. "GPS had to prove itself. This has grown so much, so fast. It has been catching on. … I see it like the shift from 2D drafting to CAD. It's changing engineering as we know it. I see it as the next generation of how business will get done inside of industry and construction."

Momentum Builds

Pioneers and veterans of the long slog toward adoption who have been participating in the annual conference—hosted for the last nine years by the SPAR Point Group—clearly were buoyed by the growing turnout of vendors, technologists and serious customers. A record 60 vendors exhibited this year, taking 18% more display space. There were 849 attendees, up from 742 the prior year.

Veteran vendors and users both say hardware, software and service products are beginning to dovetail nicely with user needs. Departments of transportation and owners of industrial, academic and commercial facilities and the contractors and surveyors who serve them, among other organizations, are lining up to jump on board.

S. Keith McNease, a principal and vice president at SAM, a surveying, aerial mapping and engineering firm in Austin, Texas, says his conventional survey business first used LIDAR in 1998 and has not looked back. After initially purchasing services, the company began to buy its own equipment in 2003 and now has a full array of tools, including fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft for aerial scanning.

"You've got to have the right tools and the right combination for the client's needs," McNease says. The Texas DOT is one such client that is "now comfortable with scan, mobile and airborne technology," he says. SAM worked with Texas DOT to create standards for accuracy and contracting and scoping scan-based surveys and to define deliverables.