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Laser Scanning: How It Works

How does the laser beam emitted from a laser scanner capture measurements? Does it only measure distances, or is other data also recorded? And how is realistic texture or color added to scans? Watch this video to learn the answer to these and other questions about how laser scanning works. 


Alex: Hi, I’m Alex.

Lori: And I’m Lori. As the market leader in laser scanning, Leica Geosystems is uniquely positioned to further educate you about how it all works and how we can help you succeed. In this Chapter 2 video we’ll look closer at the field work, the office part, and our outstanding support team. Let’s start with the field work, Alex.

Alex: Right. There are different types of scanners, but they all work on the same basic principle. The technology is advanced, but it’s designed to be easy to use. A laser scanner emits a rapidly pulsing or continuous laser beam. As it emits the beam the scanner automatically rotates around its vertical axis, and a rapidly spinning or oscillating mirror also moves the beam up and down.

The result is a systematic sweeping of the beam over the area. When the beam hits an object, some of its energy bounces back to the scanner, where if the returned energy signal is strong enough a sensor detects it and a timer uses it to calculate the distance from the scanner to the object.

Lori: But, there’s more to 3D scanning than just measuring distances, isn’t there?

Alex: Yes. For each distance measurement, additional critical data is recorded including the corresponding horizontal angle of the rotating laser and the corresponding vertical angle of the moving mirror. The scanner automatically combines these to calculate a 3D x, y, and z coordinate position for each point. The resulting scan is a set of 3D coordinate measurements.

Lori: It’s a detailed 3D representation of the scene, often called a point cloud.

Alex: To add realistic texture or color to scans, matching photos can be taken.

Lori: Can you tell us how that’s done?

Alex: Sure – using either a camera that’s built into the scanner or using an external camera and automatically merging the photos with scanned data. Scans can also be easily georeferenced to local coordinate systems just like conventional surveys.

Lori: What if you need to capture an entire scene where some views may be obstructed? Or if a side is so big that the scanner can’t reach all of it with one scan.

Alex: Right. In those cases, which are very typical, the scanner is moved to different vantage points for more scans. The best vantage points will be based on site logistics and scanner capabilities. Multiple scans can be automatically aligned with each other.

Lori: Can you help us understand how that’s done?

Alex: Well, if the scanner is properly equipped, this registration step can be done right on board the scanner. Otherwise, you can do this later by post-processing the set of scans. In fact, users have several convenient options for post-processing.

Lori: I thought that might be coming.

Alex: Some methods use handy scan targets or markers placed around the site. Other methods don’t need any targets. Regardless of which method is used, it’s important that it be done accurately.

Lori: The good news is that Leica scanners and software have all the right features that let you do it with confidence. Whether it’s a simple scene or a complex one. But, oesn’t a registered point cloud contain hundreds of thousands or even millions of points?

Alex: Or even billions of points.

Lori: Yes, and here’s where your office software comes in. It lets users mine this rich information for an almost infinite variety of applications and deliverables. From simple ones like 2D plans and elevations, user-friendly panoramic images with geometric information instantly available from each pixel, clearances, point-to-point and point-to-surface measurements, high and low points and tie points, sections and profiles, volumetric reports, line-of-sight and witness view points, and bullet trajectory analysis.

Alex: You can also create more advanced products and deliverables like detailed topographic maps, wire-frame and surface models, IsoPacks, links to asset information, fully textured models, fly-throughs, fully intelligent plant models, or building information models (BIM).

Lori: Like scanners, there are different types of software, but the choices are pretty basic.

Alex: To process point clouds into deliverables you can either use dedicated standalone software...

Lori: Or plug-in software.

Alex: Yes. Plug-ins let users work efficiently with point cloud data directly within CAD, virtual reality, or even some asset management software. Certain CAD and VR software also have some built-in capabilities for point clouds. Plug-ins just make working with them faster and easier.

Lori: That brings us to Leica Geosystems. Simply stated, we’re the leader in all of this, for scanners, field procedures, and point cloud software.

Alex: Our laser scanners are the easiest to use, most versatile, most accurate, most productive.

Lori: And the most popular.

Alex: Right. A big reason for that is our scanners offer the most workflow options for dealing with different site logistics, a key factor when selecting a scanner.

Lori: In short, they make it easier to achieve results you can trust. Whether it’s a simple site or a complex one.

Alex: High-accuracy data, indoors or outdoors. Even at distances up to hundreds of meters from the scanner. Our scanners produce more than just pretty pictures, they produce accurate survey data. One-touch operation, up to 1-million-point-per-second scan speeds. Full-dome field of view. Compact, portable all-in-one design. Friendly interfaces. Easy remote control. Operation in rain or snow. Survey-grade, dual-axis tilt compensation accurate to one and a half arc seconds for efficient traverse and resection workflows and on-the-fly scan registration. Embedded camera with streaming video and mount for external cameras. Accurate capture of scan targets at long distance for even more accurate registration and georeferencing. High-quality Leica Geosystems design and construction. Standard accessories. Easy connectivity to other survey equipment, and no safety glasses or laser safety barriers are required.

Lori: Next is our software. For the important step of registration and georeferencing our software is a virtual industry standard.

Alex: Leica also develops and provides the industry’s most comprehensive suite of software for creating high-quality deliverables.

Lori: From the simplest to the most advanced. Friendly and free, Leica TruView software enables anyone to navigate through point clouds. Panoramically view them, similar to Google Maps street view, and zoom, measure, mark up, view proposed designs in their real-world context, and even link them to other information, even over the internet.

Alex: Our versatile modeling software lets you organize, visualize, model, and do almost anything you want with point clouds from simple projects to advanced ones efficiently.

Lori: Our modeling software is yet another virtual industry standard, and our popular plug-ins let users work more efficiently with large scan data sets directly within design, drafting, and virtual reality applications. Plug-ins are easy to learn.

Alex: They’re also very efficient for creating simple 2D drawings and cross-sections.

Lori: The final part of our complete solution is training, support, and our vast network of service providers.

Alex: Right. Leica Geosystems has by far the industry’s largest and most experienced team of experts. Your local representative knows scanners and software, not just one or the other.

Lori: And, we also have the world’s largest and most experienced network of service providers with literally thousands around the globe. For high-quality laser scanners and office software...

Alex: ... and for the industry’s best training and support...

Lori: ... or access to the world’s best service providers, Leica Geosystems is your one-stop shop. To learn more watch our other videos in this series and be sure to check out our website.