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Introduction to Automated Mobile Survey

Dull, Dirty, and Dangerous. Known as the 3Ds of robotics, they describe conditions unfavorable for human work, but ideal for robots. Coincidentally, dull, dirty and dangerous characterize many of the environments where another “3D” (three-dimensional terrestrial laser scanning) is used.  It should come as no surprise then to see robotics and 3D laser scanning united in purpose… that being, large scale 3D survey.

The team at Allpoint created Automated Mobile Survey (AMS) to maximize the performance of existing laser scanning tools. Our aim is for AMS to boost scanning productivity by allowing users to do more work with less resource.  Most users of static scanners already have well establish practices and workflows for collecting scan data and ensuring accuracy of registered point clouds.  Those workflows usually entail

  1. installation of targets;
  2. moving of a scanner from station to station;
  3. registration of scans; and
  4. removal of targets.

These workflows are tedious, time consuming and add little value to the overall delivered product.   AMS was conceived to alleviate many of these burdens.  Specifically, our goals are to

  • make 3D data acquisition easy,
  • generate results of survey quality,
  • provide the ability to tie into control,
  • fit within existing workflows and software tools, and
  • increase the productivity of scan collection.
Automated Mobile Platform

Automated Mobile Platform

To achieve these goals, we automated as much of the acquisition and registration as possible. We first sought to reduce the amount of manual interaction required to move a scanner through a space. Our Automated Mobile Platform (AMP) is a self-guided mobile platform that carries and operates a 3D scanner and is programmed to follow a specific path for the purpose of collecting scans automatically. AMP is first walked through a scan area to create a “base map” of the space.  The base map is a 2D floor plan allowing operators to specify a drive path and scan locations.  When complete, AMP is ready to start work.

The AMP, when used in conjunction with Allpoint’s cloud-to-cloud registration tool, Scan-time, constitutes the entire system behind AMS. As the AMP takes scans, data files are stored and relayed to an off-board laptop running Scan-time. Coordination between the AMP and Scan-time allows data collection and registration to occur simultaneously and automatically in the field.

Automated Mobile Survey

Automated Mobile Survey

What about areas where wheeled systems cannot go? The AMS is a fully integrated solution. Static tripod-based scans are easily integrated into the registered scan set.  Static scans collected in the same operating area as the AMP can be imported into a common repository and registered live in the field.

As part of a fully integrated solution, AMS has the capability to tie into a control survey. Using Scan-time and a few survey targets, registered scans are linked to survey control. Scan-time provides accuracy reports detailing the quality of registration and control.

Finally, AMS provides features that enable quick review of scans collected in the field via Insight, a hosted, web-based portal accessible from any modern web browser or tablet (including the iPad). As soon as scans are collected, they can be uploaded to a server allowing project managers or stakeholders to review, measure, annotate and share scan imagery. 


Allpoint's Insight

In conclusion, we here at Allpoint are pleased to offer the laser scanning community with a new set of tools that will enable you to be more productive, with less resource, and no sacrifice in quality. We are technologists with backgrounds as services providers and a passion for laser scanning. We have built our tools to help others contend with the dull, dirty and dangerous scenarios of scanning in harsh conditions.


Q: Do I need targets?

A: Scan-time requires no targets for registration; however, a few targets (minimum of 4 over the entire job) are necessary to tie the registered scan collection into survey control.

Q: How do I tie AMS into control?

A: Specific details are outlined in the Scan-time documentation, but the overall process is straight forward. A minimal set of targets are placed into the area where laser scans are collected.  These targets are surveyed, extracted, labeled and placed into a simple table.  Scan-time then imports this table, aligns the scans to control and provides an accuracy report. 

Q: Are results from AMS survey quality?

A: In the environments where AMS is currently being used, which include manufacturing facilities, industrial plants, warehouses, office buildings, steam tunnels, museums and airports, the results have been evaluated and shown to exhibit an RMS error of 3mm to 5mm. 

Q: Are the mobile platform (AMP) and registration software separable?

A: Yes.  AMP is only the automatic collection platform. In some jobs, AMP as well as any other wheeled system cannot access congested spots or is not appropriate for the work. In those situations, Scan-time can still provide significant productivity gains and in-field registration through its 4-click cloud-to-cloud registration interface.

Q: What scanners are supported?

A: We build our products to allow you to mix and match scanners. Currently we support native file formats for Z+F, FARO, and Leica products with Surphaser and Riegl in the very near future.

Q: Can I register multiple scanners together at the same time?

A: Yes.  We frequently combine scans collected from the AMP with scans from a tripod. AMP is ideal for covering long hallways or open areas, but tight spaces such as closets are difficult to reach.

Automated Mobile Survey™, AMS™, Automated Mobile Platform™, AMP™, Scan-time™, and Insight™ are trademarks of Allpoint Systems, LLC.

iPad®  is a registered trademark of Apple.

President Obama highlights pipe survey technology

Last week President Obama announced the Advanced Manufacturing Initiative (AMP) at Carnegie Mellon University’s National Robotics Engineering Center (NREC).

Source: Washington Post

Given our roots as Pittsburgh roboticists, we are pleased to see robotic concepts and technologies gaining recognition as viable solutions and products.  The opportunity around robots goes back decades, but the technology has not been generally successful outside of factory automation.  But companies like Redzone Robotics, which was singled out by the President, prove robotic principles can be applied successfully to solve real world problems (in this case surveying, maintaining and repairing aging infrastructure).  These problems are only getting worse, and innovative technologies are necessary to help industries with limited budgets and resources.

Redzone is a great example of how high tech is advancing the field of survey and mapping.  Check out the demonstration to the President:

Pipe inspection demo (begins at 4:15 in the video)

Is flash LIDAR the next technical breakthrough?

ASC recently announced news about the DragonEye Flash LIDAR camera on board shuttle Discovery’s final flight.  This is great news – congratulations to ASC.  Gene Roe wrote about this in his blog, LiDAR News, suggesting Flash LIDAR is the next technical breakthrough in the LIDAR survey industry.  Based on our experience, we believe he is right but there are material hurdles to consider.

Flash LIDAR is truly a promising technology and one that those of us in the 3D industry should gain familiarity with.  The great advantage of this technology is the simultaneous capture of measurements across the camera’s entire field of view.  Instantaneous acquisition of an entire scene lends itself well to applications where motion and high speeds are unavoidable: automotive, aviation, robotics, motion capture, etc.
Expect it to make a big impact in the near future in gaming and other interactive technologies (think Kinect but better).  This technology works in nearly any lighting condition, isn’t susceptible to motion blur and can operate at high frame rates.  While cost is prohibitive at the moment, Flash LIDAR technology is really just silicon.   When economies of scale come to bear, this is a technology that can be manufactured cheaply.
Flash LIDAR may soon find its way into 3D surveying applications as well.  The biggest hurdle currently preventing this is resolution.  Most commercially available Flash LIDAR cameras have imaging arrays of 128×128 or smaller.  Unless you use a very small field of view, this will not be useful to a surveyor.  Look for these devices to find relevance in surveying when the imaging arrays advance to the megapixel range.  Given the similarities to technology in digital photography this may not be long.  Finally, if the gaming industry or other applications can drive down costs, this could be a very cheap and efficient data acquisition tool enabling rapid growth of the LIDAR surveying industry.

Seth Koterba, Vice President of Research and Technology

Mobile LiDAR’s ‘Tipping Point’

As Joel has mentioned previously, we recently returned from a trip to the 90th Annual TRB Conference in Washington, DC. For me, the goal of the trip was to assess the state of the Mobile LiDAR industry as a whole and get feedback on some of the concepts we hope to introduce in this space.

First of all, many thanks again to everyone who took the time to meet with us, both in our Focus Group and individually; your expertise and input will help to shape our offerings as we progress in the development cycle.

The Mobile LiDAR industry is at a fascinating place in its maturity. At this point (a few years in), the initial benefits of Mobile LiDAR are beginning to be seen (safety and efficiency at the project level). But, we have yet to achieve the ‘tipping point‘ that will push the technology into the mainstream. The key to achieving this push is recognition of the value of the technology at all levels of an organization. Mobile LiDAR needs to be part of corporate and public best practices, not just a tool in a project-level toolbox.

I came away from the trip with three themes that I feel will be critical in taking the Mobile LiDAR industry to the next level:

  • Tailoring LiDAR data collection to intended use

There was much talk during the conference about the various levels of quality (‘Survey Grade’, ‘GIS Grade’) that can be achieved with Mobile LiDAR. I get the sense that some customers hope to save money by relaxing accuracy requirements. For example, a DOT who needs to perform a sign inventory may only specify a LiDAR accuracy requirements of +/- 2′. This allows the surveyor to cut corners and submit a lower bid for the project.

This approach is problematic, as it can severely limit the value of the collected LiDAR data to the organization. An organization can only achieve maximum value from LiDAR if it can re-use the collected data across multiple projects, teams, or corporate levels. If a future, related project requires a higher level of accuracy, the previously-collected data could be worthless. End users should look at Mobile LiDAR as a data source which can be continually mined for different information.

  • The need for tools for communication and collaboration

It is ironic that LiDAR data in essence models reality (the ‘as-built’ world), but most users still resort to CAD models, texture-maps, and other decimated representations to communicate and collaborate with others about a project. This is rooted in the fact that 3D tools can be hard to understand for an untrained user; further, the huge data sets common in this industry make transferring and visualizing LiDAR files very difficult. There is a clear and present need for an enterprise-scale system for sharing and collaborating with large LiDAR data sets. Check out Joel and Aaron’s talks at the ILMF and StreetMapper conferences for more on this.

  • The mystery of accuracy

It seems that I everyone I talk to in the Mobile LiDAR field has not only a different definition of accuracy, but also a different way of measuring it. Proper assessment of the accuracy of each component in the system (control, GPS, LiDAR measurements) is critical for both proper project specification and correct generation of down-stream information products (e.g. vertical bridge measurements, contour assessments, etc). Some standardization efforts have occurred at places like NIST, but there is a long way to go before we are all on the same page when it comes to accuracy.

As platform-agnostic software providers, this issue is critical to Allpoint because we need to ensure a baseline quality for the data submitted to our system. Further, many extraction and measurement algorithms require knowledge of measurement noise/accuracy to perform optimally. As a Mobile LiDAR user, accuracy should be important to you because you need a standard way to specify requirements to hardware, software, and data providers (surveyors), and to verify the results you receive. You need to ask the right questions and be able to understand the answers. Stay tuned for more on this subject.

Ryan Frenz, Head of Software Development

Mobile LiDAR – standing out in the crowd

Allpoint attended the 90th TRB Annual Meeting last week in Washington D.C. where two (2) workshop sessions – out of a total of 650  – focused on mobile mapping and LiDAR applications in transportation.

While two sessions may not seem like much, this is a massive transportation conference that covers a broad range of subjects from bridge construction to roadway safety design to asphalt density protocols.

The fact that the conference dedicated a series of two 3-hour workshops speaks to the advancement of mobile terrestrial laser scanning (TLS) as a viable remote sensing application.

In addition to these workshops, we also had an excellent opportunity to meet and speak directly with a number of experienced LiDAR mapping and survey professionals.  I left DC with this thought:  the 3D mobile mapping industry doesn’t quite stand out from the crowd, … just yet.  But it’s close to doing so.

Please do not misunderstand, the benefits of mobile TLS are well known among survey professionals.  Presenters from HNTB, Earth Eye, Texas DOT, Wisconsin DOT, Mandli Communications, Optech, GeoCue, SAM Inc., and McKim & Creed all properly outlined the benefits of mobile TLS:  increased safety, reduced or eliminated lane closures, cost savings of up to 35%, updated asset inventories or GIS systems, and reusable data sets.

However, what we learned in our own conversations with presenters and attendees is that beyond surveyors, the upside of 3D mapping and survey isn’t fully appreciated.  Quite simply, it’s not mainstream enough to grab the attention of managers, engineers, consultants, and contractors who are preoccupied with bridge design, safety or asphalt protocols.

Thus, in addition to addressing the common challenges industries face while moving from innovation to growth to maturity (see: Industry Life Cycle)  – challenges such as the need for standards, best practices, consistent output, verifiable accuracies, scalable workflow automation and scalable IT solutions –  survey professionals are also burdened with educating downstream stakeholders.

One surveyor told me the typical response from other departments within their organization when they introduce a scanning project is, “that’s cool.  But I have too much work to do, and I don’t see why this will help me.”  Of course, mobile scanning is safer and saves time and money for the surveyor.  But how can these benefits become better understood to all areas of an engineering organization?

Allpoint has some ideas on how tools for large-scale processing, simple 3D demonstration and reuse of LiDAR data sets can address these issues.  In fact, we are presenting our thoughts this coming week in New Orleans.

Maybe this will help us all stand out a little bit more.

Let us know your thoughts or contact us directly.

Joel Reed, President


Greetings and welcome to the introductory post of Allpoint’s blog. I am Dr. Aaron Morris, Allpoint founder and LiDAR enthusiast. The Allpoint team and I have a unique background when it comes to the LiDAR industry and we have debated for some time about the best way to share our perspective with fellow LiDAR supporters.  After comparing communication options, we agreed that a blog would be the ideal approach.

Happy Day

Other forms of communication just seemed a little too impractical and weather dependent.

What is unique about our backgrounds?  Allpoint’s technical origins come from the world of mobile robotics, which means we dedicated a portion of our careers building, programming and commercializing autonomous robots to operate in the same places that we (humans) work. As it turns out, laser scanning plays a major part enabling modern robots to function in challenging environments without human operators to guide them. 


Admittedly, some environments were more challenging than others.

After years of working with robots (as told here), we amassed massive amounts of scan data. Most of that data resided on hard drives, which at best served as paper weights. At some point, we realized that processed data was more valuable than the physical mass of hard drives and have since been in the business of information extraction.

Our goal with this blog is to share insights, discuss issues and tell you about events in the industry that will drive how LiDAR impacts our world. Occasionally we may even relay a story if it is particularly relevant to current affairs. For the most part, however, we believe LiDAR mapping and survey will serve a significant role in our future and we hope our blog will facilitate conversation and idea creation.

If you would like to join in the conversation, please leave a comment.  We look forward to hearing from you.

Robot vs. Man

After all, robots can do many things, but conversation isn’t one of them.