July 31, 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.

Bluesky thinking from the UK

Our latest service provider profile focuses on Bluesky International Limited, a privately owned company based in Leicestershire, UK that specializes in the acquisition, processing and application of a range of geographic data, in particular aerial photography, LiDAR and thermal imagery. Bluesky's other area of expertise is the creation of GIS data for modelling environmental and climate change. In this in-depth interview, the firm's Sales Director, Ralph Coleman, talks about Bluesky's growth, its recent investment in new aerial scanning technology, the latest product and service developments and some ambitious plans for the future.  

When and how did Bluesky start?  

Bluesky was founded in December 2003 following the merger and subsequent demerger from another aerial survey company. Initially Bluesky concentrated on the sale of aerial photography to the local government market. Since that time the UK aerial survey industry has changed beyond recognition and as a result Bluesky has had to find ways to stay ahead of the game through innovative product development and proactive customer engagement.

How many people are working for the company? 

There are currently 25 members of staff working at Bluesky, 50 percent of which have more than 10 years of service and have been with the company since its original inception as Wildgoose Publications Ltd in 1996. We are currently actively recruiting in the sales and business development department as well as in the airborne acquisition and production areas. We are expecting to buck the wider economic trend and increase personnel significantly in the short-to-medium term.

What would you say is Bluesky's unique selling point?  

01.25.13.bluesky3Bluesky’s biggest USP is currently its recent purchase of the world’s first fully-integrated lidar, thermal and RGB sensor array. This represents a new chapter in Bluesky’s development and offers new opportunities to both Bluesky and its customers; it is an extremely exciting time for the team at the moment.

In addition there is one word that always crops up when describing Bluesky and that is "agile." As a small privately owned business we can move quickly to react to changes in demand or government legislation without the need for cumbersome and protracted "sign-off" procedures and bureaucracy. Creating new products and services that solve a particular problem is key to widespread take-up and involving customers in the development phase has proved to be crucial. 

What role does lidar play in your business? What laser scanning services do you offer and who are your clients? 

We have been selling third party off-the-shelf lidar and sub-contracting new capture projects for many years now but that only represented a modest part of the company’s turnover. More recently, as Bluesky became financially stronger, it became apparent that the demand for lidar was growing, and purchasing a lidar sensor would be the next logical step. Growing the lidar business for our new Optech M300 sensor is now an integral part of Bluesky’s future success and it will be a primary revenue generator starting in 2013. 

We are offering an end-to-end airborne lidar capture service from planning through to delivery and integration. We believe there are also significant opportunities to become involved in customer specific downstream lidar based product development. Our client base is already broad including government (central and local), engineering, utilities, construction, archaeology and environment. 

What will your new lidar, thermal and imagery system enable you to do that you weren't doing before? What will it enable you to do better? 

Be masters of our own destiny! We have traditionally sub-contracted all the airborne capture elements of new acquisition work and we have therefore been at the mercy of our sub-contractors. We now have a long-term agreement for the supply of aircraft and have employed additional experienced technical staff. We already have a significant order book for all three sensors with some of the contracts requiring simultaneous acquisition using two of the instruments. This will enable us to be far more reactive to customer requirements and will also allow us to mobilise within hours when weather windows occur. The high specification of the Optech lidar sensor is unparalleled in the UK will therefore enable us to service markets that were not previously open to us in addition to increasing our efficiency by being able to capture two surveys at once -resulting in reduced costs and more competitive pricing for our customers. 

I notice that on your website it highlights the fact that the lidar data you offer is "Crown Copyright Free." Is this a major selling point to your clients? 

This is more relevant when we are creating derived products using the lidar as the base dataset. The UK’s geographical data market is flooded with products that use Ordnance Survey’s mapping as the basis for their creation. This means the products could be subject to restrictive licensing terms and on-going royalties governed by Crown Copyright. Due to the fact that Bluesky will retain the IPR in much of the data captured we are able to grant far less restrictive licenses to customers opening up endless possibilities for new applications and products. 

How do you see the laser scanning side of your business developing in the next few years? For instance, you have recently acquired an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) for site surveying - how much demand is there for this service at present? Are there any legal or legislative barriers to the use of drones for aerial surveying in the UK? If so, how do you work around these? 

We currently sub-contract UAV work to a third party. We have seen a significant rise in interest for this service in the last six months. From our experience we currently feel that commercial UAVs are not large enough to carry a high spec sensor payload such as a laser scanner, however this will surely be a focus for the future.

There are significant restrictions imposed by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA - the UK regulator) on the use of UAVs in the UK, which limit their practicality, these relate to the weight, where you can operate them, and the operator maintaining visual contact.  This means that in essence they must be light (under 20 kg) and can only be used in rural areas to a radius of about 500m.

Could you explain more about your National Tree Map - what it is, who will use it, how it works, how it will generate income? 

01.25.13.bluesky2The National Tree Map is a digital mapping layer depicting tree canopy coverage and tree heights for the UK. It is created using a combination of national remotely-sensed datasets owned and co-owned by Bluesky that are combined and subjected to a series of complex algorithms. The resulting deliverables are:

A raster image showing the height of tree canopy with the colour representing the average height;

Approximated coverage of the canopy of each individual tree represented as polygons;

A point feature representing the highest point of an individual tree; and

The idealised crown of each individual tree displayed as a regular circle.

This dataset is being created speculatively and will be available as an off-the-shelf product for England and Wales early in Q2 2013. Scotland is planned shortly after this.

There are wide-ranging applications for this dataset and it will provide invaluable information for any professionals concerned with the management or assessment of trees. This includes forestry, utilities asset management, insurance subsidence risk, conservation management or tracking the spread of tree disease which is obviously very topical at the moment in the UK.

Why has no-one created such a map before/What has made it possible to do this now? 

Other vegetation databases do exist, however not to the accuracy or on the same scale as Bluesky’s NTM. This product has been two years in the developing and it has been a case of trial and error with different methodologies, algorithms and base datasets in order to achieve the desired results which we are now extremely pleased with. Other organisations have attempted to create such a map but the feedback we are receiving from our customers is that as far as we are aware none have succeeded in achieving as good as results as Bluesky’s NTM. 

The SolAR (Solar Assessment of Roofs) database features prominently on the Bluesky website. Is this the fastest-growing area of your business at the moment? What are the future (medium-term) prospects for this area - will it continue to be an important source of income and growth? 

01.25.13.bluesky1x2011 and 2012 were big years for solar energy in the UK and Bluesky’s innovative solar mapping database helped many installers, environment companies/consultants and social housing landlords plan their solar installations and calculate their potential returns. This boom was largely down to the government subsidies or Feed In Tariffs "FITS" that significantly rewarded the owners of solar panel installations and provided a healthy revenue stream over a 25-year period. Unfortunately this was unsustainable and the subsidies have now been slashed causing a significant slump in the UK solar market.

This has reduced Bluesky’s opportunity to generate revenue in the solar market but there are still many schemes that require Bluesky’s mapping services and the expectation is that the industry will find a natural level and gradually recover over the next few years. It’s unlikely that the solar business will return to 2011/2012 levels however the renewable energy sector as a whole is still growing rapidly and Bluesky has several ideas for new products and services to meet the needs of this expanding market.

Are there any additional sectors or services are you targeting going forward? For instance, do you have any plans to develop ground-based laser scanning capabilities (e.g. mobile mapping of road or rail networks)? What about plans to link your 3D scan data to 3D printing services? (And if so, how?) 

Much of our time will be concentrated on growing our presence in the engineering and utilities sectors where we hope to win contracts for our new lidar sensor. This will be tough in two traditionally challenging markets but we are confident we can be successful. We’ve also recently had some success in the insurance market and hope to grow our interests in this area. 

At the moment we don’t have any plans to develop a ground-based scanner capability, although we are very keen to broaden our airborne sensor portfolio and currently have at least one "UK market first" in the pipeline. This is a Nightsky camera that is designed to be deployed at night to capture imagery used to measure ambient light sources for use in ecology, crime mapping, light pollution and various other applications.

Does Bluesky have any clients outside the UK? If so, where? 

Yes, we have customers in the US, Australia, North Africa, West Africa and closer to home in France and Spain. We see the international market as a growth area for Bluesky’s products and services and intend to grow our international client portfolio.

Where do you see the company five years from now? 

I think we are ambitious and realistic; we have survived what has been a difficult few years in the UK by keeping our feet on the ground, staying agile, having a handle on our costs and maintaining focus. There are a huge amount of opportunities for Bluesky at the moment but we need to ensure that any growth is sustainable and well managed. The next 2-3 years will be crucial in cementing Bluesky as a market leader for lidar and earning a reputation in the area of aerial survey. We have a solid foundation based on our existing products and services and hopefully this will assist in securing this development. Five years from now the aim is to be the largest aerial survey company in the UK and to have built a reputation that enables us to expand through Europe and further afield. We really feel that this is our time.

For more information visit: www.bluesky-world.com 

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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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Trend-spotting in Nice

One key trend that emerged from the recent Optech Terrestrial Laser Scanning Users' Conference in Nice was the fact that laser scanning is rarely a standalone solution. Increasingly, the client's requirements mean that the service provider not only needs to combine terrestrial with airborne lidar and/or mobile mapping, but also needs to integrate laser scan data with other types of survey data to provide a complete 3D picture.

I have already highlighted how the Codevintec team that was brought in to scan the stricken Costa Concordia delivered a 3D model to the crisis response team that was built on a combination of laser scan data and information from a multibeam echosounder survey. Another presentation from Nice, by the UK firm NetSurvey, revealed how the company, which styles itself as "a multibeam centre of expertise in the UK," is integrating terrestrial laser scanning into bathymetry-based surveys. As senior surveyor Andrew Stanley explained, NetSurvey has recently conducted surveys of Dover Harbour, Chatham Docks, Dublin Port and Hammersmith Bridge to produce a combined bathymetric/terrestrial dataset.

Heritage surveying is also about more than just lidar, as Giordano Teza from the University of Padua, Department of Geosciences explained in his presentation on Italy's other leaning tower, the 11th century bell tower in Caorle. To produce a complete picture of the state of health of the tower, the university researchers combined geometric data provided by terrestrial laser scanning with ultrasonic measurement data and data provided by infrared thermography, all integrated and interpreted by numerical modelling.

In a completely different context, Lukáš Vodehnal from Geovap explained how the survey company combined mobile lidar with thickness measurements from ground penetrating radar to give a complete picture of the state of Czech highways.

Ease of integration and use of different types of survey data is clearly going to drive processing software development for some time to come.

Any which way you can 

Something else that became clear as the conference progressed was the sheer lengths to which laser scan professionals will go to get their survey data, as the photos below illustrate. We heard and saw how Germany's geo-konzept improvised a means of cooling an overheating scanner at the Queen Alia International Airport in Jordan using a Keffiyah (the traditional Arab head scarf made famous internationally by Yasser Arafat)…


On the remote tropical island of American Samoa, survey company Sanborn found a novel solution to the problem of where to store your Lynx survey vehicle when there's no parking garage…


The UK's NetSurvey found another use for tarp (and duct tape) when scanning in typical British weather on board a boat…


As they say, necessity is the mother of invention!

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First report from the Optech User Conference: Keynote address

Continental View has decamped from grey, rainy Wales to the sunny South of France for the Optech Terrestrial Laser Scanning Users' Meeting in Nice this week. Keynote speaker at this event, now in its sixth edition, was James Kavanagh of the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), the UK-based professional standards body with a global membership of some 165,000 people. 

Becoming an essential part of the surveying workflow 

James Kavanagh's presentation was all about "the challenge of bringing lidar to the survey world." Or as he put it: "The speed of advance in all our sectors is incredible at the moment? How do we communicate the fantastic toolkit of technologies we have developed?"

06.27.12.kavanaghHe pointed to the emergence of applications for 3D information within each of the four strands of surveying: building surveying; quantity survey; residential; and commercial.

Kavanagh suggested that for building surveying these are: development appraisal, rights to light, daylighting and sunlighting, and delapidations. For quantity surveying, uses include: as-built scanning, infrastructure, asset management and facilities management. Residential applications can be summarised as: inspection, property portfolio management, access, rental/sales models, and virtual tours. Finally, on the commercial side, laser scanning and 3D information are being used for: portfolio management, sun area agreements, and telecoms landlord and tenant.

On the residential side, "the legacy process is going to be absolutely enormous," reckoned Kavanagh. He also highlighted the new value of roofs, which typically have been seen as "dead space" in a commercial lease, but which are attracting increasing interest because of their solar energy potential (a source of business for mapping companies such as Bluesky). Another new market could be based around the growing trend for 'green roofs' in cities, which could be used to offset carbon emissions.

"Lots of scanning in the future will be for non-traditional uses," believes Kavanagh. At the same time, it will be "important to maintain good survey practice," since new business opportunities for surveyors will continue to be "based on good empirical data," he said. "It's all about when will three dimensional information really start to link in to the workflow within the construction sector and within the property portfolio sector?"

Key issues and conclusions 

Two of the most significant issues with regard to laser scanning in surveying highlighted by Kavanagh are rights to light and scan-to-BIM. In the UK, the number of companies providing surveys outlining the effects of planned construction on the amount of daylight subsequently available to existing buildings has risen from six to more than 50 in the last few years. This has been driven by laser scanning technology and the ability to generate an accurate 3D model of a new development and the surrounding buildings.

Kavanagh memorably described BIM as "CAD on steroids," adding that the integrated information it provides "helps people manage contracts much better … integration of BIM with GIS and with CAD is incredibly important. All Autodesk have to do is buy ESRI and we'll have it all wrapped up!"

In concluding, the keynote speaker suggested that to successfully bring lidar to the survey world, companies must "give the customer what they need, in a format they want, in a language they can understand." The provision of bespoke information will be an important part of this. Kavanagh also highlighted the importance of that first client meeting and initial specification, as well as the need to "stay up-to-date: be aware of technological, social and political advances."

And perhaps most important of all: "Become an essential part of the 'workflow' rather than a 'nice to have'."

Look out for more coverage from the 6th Optech Terrestrial Laser Scanning Users' Meeting on www.sparpointgroup.com

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A tale of two companies - and two continents

Steven Couwels is a Belgian laser scanning professional who owns and runs two separate companies: one - Globe Shanghai - targeting the Asian market, in particular China, and one - Real To Desk - aimed firmly at European customers. In this exclusive interview he gives an insight into the two businesses and the differences between the two markets. 

Steven Couwels: "I've been in laser scanning for the last nearly 15 years. In 2005, I set up my company in Shanghai, China (Globe Shanghai) and since 2006, we've been scanning in Asia - mostly China, but also some other countries in the region. 

"In 2009 I set up another scanning company here in Antwerp (Real to Desk) together with an old colleague of mine, an engineer. Ever since then we've been doing jobs here in Europe, a little bit all over the place, but mostly in Benelux countries and Finland; Scandinavian countries. 

Justin Toland: Having just written a lot about laser scanning in Scandinavia, it seems to be one of the leading regions for the technology in Europe. Would you agree? 

SC: "There are some other regions that are doing as well. The really leading technical service providers are to be found in the UK and in Scandinavia because of the oil and gas and the offshore industry."

JT: Coming from scanning in China back to Europe, what big differences do you notice between the Chinese market and the European market?  

SC: "That's very interesting, because we have the same size of company now. We're working independently, but with similar staff, similar procedures and workflows and basically the same equipment, hardware and software. The only difference is the market is very, very different. Whereas here [in Europe] I have a lot more competitors scanning, the market also appreciates the service a little more. It's a more educated market, specifically in engineering; not so much in architecture and facility management, but in engineering it's well known and widely done here in Europe.

"In China the market is so different, for a number of reasons. The main reason of course is the labour cost. Another reason is the whole attitude towards safety and regulations for chemical, petrochemical and hazardous industries in general - but that is slowly changing. Costs are increasing, regulations are getting more tight there as well, but they still have a way to go. Over there it's a lot more about educating the market - most customers we have over there are also Western companies." 

JT: Can you tell us a bit about the technology you are using and the types of services you are providing? 

SC: "We are using Leica phase-based scanners. On the software side, mostly Leica products, towards Autocad. We deliver a point cloud Navisworks file and Leica TruViews.

"We are exclusively in terrestrial scanning. The deal is very much on industrial applications - process industry mostly, other manufacturing industries. In Asia we do more shipbuilding and ship conversion/ship repair jobs. That's not so much here in Europe." 

JT: What would you say have been the most rewarding or most challenging contracts you've had to date or the most interesting jobs you've done? 

SC: "That's a tough question! Where do I start? Every job we have a similar workflow, but once on site you always have different challenges to the job. One of the things that comes to mind - in Hong Kong, we've been scanning on a floating dry dock where the hull of the ship is more rigid than the dry dock itself and that brought us some challenges. 

"Another logistical nightmare was when we went scanning from China to Rwanda in Africa. For that job we were on the way one way for 30 hours, so it's like 50-60 hours' [journey] for a two-day job. 

06.13.12 Real To Desk-building 

"We've encountered all sorts of situations. We've been in very hazardous environments in China where there is no safety and health concern whatsoever, so our people had to get out of a certain protection area after there was acid burning in their clothes and really irritating everything - the people and the equipment and everything! Every job has a story behind it and we've been starting so many over the last two years: that's a lot of interesting things that we've gone through."

JT: Have you noticed the time it takes for you to do the work decreasing as the technology improves over the years? 

SC: "Yes, of course. Five, six years ago, one scan of what we would now call a poor result, but at the time was pretty good, took you over half an hour for one scan position - now it's a few minutes. And that means you can do a lot more data capturing than just a few years ago in a much shorter period of time. So, from my experience, the technology, especially the hardware, has evolved to a level where marginal increases don't really mean much anymore when you actually take it into the field. But the software on the other hand, there I still see room for a lot of improvement, specifically towards registration, automatic object recognition, certainly automated modelling. There's still a long way to go - people have been talking about all this for a while, but it just doesn't seem to happen as fast as many people have predicted. 

"And another problem that always seems to come back is interchange of formats and the manufacturers, the vendors, trying to protect their own proprietary formats - it hampers the development of the industry quite a lot."

JT: What are you working on next? 

SC: "That's the big thing that we're working on - what's going to be next? You have this sort of 'commodity magnet' on the scanning market, that every surveyor around the corner starts investing in scanning technology. We're trying to keep ahead of them, focusing on industry, where things are still slightly more complex, but we realise that in the future you will find scanning companies everywhere, so we really need to go further and we're looking specifically into some technology, I cannot tell you too much about it, that takes it all a step ahead."

JT: When do you hope to have this technology available? 

SC: "We're working on a program now with a university and also a partner client of ours, a technology engineering company, and we see the earliest results coming in half a year and we are trying to get things on the market within one-to-two years."

JT: Are your partners based in Europe or in China? 

SC: "This is all Europe. Effectively I have two fairly separate entities running in this 3D market, but that's just the operational companies."

JT: So, apart from yourself there aren't too many overlaps between the people working in the different areas? 

SC: "Yes and no, there is no formal overlap, but sometimes we shift resources. Some people there [in China] are more knowledgeable about specific software, a specific version or techniques and if we need help on that we sometimes physically bring them over to Europe or the other way around. I just had one of my [Europe-based] engineers scanning on a tryout programme in China, so we do shift and we learn from each other and we try to keep the constant level of innovation and new techniques and we exchange ideas. That's what we try to do but then it's interesting to see how our companies in Europe and China develop towards the specific needs of their clients."

JT: Are there also Chinese equipment vendors that are competing with the likes of Leica and FARO? 

SC: "I haven't seen any Chinese scanning equipment so far. The Chinese are doing a lot of cheap GPS systems and total stations and stuff but for laser scanners, the laser scanning market in China is still fairly limited. The thing is that labour costs in China are so low and the attention to detail, the value of technical documentation is so different  that most companies just look at the cost and they send 10, 20 maybe 100 people with a tape measure and they come back with a sketch that is not accurate, things will be missing, it will take a little longer, but then you have this typical Chinese trial and error approach and when you need things done more quickly you just ask for more resources, mostly people. That's something that you cannot really do in Europe because of the labour costs."

Look out for a new blog from Steven Couwels starting soon on www.sparpointgroup.com 

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A smorgasbord of scanning (Nordic profile part 3)

As we have seen in parts one and two of our profile, the Nordic region of Europe is embracing laser scanning and 3D data acquisition in a big way. As well as the likes of WindVector and Blom, there is of course Denmark's COWI, rapidly becoming one of the leading international players in mobile mapping, in addition to its long-standing expertise in aerial lidar solutions. 

In Sweden, specialist firms such as Berg Bygg Konsult (part of Geokon) and Pääbo Consulting Group (PCG) have developed saleable laser scanning know-how in such diverse areas as geological mapping of tunnel excavation (Berg Bygg), facial reconstruction from skull data for museums, 3D city mapping and inner ear mapping for hearing aids (all PCG).

In Finland, 3D data capture firms range from the software firm Terrasolid (also the subject of a recent profile on these pages) to the rapid prototyping specialist AN-Cadsolutions

Going offshore 

However, perhaps the biggest market for 3D services in the Nordic region comes from the large oil and gas industry off the coast of Norway (the country is the world's fifth leading gas producer and ranked 14th globally for oil, according to government sources), as well as the smaller fields in Danish waters. 

Specialist engineering firms such as Denmark's Ramboll Oil & Gas and Norway's Aker Solutions have long demonstrated the value of 3D laser scanning to oil and gas producers operating in the harsh environment of the North Sea, where saving time and increasing precision could save lives as well as money. Aker, for instance, established its 3D laser scanning group in 1995; today, it numbers some 40 engineers and consultants, using hardware from Leica (scanners and total stations) and Getac (rugged laptops) and a range of software from vendors such as Bentley, Leica and NavisWorks. 

05.30.12 Ramboll 

Recent references from Ramboll include a static GPS survey for Hess Denmark's South Arne platform and its scanning of the Tyra East – Platform A as part of Maersk Oil's Tyra optimization project. Maersk Oil's lead survey specialist within 3D laser scanning, Jakob Toft, will be a familiar face to attendees of SPAR Point Group conferences (as well as being a member of the SPAR Europe advisory board). One of the interesting aspects of his presentation at SPAR International in Houston last month concerned Maersk Oil's aim of setting up a coordinated internal 3D portal for all assets. Integration and web sharing of 3D data are going to be two of the hot topics at SPAR Europe 2012, so it will be interesting to find out how far Maersk Oil has progressed with this project by the time we get to The Hague.

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Blom: everywhere modern mapping is needed (Nordic profile part two)

Following on from part one of our profile of the Nordic countries, this week we feature a Q&A with Håkon Andresen, 
Director Business Development - Blom Nordic. Headquartered in Oslo, Norway, Blom is a leading European service provider within acquisition, processing and modeling of geographic information. The company, which is listed on the Oslo Stock Exchange, operates a wide range of airborne sensors, including many types of laser scanners, digital large format cameras, oblique cameras, thermal sensors and hyperspectral sensors. Blom also maintains unique European databases with collections of maps, images and models. With a focus on online services, it provides data and solutions to customers in government, enterprise and consumer markets and enable partners to create applications using Blom's databases, location based services and navigation solutions.   

When and how did Blom get involved in 3D laser scanning? 

Blom has operated airborne laser scanners since the the mid-'90s. We have taken an active part in the technological developments and stay in close contact with all major system vendors. Needless to say, all hardware and software is updated continuously. We have covered very large areas of all Nordic countries with laser data, including an ongoing wall-to-wall coverage of Sweden (450 000 km2) and a similar four-year frame contract for the National Land Survey of Finland. Already, back in 2006, the entire land area of Denmark was covered by laser data.

05.23.12 Blom scan
An example of Blom's overhead work.

How many people work for the company in this field? 

Several hundred of Blom’s more than 1,000 employees are involved with laser scanning on a daily basis. 

What would you say is Blom's unique selling point? 

Our size makes us able to undertake large projects and execute them efficiently. We operate a large fleet of airplanes, helicopters and the very latest digital mapping sensors. Our fully owned and controlled production facilities in Romania and Indonesia are also very important in our project workflows. Our size makes us flexible and dynamic. We have highly educated employees with long experience and who take great pride in utilizing the latest technological developments. Our best projects are those when our clients understand that the size, experience and dedication of Blom was a decisive factor in making the project a success. 

Could you give some examples of how you have used laser scanning and 3D printing in your business? 

Laser scanning has become the de facto standard for accurate terrain modelling in the Nordic countries. We use both airplanes and helicopters, depending on the project characteristics. Height contour lines are still often generated and live on in various GIS systems, but laser scanning is much more commonplace in the Nordic countries than I feel this question assumes. To mention only a few: Power line monitoring, road engineering, forestry analysis and 3D city modelling. The laser data is very often combined with more ”traditional” photogrammetric vector mapping. In all the Nordic countries, archeologists report back that they love looking into laser data. It is almost unbelievable how archeological areas of interest can be seen in the laser ground model, even in dense forested areas.

How does the Nordic/Scandinavian region compare with other parts of Europe in terms of adoption and use of laser scanning technology and 3D printing? 

Laser scanning and modern digital photogrammetry is commonplace in all Nordic countries. Ongoing wall-to-wall laser coverage of Sweden and Finland means a lot for expanding the use of laser data among a wide range of users and decision-makers. Some keywords are flood prevention and monitoring, infrastructure projects, telecom planning services and improved air traffic control (i.e. needed for GPS based take-off and landing).

In what fields/applications do you expect the greatest demand for your (3D) services in the next few years? 

”Utilities and Infrastructure” and ”Resources and Environment” are two of the most interesting market segments. However, laser data and 3D visualizations come in everywhere where modern mapping and updated accurate Geographical Information is needed. The combination of laser scanning and the recent developments in digital photogrammetry is truly exciting. Dense point clouds will come from many different sensors and technologies, both from the air and from ground based systems.

What are the key trends in laser scanning in your areas of business? 

Larger projects, higher point densities, better accuracy and faster processing times. In the utilities markets, we increasingly provide analysis and specific answers to our clients. We do not ”throw” a large laser point cloud at them, unless they really want to work with the data themselves. We aim to offer the whole value chain, for example identification of danger areas and tree high logistics linked to power lines. In the forestry sector, we deliver many different forest attributes calculated from a mix of laser data and digital imagery. The detailed forest information we extract is really amazing and of great value to our customers. We also see a rising demand within other parts of our ”Resources and Environment” market segment.

Will 3D printing change the world? 

I have no better answer to this than the following section from The Economist, Feb 2011 (”Print me a Stradivarius,  How a new manufacturing technology will change the world”): “Just as nobody could have predicted the impact of the steam engine in 1750—or the printing press in 1450, or the transistor in 1950—it is impossible to foresee the long-term impact of 3D printing. But the technology is coming, and it is likely to disrupt every field it touches. Companies, regulators and entrepreneurs should start thinking about it now. One thing, at least, seems clear: although 3D printing will create winners and losers in the short term, in the long run it will expand the realm of industry—and imagination." 

We are of course following the developments within 3D printing, but to be perfectly honest, we are more concerned that large amounts of laser data should be easier to work with in all most common GIS solutions. As the laser projects are getting larger and larger and the point densities higher and higher, better laser functionality in the GIS systems is a must for the users to take out the full potential of the laser data. Constant IT-developments are moving us in the right direction, but handling large amounts of laser data effortlessly is not yet a reality for most of our customers.

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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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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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Mapping the real world with a digital model is now possible

The last time we caught up with Johannes Rechenbach, owner/manager of German firm laser-scanning-architecture was at SPAR Europe in the Hague in November. There he talked about 'Efficient 3-D documentation with Point Clouds', and in particular, how his firm was using the pointcloud engine in Autodesk Revit 2012 to enable building information modelling (BIM) to be used for reconstruction projects as well as new builds. 

The people at Autodesk are obviously impressed by the work Rechenbach and his team are doing, as the latest Autodesk eNewsletter carries an extensive Q&A with him. As this was in German, we at SPAR thought you might appreciate a run down of the highlights in English:

02.21.12 Rechenbach
Johannes Rechenbach, owner/manager of German firm laser-scanning-architecture.

Johannes Rechenbach: "laser-scanning-architecture offers a comprehensive service for 3D surveying/measuring. The scanning service we offer for all types of buildings is our priority, but we also provide support for laser scanning. As a classical architectural agency, we know that when it comes to structural surveys of buildings, for example, rescheduling is particularly important.  

"We mainly operate nationally, however we can also handle international orders  through our partners. 

"We offer 3D building documentation with various evaluation options: flat 2D images of the building for views, sections and floor plans, damage mapping innovative visualisation, video animation, panoramic photos, and online documentation of real estate. The data supports all of the partners involved – project developers, architects, engineers, building firms and facilities management." 

Autodesk: What major changes have occurred in your industry in recent years, and how have you reacted to these changes?  

"Existing buildings have become much more important in recent years and will soon become the main priority for many architects. This activity includes much greater challenges and liability risks than new builds on greenfield sites. Energy-related renovations call for complex thermal bridging details. Comprehensive and accurate as-built documentation using 3D scan data gives the architect the necessary foundation for the reliable planning and successful completion of the construction project." 

In your opinion, what new trends will influence the sector, and what impact will they have? 

"For years now, 3D laser scanning has shown in construction and building that its data is a perfect starting point for technically challenging conversions.  Thanks to falling prices, it's now also competitive with manual surveying in the traditional building sector – and with many more possibilities!" 

What needs to change in the industry in order to improve the project process for clients/customers? 

"The added value offered by 3D to the building industry must be communicated more effectively...Planning offices with just 2D processes will also benefit from 3D scanning as dimensionally accurate 2D sections can be generated anywhere in the spatial model building. Mistakes can be avoided early in the planning phase." 

How much has the issue of ‘sustainability’ influenced your new projects or the views of your customers? 

"Increasingly, the total life-cycle of a building is considered, and not just the energy consumption per square metre per year. This holistic approach also recognises the use of resource-saving building materials and the disposal costs for demolition of the property. Investors and users are now beginning to develop an awareness of sustainable construction, as a “green building” gives a company a positive image." 

Rechenbach then talked a bit about the various Autodesk products his firm is using ("AutoCAD Architecture for conventional planning tasks and data exchange, Revit Architecture for the creative design process and the BIM modeling and Navisworks for visualization purposes") before explaining why BIM is winning so many converts:

"Three-dimensional design with BIM follows exactly the thought process that architects use: from abstract solid models to detailed, structured and materialised building complexes. The intelligent, parametric components as a result generate a database of desired assignable attributes such as quality, cost or time. Each design variant is associated with a specific mass evaluation with dedicated cost assessments. Architects, structural engineers and building technicians using the BIM software solutions specific to their own disciplines are always working on the same concrete 3D data model and so on the way to the construction project from preliminary design to the implementation details." 

What about the future? Here's how Rechenbach sees things developing in his field:

"3D laser scanning is not currently found in architectural practices…Thanks to recent developments - the hardware is easy to use now and prices have fallen sharply - it will establish itself there in the next few years." 

And here's why it will establish itself:

"3D laser scanning is fascinating. Never before has it been possible to determine so much precise data in so short a time and evaluate it in so many ways. Mapping the real world with a digital model has now become possible. Our goal is to convey this enthusiasm to customers. We are looking forward to further developments in this area in the next few years." 

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