Video: Drone Surveying, SLAM Scanning, and the Future of Reality Capture

Reality Capture Consultant Eric Cowan shares insights on top surveying trends in this intriguing interview.

In his early days as a party chief and surveying technician, Eric Cowan didn’t know he would eventually be consulting on how to ensure accuracy in drone surveying and when to use SLAM scanning. But over the course of his 15-year surveying and geospatial career, he made sure to stay at the forefront of emerging technology.

As he helped build a successful surveying department in a multidisciplinary firm, he focused on developing efficient workflows and effective field practices for topographic scanning—first for drones, then terrestrial laser scanners, then the Leica BLK2GO handheld imaging laser scanner, which combines LiDAR SLAM, visual SLAM, and an IMU in a technology known as GrandSLAM.

Today, as a reality capture consultant for Leica Geosystems, Eric applies his skills and expertise to helping surveying, mapping, and engineering professionals succeed and thrive with high-value approaches to laser scanning.

We recently sat down with Eric to capture his insights on some of the most exciting applications of technology and where it’s going next. Watch the full interview, or browse the discussion highlights below.

In this video clip, Eric demonstrates a best-practice approach to scanning manholes with the BLK2GO. 1) Use a camera clamp such as a Manfrotto super clamp and an extendable carbon fiber pole; 2) start with the BLK2GO on a tripod, facing the direction with the most features; 3) walk with the BLK2GO, collecting features in the environment; 4) circle the manhole a few times; 5) lay the scanner flat for a few seconds; 6) invert the scanner and do some figure eights to capture data from different angles; 7) bring the scanner out slowly so it can recognize the surrounding environment; 8) walk back to where you started and close out the scan. The features and planes from the surrounding environment will assist with cloud-to-cloud registration in the office. Watch the on-demand webinar to learn more >

What is one of the biggest lessons you learned as a surveyor?

I would say just to stick to the fundamentals. Make sure that you’re keeping really good notes and that your work is impeccable, because everybody likes to point the finger at the surveyor when something goes wrong on a project. Make sure that you have all your i’s dotted and t’s crossed—that’s probably the biggest lesson that I learned.

Tell me about your journey into laser scanning. What was that journey like?

I started out like pretty much everybody does in surveying. You start at the bottom being a rod man and kind of work your way up through the ranks.

And the company that I worked for made a transition in leadership in the department. They hired a guy who was out of Arizona to be our survey director, and he started bringing laser scanning into the fold. And then we hired another guy who had experience in it, and I started working with him.

We started out flying drones—that was our first foray into reality capture. From there, we started working with the tripod scanners, and then we got into SLAM scanning and just made our way through the progression of scanning as we went through it.

Drone surveying is a trend that has been growing rapidly, especially within the last five years, but there are always concerns about accuracy. How did you go through the process of making sure that you weren’t compromising accuracy when you started using drones?

You just have to use it on the on the right projects. We would fly drones over our terrestrial laser scanning projects for ortho photos and things like that, but to use the data was more on large-acreage mass grading projects and other situations where the accuracy standards weren’t as high as you would need as if you were doing a road rehabilitation or something similar.

You have to have good control, take plenty of check shots and do verifications on all of your check shots throughout the project.

What amazes you about the evolution of technology as you’ve been part of applying all of it in different situations and projects?

I would say just how fast it evolves. It evolves so quickly. There’s so much new stuff coming to the market. I started surveying in the Bronze Age—not quite the Stone Age—when we were still two guys out in the field talking back and forth on two-way radios. Just how fast it progresses is mind boggling.

You had the opportunity to use a bunch of different technology—not just the types of technology, but different brands as well. And here you are at Leica Geosystems. What it is about Leica that both drew you here and keeps you here?

I really like the culture here. And the fact that everybody who is in these roles at Leica has experience in the field that they’re working in. So, if it’s a surveyor, you have somebody who worked in the survey field who’s working with you. If it’s public safety, it’s probably a retired investigator who actually worked with the equipment.

So I think that’s what makes Leica stand out from the other manufacturers of all this survey equipment, is that you actually have someone who worked with it, who is there to support you and is genuinely interested in making sure you’re successful with it.

I’ve had people who inquired about a certain scanner that was not going to be right for their needs and I had to kind of steer them away from that and into something else that is better for their needs.

For example, I’m working with a company based out of Texas and they were leaning more toward the BLK2GO, but the imagery is more important to them.

So I went out and I took a couple of scans, a sample data set for them and did a screen share. And I actually think the BLK360 is a better fit for what they’re doing. Even though it’s a less expensive product and it’s going to take them a little bit longer in the field, the work on the back end is going to be less for them, the imagery is a little bit better, and it’s just a better tool for what they need.

What’s most important to me is making sure that they have the right tool for the job.

What do you love about your job right now and what it is you do every day?

I really like working with all these different companies and seeing the way they implement the technology. There are so many different uses that didn’t really occur to me when I was using it in surveying.

There was an artist in LA that I worked with who wants to go down and scan rainforests for interactive art installations. So all the different uses I get to see of the technology is very interesting, and I really enjoy that part of it.

What is a question that you get asked often?

The question I get asked the most is probably what scanner we’re going to release next. The answer is we don’t know. We don’t get told until it’s about ready to be released.

Is there anything you’ve encountered on the side of the job as a technology advocate that you didn’t anticipate before you moved over from surveying into technology consulting?

There’s so much that I didn’t anticipate. I definitely didn’t anticipate that I’d be working with someone who was trying to scan a rain forest. That kind of stuff you just can’t anticipate when you come from the survey world.

What are some of the most common misconceptions that people have about technology?

For new users, a common misconception is that you can just dump all this data in and it’s going to just kind of draw itself out. The reality is there’s still some manual labor involved. You’re going to have to go in and still do the line work and apply the control and all that.

The other misconception is that it’s going to be difficult. Some people are scared to break into it. They know that going out and collecting the data is going be easy enough, but they’re concerned about what they do with it on the back end. But it’s not as difficult as you think. The software has come a long way. You can’t just dump it in there and come out with a finished product and deliverable, but it’s pretty user-friendly.

What skills are needed for someone who is now coming into the profession of surveying, whether or not they’re focused on laser scanning?

It always goes back to the basic fundamentals and doing accurate work. If you are going to get into the field and you want to move into the laser scanning world, your point cloud is only going to be as good as the accuracy of your control.

So starting with a good basis of fundamentals, you need to have a full understanding of the surveying field in general. Being well-rounded in knowing all aspects is going to help you in the long run to understand what you’re trying to produce with laser scanning and the finished product you’re trying to pull out of it.

My advice is just go through the steps. It’s going to take time, but you’ll get there. And once you do, it’s a great field to be in. It’s fun.

What future possibilities are you most excited about?

I’m excited just to see where the technology goes, what they come up with next. It just keeps progressing.

It started out with these big, slow, clunky laser scanners on a heavy tripod, and now you’re down to having something you can hold in your hand. How are they going to combine the two of those and get the accuracy on the handheld that you get with the laser scanner that sits on a tripod?

And the mobile mapping—that’s incredible. You can drive at highway speeds and pick up these highly accurate point clouds.

Who knows where it’s going, but it’s pretty exciting to watch how it all evolves.

Do you have any book recommendations for our audience?

I just borrowed a book from Brian Elbe called Extreme Ownership. It’s written by a former Navy SEAL, Jocko Willink, and he has a whole series of them. I haven’t really cracked into it too deep yet, but it seems like it’s going to be a pretty good book.

To talk to one of our experts and learn more about how to optimize your surveying potential, please contact us.