July 24, 2014

Continental View

Justin Avatar Justin Toland

Continental View, written by Justin Toland, covers the European 3D data capture and imaging marketplace, looking at the many ways organizations are using 3D data to make better decisions about their businesses, create efficiencies, and reduce risk. Justin is a long-time business journalist, who speaks Dutch, French, and English. You can find him at justin@justintoland.com.

The ghost of lidar future

One thing that came home to me this week is the increasingly global nature of the 3D scan data ecosystem. And with that globalisation, it naturally follows that innovative services are springing up outside of, as well as within, the more established markets of Europe, Australia, Japan and North America.

In South Africa, for instance, Ergotech, a division of the state-owned armaments company Armscor, has been using point clouds to help ensure standard issue footwear fits the female soldiers of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), reports iolNews. Armscor's annual report notes that the shoe is "based on the anthropometry of SANDF females as obtained through 3D laser scanning and multivariate statistical analysis techniques." However, not everyone is enamoured of the results: South African parliamentarian David Maynier, who attended a meeting of the country's Defence Portfolio Committee at which the shoe was unveiled, criticising both the cost of the project and the drab appearance of the resulting product, says iolNews.

In India, another novel means of putting laser scanning to use is also raising concerns relating to cost and utility, reports the Deccan Chronicle. The country's Central Empowered Committee (CEC) - a powerful legal body constituted by the Supreme Court - has ordered that lidar be used to resolve a dispute over illegal mining of iron ore in Karnataka province, where 63 leaseholders are accused of mining outside sanctioned areas. 

The appointed survey team is set to borrow terrestrial laser scanning equipment from the Singareni Collieries Company Limited, a coal mine in Andhra Pradesh - equipment that has previously been used to resolve similar cases of illegal mining in India.

Unsurprisingly, concession-holders and miners affected by the decision are crying foul. A report from another local news source quotes the southern regional chairman of the Federation of Indian Mineral Industries (FIMI), a lobby group for mining interests, as saying, "We are not opposed to the laser survey, but it will be time-consuming and delay the recovery of the iron ore sector in the state.”

The ghost of lidar future 

02.14.12 ghost imagingCost is often cited as a reason NOT to scan, but it is well known that the costs of laser scanning are on a downward trajectory, even as the quality and usefulness of the data obtained rises. And a new 3D scan technology currently being worked on in another developing market - China - promises even more remarkable gains. Quantum physicists at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Shanghai have published a paper about their research into so-called "ghost imaging," a technique for measuring the intensity of reflected light that would allow data to be collected from the entire field-of-view all at once, rather than point-by-point, even with moving objects. The image accompanying this story shows two images of a building located some 1.2 km away. The one on the left is the field-of-view taken with a telescope, the one on the right the field-of-view obtained by 3D ghost imaging. 

The path from academic proof-of-concept to a commercial product is littered with good intentions. Nevertheless, the scientists' paper (which you can download here) should be required reading for anyone interested in the future of laser scanning. If it lives up to its potential, ghost imaging will be to lidar as photography is to drawing: in other words, a completely revolutionary - and much faster - way of capturing and representing the world. Interesting times, indeed. 

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New hubs give added support to UK additive manufacturing

Given the recent excitement in the US about the $85 million in funding heading towards Youngstown, Ohio and the newly-established National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute (NAMII), one of the questions I hoped to have answered at the recent 3D Printshow in London was, "is there anything like that happening in Europe"? 

11.02.12 additive hubsThe answer: yes, but not quite on that scale. I met up with Sophie Jones, from Econolyst (a UK consulting firm with its fingers in several 3D printing pies - one of which is "Willit?," a cloud-based WebGL application that lets web users interrogate design files prior to printing to assess the cost, quality and carbon footprint of 3D printing with various materials). She is in charge of research for a new "UK National Centre for Additive Manufacturing Research Pavilion" being set up in partnership with the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), Loughborough University and the University of Nottingham. The centre's goal is to "showcase the UK's research capabilities and promote engagement with industry," proclaims its website.

"What we've found is there's a massive amount of technology transfer in the States: They're really good at getting academic work pairing it up with industry and coming up with something commercially-viable. In the UK, maybe we're not as great at that," says Jones.  

"The aim of the national centre is to allow industry to pair up with researchers and enable that technology transfer," she adds. Partly this will be through a travelling 'pavilion' that goes round and enables people to interact. A bigger part of the story will be a web portal - www.3dp-research - that is currently in development. "It's not up and running yet, but it will be in the next few weeks," says Jones. "What that will be is a way of helping industry engage with research by letting them see what research [people] are engaged in, what facilities they've got, how they fund it - things like that." A secondary goal is to be an-to-date and accurate source of information about 3D printing.

"We've got three groups we want to target," explains Jones. "Industry, researchers - we want to provide a place where they can upload their papers, their links, and look for jobs and scholarships - and also the general public. Whether we produce our own content or use other people's is still to be decided, but it will all be peer-reviewed - so, YouTube videos, things that people can use in lectures and students can use as a learning resource." 

Unlike NAMII, the idea is not to have a fixed research centre: "Ours is just a metaphorical research pavilion. It's more about bringing people together," says Jones. And, as in the US, the political visibility of 3D printing is rising as the technology becomes more mainstream. "David Cameron said only last month that it was one of the five emerging technologies he wanted the UK to invest in," she notes. "There has been £6 million EPSRC funding for Nottingham, which is fantastic. I think we will see [greater financial support]. We won't see it on the scale of the U.S., but then we are not the scale of the US. I probably should point out in terms of research we are on a par with the U.S., easily, we are ahead of Germany: Our research output is phenomenal, and that's why we want to link it up, to make sure that we see the economic benefits of investing in all this research," Jones adds. 

The possibility of working with the people at NAMII is also a cause for excitement in the UK: "The potential for links with that will be incredible," she concludes.

3D office 

At the opposite end of the scale, a young 3D designer has created a hub of his own on London's Brick Lane "opposite the bagel shop - so everyone knows where it is," helpfully explains Nick Allen, the founder of MAK-3D (pronounced "maked"), which he believes is "the world's first 3D printing co-working office."

11.01.12.mak-3dAllen says he "set out to give 3D designers in London a specific place to work at; there wasn't anything like that. Now I've got a couple of guys in and it's kind of evolved into: 'You don't pay for a desk anymore; you get a free desk in exchange for working for me'." The young entrepreneur also runs a company called 3dprintuk, which turns customer's ideas into 3D printed models - anything from a replacement knob for a radiogram to architectural models. "Hopefully we'll be able to get some investment for an SLS machine and then get myself a UK version of Shapeways, that's what I'm looking for. That's the end goal, but it's not competition with Shapeways; it's a slightly different version of [what they do]," promises Allen. 

In the meantime, the MAK-3D office, which has been up-and-running since August, now houses three other people. "I ask for 10 hours a month - about 2 hours a week - CAD work from my tenants and in return I actually get paid by my clients for the work they do," explains Allen. Not only does this mean the rent gets paid, it also means that, "Instead of outsourcing and waiting two weeks for someone to say, 'Yes I can do it,' and then waiting another two weeks for them to do it, I can shout across the room, 'Can you do it?,' and then an hour later it's done and it's back on the desk," he adds. 

A further benefit is the fact that, "not only do I get paid for that CAD work, I also get the 3D printing job that the guy wanted in the first place because I've got him the CAD model straight away - so it piggybacks," says Allen. 

An additional "piggyback" is another business running out of the same office, called Brikstarter. "[It's] a full kickstarting platform," says Allen. "If you've got an idea, but no idea how to design it, develop it, prototype it, market it, do the video, anything, and you don't have the money, you come to us." With a range of available equipment that includes an (unspecified) 3D scanner, Canon 7D digital camera and Objet 3D printer, the Brikstarter team does the entire project, "tens of thousands of pounds' worth of work," for "a minimal set-up fee - a couple of hundred quid (pounds), 10% of the pledge and a 10% non-executive stake in the product at the end of it."

As for 3D printing, says Allen: "The technology's here, it's awesome, let's do something with it." 

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Following the trans-Siberian lidar express

It's possible that some of you reading this blog may have just attended a workshop on Innovative Technologies for an Efficient Geospatial Management of Earth Resources, which took place in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on 18-19 September. Organised by the International Federation of Surveyors (FIG), Kazakh National Technical University after K.I.Satpaev (KazNTU) and Siberian State Academy of Geodesy (SSGA), with support from, among others, the International Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (ISPRS), the event covered such issues as the latest tools for geospatial data analysis (including lidar) and the application of terrestrial, airborne and mobile laser scanning for 3D static and dynamic modelling of complex engineering objects and facilities.

09.18.12 Jena Russian Church
Scan of a Russian church done by Jena Instrument.

As the centre of the old Soviet space programme, Kazakhstan has long been at the cutting edge of geodesy, aerial surveying and satellite-based industries in Russia and the CIS. Indeed, the strategic importance of Russian space and spatial know-how means that lidar is by no means new to this part of the world. In fact, the first Russian instrument to fly on a United States planetary spacecraft was a lidar sensor developed by the Space Research Institute (IKI) of the Russian Academy of Science, which was launched on the ill-fated Mars Polar Lander mission of 1999. 

In 2009, SSGA published a handy paper titled Experiences with Terrestrial Laser Scanning in Russia, which pointed out that terrestrial lidar had been used by the country's surveyors since at least 2001, covering the usual gamut of applications seen elsewhere (civil engineering, archaeology, roads, mines, quarries, oil and gas etc). The state academy also organises the annual trade fair and scientific congress, Geo Siberia, which enables the rest of the geodesy and surveying world to work with firms in the Russian Federation and vice versa. Airborne lidar service providers are just some of the many participants. Indeed, aerial laser scanning is already widely used in the region, for instance to to survey electricity infrastructure - very important when it has been damaged by an ice storm. Monitoring of permafrost is another key application, as shown by the number of presentations showing the value of laser scanning at the Tenth International Conference on Permafrost which took place in Salekhard in June (some 63% of Russian soil is permanently frozen, but climate scientists are increasingly concerned by the impact of the speed with which it is melting). 

Finally, as I discovered during my visit to Nice earlier this year, the Russian Railways Company (RZhD) has turned to mobile mapping to help create its Integrated Spatial Data System of Railroad Infrastructure. Moscow-based surveying company Jena Instrument ran a pilot project on behalf of RZhD using an Optech Lynx Mobile Mapper, which was installed on a train for corridor mapping, with the many terabytes of point cloud data processed and 3D modelled using Virtual Geomatics SmartLiDAR Explorer. It is hoped that the successful trial will be expanded, allowing the gathering of reliable and up-to-date spatial information on the condition of Russia's railways that leads to improved traffic safety and increased vehicle speeds and cargo capacity. (It's worth checking out Jena Instrument's website for a number of interesting case studies, all of which give an insight into the Russian 3D data sector). 

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When the north wind blows (Nordic profile part one)

The Nordic region (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden) has long been noted as one of the most tech-savvy areas of Europe. Home to Nokia, Ericsson, the Opera web browser, Spotify and a host of other mobile and Internet innovators, it seemed like high time Continental View took an in-depth look at what the Nordic countries have to offer in terms of 3D laser scanning and data acquisition.

There's certainly plenty going on. This very week, the National Survey of Finland opened up its lidar data holdings to anyone who wants them. The LAS files can be downloaded here, you can follow the technical minutiae of how the files might be used on the LAStools Google Group here, or just check out some cool visualisations produced by Jouko Vanne here

Iceland has also been in the news lately, with the publication of the results of monitoring of 2009's Icelandic volcanic ash cloud by the 27 monitoring stations of the European Aerosol Research Lidar Network (EARLINET), one of which is at the Swedish Defence Research Agency in Linköping and another of which is at the Norwegian Institute for Air Research in Tromsö. 

05.15.12 WindVector
Lidar for wind turbine development is still in its early stages, but could represent a significant market.

One of the most important new technological hubs in the Nordic region is centred on green energy, and in particular wind power. WindVector is a Gothenberg-based company that is targeting the wind energy producers with its range of lidar services. CMO Carl-Johan Cederstrand takes up the story:

"WindVector was established two years ago," he said. "The underlying factors that resulted in the launch of WindVector are the political willingness to invest in renewable wind energy and the growing interest within the wind energy industry in using lidar for optimized wind turbine operations and design." 

The company's founders have "recognised expert knowledge in the design of laser systems for harsh environments and a strategic network of partners in the Nordic region," added Cederstrand. The CMO points to the "robustness" and "cost effectiveness" of WindVector's products as unique selling points. "We believe that the positive effects that can be obtained from a lidar system in the context of wind turbine operations depends on the overall design of the wind turbine. Based on a cost effective technology platform, WindVector offers a number of lidar configurations, giving the customer the opportunity not to pay for sensor capacity that they have no need for. It is our ambition to provide lidar systems to the wind energy industry that give shorter return on investment than any other system on the market. Our experience in designing laser systems for harsh environments is baseline in every design, resulting in reliable products," he explained.

The firm currently employs eight people and is entering an "expansion phase" with the release of its first-generation lidar products. Cederstrand explains that geography is not destiny for WindVector, and that although the company is based in Sweden, its products "are primarily intended for wind turbines and our customers are turbine manufacturers and energy producers. The wind turbine industry is highly globalized with R&D and decision making centers as well as supply routes spread all over the world. WindVector therefore supports customers regardless of geographical location. The close geographical distance to the European countries is of course advantageous." 

Early phase 

I asked Carl-Johan Cederstrand how Sweden and the Nordic region compared with other parts of Europe in terms of adoption and use of laser scanning technology within the wind energy sector. He responded by saying that "the use of lidar for wind turbine operations is in an early phase and the market is beginning to form. Evaluation of the technology is being performed by research institutes and industry players both in Sweden and in the rest of Europe. A wider roll-out of the technology will need the acceptance and interest from both turbine manufacturers and energy producers. Several main players in the area of energy production are located in Scandinavia and the expansion plans for development of new wind farms are quite ambitious."

Despite this, the turbine manufacturers are based elsewhere (northern/western Europe and Spain), "so from this point of view it will eventually be these regions that will set the pace for a full-scale implementation of lidar technology," believes Cederstrand. 

However. he cautions that "one has to remember that the wind energy market is characterized by high cost pressure, and every dollar or euro spent on turbine cost has to prove its value for either the turbine manufacturer or the turbine operator The wind energy market is currently learning how to make use of wind forecasting and lidar technology in the context of optimized turbine operation and design. In the next few years a wider implementation of this technology will take place, as the current type of lidar sensors come down in cost and prove their value."

For more exclusive insight on laser scanning in the Nordic countries, read part two of my regional profile next week.  

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Bringing scanning to the masses

We've heard a lot about how 3D laser scanning and printing technologies could be as ubiquitous as fridge-freezers and microwave ovens within a few years. One early sign of the transition from a specialist to a mass market outlook is the increasing number of events here in Europe dedicated to introducing 3D tech to the general public.

I've previously written about how Ghent in Belgium is at the leading edge of 3D research. Now, it seems, the city is also one of the first to organise events to share some of that knowledge with its citizens. Under the rubric Gent in 3D, residents were invited to a workshop last month where they could learn to "draw and design in 3D and together build a virtual City of Ghent." The goal of the three-hour session - which also included a demonstration of how to use one of the city administration's own laser scanners - was to enable the public to interact with a 3D digital terrain map of Ghent and, thus, be able to suggest changes or improvements to future planning proposals - anything from designs for street furnishings to the best way to redevelop a square or other public space. 

05.01.12 FabLab Bremen 

In neighbouring Germany, interested parties can now get their hands on professional-standard laser scanners, 3D printers and other gear at one of the burgeoning number of so-called "Fab Labs" (the name is short for "fabrication laboratories"), set up according to the principles of MIT"s "Fab charter." Currently running in the cities of Munich, Aachen, Nuremberg, Bremen and Hamburg, these workshops running open days for wannabe makers should help in the mainstreaming of what is still largely seen as an expensive hobby for nerds. Heck, there are even introductory courses for women at the Munich Fab Lab. 

Across the border in the Netherlands, one female entrepreneur is introducing 3D technology to an audience of young women via the high street. Unielle Couture, a boutique in Amstelveen, just outside Amsterdam, that sells wedding, evening and cocktail dresses, has become the first store in the country to use a 3D bodyscanner to help customers choose their clothes. Owner Kelly Jorritsma told the Dutch website FashionUnited that the service - which costs €29.95 - provides more accurate measurements than a tape measure and allows the production of unique garments, something particularly desired by brides to be.

If you know of any other initiatives to bring scanning and 3D data capture to the masses in Europe, please keep me posted. Although, if the technology does become as ubiquitous as some suggest, doubtless there will soon be too many to mention. 

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Winning the economic argument in an era of belt-tightening

I've written in this column previously about how laser scanning is finding acceptance with public institutions (police forces, museums etc) in part because of its economic value (time savings, improved results, new revenue streams). Yet, the costs of scanning can also be seen as a barrier to entry, and, especially in the current climate of tightened public purse strings, persuading the guardians of our public funds to invest in major laser scanning projects could be seen as a big ask. 

04.10.12 Malta
Could Malta have acquired these overhead images without EU help?

Indeed, when push comes to shove, some public bodies are already cutting back on laser scanning programs, which are less contentious to axe than, say, spending on schools. In Canada for instance, five federally-funded lidar air pollution observation stations that formed part of the Canadian Operational Aerosol Lidar Network (CORALNet) have been shut down in the last few months, despite only opening as recently as 2010. The goal of CORALNet is to measure particulate matter (aka aerosols), tiny particles suspended in the air that are generated both by natural phenomena such as volcanoes and human activities such as burning fossil fuels. These particles can have an adverse impact on health and laser scanning provides an excellent means of tracking them. Despite this, Environment Canada, which funds CORALNet, has decided to the economics of comprehensively measuring air pollution with lidar don't stack up, at least for the time being. 

Here in Europe, in cases where the state is too poor to help, there is often the possibility to turn to the supra-state: the European Union. This is what one of the smallest and poorest EU Member States, Malta, has done in order to produce accurate and up-to-date 3D maps of its territory. With the support of the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), the Malta Environment and Planning Authority (MEPA) has commissioned the German firm Terraimaging to provide the first airborne lidar survey of the entire country (land and sea), generating digital terrain models and oblique images that can be used to update MEPA's existing digital aerial maps. A 3D bathymetric scan measuring sea depths within 1 nautical mile of the coastline will subsequently be merged with the 3D terrain scan to provide an integrated 3D model of Malta in its entirety by the time the project finishes in June 2013. (Terraimaging uses Optech ALTM lidar sensors for its surveys, together with frame cameras from Rollei and others and three-line scanners from the likes of Leica).

"The project will enable Malta to obtain valuable environmental information both for EU reporting obligations as well as to improve environmental policies and planning," project leader Dr. Elaine Sciberras told Gozo News. "Elevation information is crucial for the analysis of environmental questions, for modelling and for any planning," added Terraimaging's project leader Dr. Andrea Hoffman. 

Clearly there is a public need for the detailed information about our environment that laser scanning can provide, but whether there is the public money to support that need is another matter. In the case of the Maltese survey, some 85 percent of the cost of the (4.6 million euro) project is being borne by the ERDF. But if the crisis within the eurozone continues, budgets for projects of this kind could be seen as ripe for cutting, much as they have been in Canada. In which case, the industry may need to invest more time and money lobbying the politicians and public servants to prove that the economics of laser scanning do stack up in an age of austerity. 

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Startup profile: 3D printing bit by bitBOX (part 2)

In the second part of my interview with Jorge Pinto and Francisco Mendes, the founders of bitBOX Electronic Systems, I find out how the Portuguese startup plans to expand on its growing business in manufacturing motion controllers to produce a commercial desktop 3D printer. Find the first part here. 

"We decided that there was a need in the market for desktop controllers and we developed a better one, with more processing power and specific characteristics. After that we decided to start developing prototypes of printers as well," recalls Mendes.

To achieve the company's goal of "a simple, cheap and accessible desktop 3D printer .. first we need a very good mechanical system. After that we need a very good controller; we already have that - this is working very, very well. After that we need to work a lot more on software," he explains.

To this end bitBOX is in the process of securing more financing to be able to contract software developers to help improve the product. "We are also investing in design … we are working with designers to make a much more beautiful enclosure [for the printer]," adds Pinto. As a low-budget operation, building the company has required some smart thinking. For instance, in the testing phase for the motion controller, bitBOX offered its first 10 boards to (international) developers and beta-testers at a cut price in exchange for "some small parts of codes for improving this," explains Mendes.

The prototype of bitBOX's 3D printing solution.

Although they admit it would probably be easier to develop the product in the United States, which has more "more resources" and "the genuine maker nature," bitBOX's founders are keen to show that Portugal also has the know-how and capability. "We want to transmit the message that technologically speaking we have the means to do anything as well or better than anyone in the world," says Mendes. "The medium in which we are working is not so developed - the partnerships, it's more difficult: companies are smaller, less resources. Sometimes it's difficult to put in the market the product that we create in our minds. But we have the capability to do it. We need the University (of Aveiro); it's very important because there are several researchers that I think will help us," he adds.

I ask whether the company has any links with companies that specialise in 3D laser scanning and data capture. "Not yet," says Mendes, "but that would be very interesting … the applications and the connections for the technology are endless."

"Since we are building and will be supplying a product for the end user we already mentioned Thingiverse as a source of objects, another source would be maybe smartphones," says Pinto. "I believe that everyone will have a smartphone in their pocket and maybe a good way to have the objects is to scan, or take pictures and print; picture-print. Maybe we will need help for that."

He adds that another of the company's goals is to "try to make a 'print' button on Thingiverse, so you can browse, [press] 'print' and it actually prints with our controller."

For Mendes, "the 3D printer it's not just another technology, it's an actual revolution, like the information revolution … 3D printing will be here forever. It will change the way people work; people will do new things that they wouldn't do before."

As a result of this belief, bitBOX is also taking an interest in the materials used for 3D printing, as Pinto explains: "right now we are working also on plastics - in partnership with other companies here in Portugal. For example, we will be selling plastics that smell of strawberries and things like that."

"The applications are endless," believes Mendes. "We want to be a company that starts building steps towards all these applications. We have the controller, we are selling it; now we are concentrating on the printer; then plastics. Five years from now we want to be known as one of the biggest companies in the area. We want to grow and be recognised in any part of the world. We want to be that good … The sky is the limit. Maybe not the sky…

"The clouds?" I suggest.

"Yes, the cloud, the Internet cloud is the limit," smiles Pinto.

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Startup profile: 3D printing bit by bitBOX

Based in the Business Incubator at the University of Aveiro in central Portugal, bitBOX Electronic Systems is a tiny startup company founded some 16 months ago by two graduates with a background in industrial automation and electrotechnical engineering. Their claim to fame? They've developed the first 3D desktop printer to be manufactured in Portugal. I travelled to the charming city of Aveiro (known as 'the Venice of Portugal' because of its canals) to meet the two men behind the company: Francisco Mendes and Jorge Pinto.

"Our idea is to develop a 3D printer that is simple, cheap and accessible and mainly for new users of 3D technology," explains Pinto in the small office that currently serves as the bitBOX HQ.

bitBOX founders Francisco Mendes and Jorge Pinto

He first began developing his own prototype 3D printer three years ago using RepRap, the low-cost open source rapid prototyping kit. "It never worked," he laughs. "It did print some parts," corrects business parter Mendes, "just not very well."

This experience made the two inventors realise that to produce a really good desktop 3D printer, they would first need a high-quality motion controller. So they set about building their own.

Three years down the line, Pinto and Mendes have a rapidly developing market for their control board, sold in kit form with all the parts. "This board is the fastest controller in the market," says Mendes proudly. "It can write a CNC at 2 metres per second." This is important, adds Pinto, because "we know that 3D printing will go to high-definition. Laser cutters also need high-definition and our controller is already made with that objective."

As well as being a 32-bit micro-controller (in comparison with the 8 bits of most competitors), Pinto explains that it is "more integrated and dedicated for 3D printing - most other boards on the market are a shoe for Arduino, the open source hardware device … they are not specific [for this purpose] and have a lot of wires and connections. It's very difficult for users because one wire skips or breaks and it's a pain in the ass!"

Another advantage, says Mendes, is that the controller's firmware is open source, "so people can already adapt [it] for their own products … All the feedback is very positive. People are recognising that this is the most professional board in the [3D desktop] market."

Clients to date number "many thousands," says Mendes. "We have customers from Germany, Holland, France, Italy, Australia, South Korea … many, many places." The company is also attracting interest from U.S. companies hoping to tie up a distribution deal. "That would be interesting," believes Mendes. "Probably half of the clicks on our site are from the United States. The only problem is the customs frontier, it's a barrier for exporting."

The Business Incubator at the University of Aveiro in Portugal.

To meet the growing demand, bitBOX has just started moving from self-assembly to automated production of its motion controller. "We are trying to go to warp speed selling these boards, because everything is created: the website, the details, the documentation. We are still improving, but we are at the point where we can sell in large quantities," explains Mendes.

The first automated batch has been made by a company in the Aveiro region with significant experience of electronics assembly for the German market. "From this step it's possible to start building large quantities and to try to lower the price of course," adds Mendes.

You gets what you pays for 

Pinto points out that while the advertised price of rival motion controllers is lower, this can be seen as a false economy. "When clients go online and see other boards they see a very low price but they can't distinguish what they are really buying. Our board is very complete and has many components and also they are high quality. For example, our board has a micro SD memory card, and most boards don't have that. We are also using high quality connectors ... That's the value we are bringing to the market. We just said to ourselves - we want to make the best controller, how do we do it? That justified the price," explains Mendes. To this end, the controller kit also includes "an expansion board that will be used for upgrading modules, for communications, wireless and others," he adds. "We are working right now on wireless technology," says Pinto. "We already have a module for wireless communications with smartphones. The new users [of 3D printers] will need to interact with our technology via the web and smartphones."

I asked whether this meant using smartphones for 3D data capture? "There are many different interactions," believes Mendes. "It could be capturing directly the data - 3D scanning and sending to the machine. It could just be: go to the web, select some parts designed by someone on Thingiverse and click and print it. Or just to help them to manage the printer - not even at home, maybe remotely … There are so many things you can do and that's the value we want to bring to the market - not just another printer."

Part two of this interview, including how bitBOX is building on its motion controller to develop a commercial desktop 3D printer, can be read in next week's Continental View. 

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Looking at the rest of EMEA for a minute

Something that struck me while putting together this week's Continental View was how much 3D data acquisition activity is going on outside the European portion of the region US corporations like to call EMEA

From the Middle East for instance, news has emerged of two orders in Abu Dhabi (UAE) for ZephIR 300 wind lidar technology. The orders have been placed by Masdar Power and Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, renewable technology companies based in the Gulf state's planned zero-carbon showpiece development, Masdar City. There they will be used to produce a wind resource atlas. Whilst showing the appetite in the Middle East's oil rich nations for cutting edge lidar-based solutions, these orders also show that tough climatic conditions are less and less of a barrier to the use of lidar, something that is essential in the desert and tropical conditions found in so many parts of the world.

03.13.12 Timbuktu
The Zamani Project is the African equivalent to the Scottish Ten and CyArk

In Africa, the Canadian company Tembo Gold Corporation has been using airborne lidar to prospect for gold in the Lake Victoria area of Tanzania. The survey was carried out on Tembo's behalf by South African firm AOC Geomatics, with interpretation and final processing by The Mineral Corporation. The resultant dataset of the topography and infrastructure, including a digital elevation model with a 10 cm ground resolution of the area, has enabled Tembo to identify 11 km of artisanal mine workings. By combining the lidar imagery with historical exploration results, seven target areas have been identified for drilling for gold in 2012. 

AOC Geomatics is by no means the only service provider bringing pointclouds to Africa. The Portuguese company Artescan has been providing services including 3D laser scanning and photogrammetry, software development and 3D textured modelling since 2003, and has won a number of contracts for the mapping of mines and very large dams in Africa. Indeed, such is the importance of the continent to Artescan that the firm (which has an agreement to use Riegl-VMX 250 technology for mobile mapping) opened an office in Morocco in 2009.

Other African-based laser scanning operations include Lloyd & Hill in Cape Town, South Africa and Ariosh in Lagos, Nigeria. The latter specialises in providing 3D data services to the oil and gas industry and, indeed, such is the potential of that particular market in West Africa that the Houston-based firm Quantapoint last year set up Quantapoint Nigeria in a joint venture with local investors. 

South Africa is also home to the Zamani Project. Led by the University of Cape Town, this is an African equivalent to the likes of the Scottish Ten and CyArk 500 Challenge, which "attempts to capture the spatial domain of heritage, with a current focus on African heritage, by accurately recording its physical and architectural nature and dimensions." To date, the project (the name comes from the Swahili word for "the past") has documented and published details from 15 sites in eight African countries (including such well-known historical treasures as Timbuktu and Great Zimbabwe) since work began in 2010. Another three sites in South Africa and Fortress São Sebastião in Mozambique have been laser scanned and the data is being prepared for publication. The project team is also planning field campaigns in a further six African nations. 

As well as demonstrating the increasingly global reach of 3D laser scanning, the Zamani Project differs in a very interesting way from some of the heritage scanning efforts in countries such as the UK, in that, rather than considering how to convert the pointcloud data into a commercial product (albeit as a secondary consideration), the African project explicitly states that, "It is especially important that the data may only to be used for education and research and, on special permission for restoration and conservation projects, they may not be used for commercial purposes." 

I covered the thorny issue of 3D data piracy in this blog just a few weeks ago. The flip side of that is the question of copyright and image rights for 3D data. If a company scans a city centre, a street or a house can it use that data any way it chooses, or does the municipality or the householder have a say? If someone creates a 3D avatar based on a likeness of a real person, is that infringing their image rights? As ever, there'll be plenty of work for the legal profession answering these and similar questions. 

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Can lidar save the world?

Global warming is widely recognized as the greatest challenge facing the human race today. It's therefore heartening to know that lidar is playing an important role in the battle to map and mitigate the effects of human-induced climate change. One recent example, highlighted by the Australian climate change website, Climate Spectator, is the use of 3D scanning to gage the thickness of Arctic sea ice. With concerns that the – already much reduced – area of ice could melt entirely during the summer within a decade, understanding the shape and strength of the ice floe is vital. That's where lidar comes in, as Will Trossell, from UK company ScanLAB projects, which is doing the mapping, points out: “Traditionally, you might be doing a section or a plan to understand an area but to fully see this in 3D and combine it with the satellite information we are able to really get a really high resolution understanding of what's going on out here.” 

Deforestation is one of the major causes of increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. A number of projects around the world are using laser scanning to provide the most accurate possible surveys of forest land. This information will be used to underpin carbon monitoring and emissions trading programs, such as the UN-backed REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries). As this Science Daily story indicates, previously carbon monitoring [has] been hindered by a lack of accurate, high-resolution methods to account for changes in the carbon stored in vegetation and lost through deforestation, selective logging, and other land-use disturbances. 

The forests of Peru are being documented with high-resolution 3D maps.

Not anymore, thanks to lidar. In 2010, scientists from the Carnegie Institution of Science's Department for Global Ecology, together with the WWF (World Wildlife Fund/World Wide Fund for Nature) and the Peruvian Ministry of the Environment (MINAM) produced the first high-resolution maps of carbon locked up in tropical forest vegetation and emitted by land-use practices. The maps of 3D vegetation structure were created with the aid of lidar from the fixed-wing Carnegie Airbone Observatory. After Peru, the Carnegie scientists have begun working with the governments of Ecuador and Colombia to implement the high-resolution mapping technique in those countries. Nepal and Thailand are also getting in on the act, according to WWFUS President and CEO, Carter Roberts, who reveals himself to be a big fan of laser scanning: “Lidar is the most powerful tool we have for quantifying the value of standing forests all over the world and avoiding their ruin in the process." 

Roberts says that the “cheap, accessible and incredibly accurate” data delivered using lidar can empower developing countries, giving them “a tool to garner much needed financial resources, reduce global carbon emissions and slow the sickening trend of deforestation.”  

And it's not only in developing countries that the value of carbon mapping is being realized. This month, researchers from Oregon State University began using lidar laser scanners to survey forest land near Vernonia, Oregon, as part of the Forest Health-Human Health Initiative. Devised by the Pinchot Institute for Conservation, the initiative promises to provide money for health-care services to forest landowners in exchange for the carbon stored in their trees, a way of incentivizing the protection of privately owned trees. With the carbon trading market already worth hundred of billions of dollars a year, the laser scanning industry could be sitting on a potential “green gold” mine.  

Two asides to every story 

As an aside to the climate change stuff, earlier this month a dispute over faulty science led Professor Wolfgang Wagner, the head of the Institute of Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing at the Vienna University of Technology, to resign from his position as Editor of the scientific journal Remote Sensing, following the publication of a paper skeptical about climate change that was found to be insufficiently well peer-reviewed and erroneous. You can read all about the incident here.

As a second aside, ScanLAB projects, the UK company involved in laser scanning the Arctic ice floe, is also involved in 3D art projects, such as this one. Look out for a whole blog about 3D in the art world from me very soon.

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