The Impact of Software on the Lidar Industry

The Trusty Slide Rule

slideruleI’m sitting here looking at the Sun Hemmi slide rule that I keep on my desk (I have been using it as a ruler over the past several decades) and I reflect that this wonderful device never required any software updates or battery charges, yet it still delivers very accurate advanced mathematical calculations. One could postulate that this is really the most amazing analog computer ever devised. It is even more powerful than the abacus which predates the slide rule by millennia.

Both devices are true computers, but do not require software and thus, lack the flexibility that we see in the current computer age. These computing devices (like the one in the title picture) were even transported to the moon and back, used as backups for the Apollo spacecraft’s onboard computers. The last time I used this slide rule for serious scholarly calculations was in high school, just when the first Hewlett-Packard and Texas Instruments scientific calculators arrived on the scene and started to make the slide rule obsolete.

The Importance of Software

In the past I have mostly been writing in Lidar News about hardware and scanners. The even more important aspect, and actually the greater revenue generator, is the software; revenue generator not only for the equipment manufacturer but also the service provider. From static tripod mounted scanners, to mobile and airborne systems, the software has over time leveraged more usability and even improved the functionality of hardware systems.

Software has had a greater impact on the lidar industry than the actual development of scanners. Of course without the hardware, we would never have gotten the data, but consider that the first light ranging devices date back to the 1800’s for structured light measurements, the late 1940’s for the first commercial time of flight ranging devices and the 1970’s for laser – based lidar technology.

The Need to Process Data

Laser scanning data first emerged towards the end of the 1990’s when Ben Kacyra’s Cyra (USA) introduced the first Cyrax laser scanners (now Leica HDS), and the airborne survey company TopScan (Germany) developed software to visualize airborne laser profile measurement with photogrammetric data and later the first airborne scanner scanning systems that they had worked with Optech to develop.

It was really in the first decade of the 21st century that 3D lidar software really took off. It is estimated that today, the lidar software industry is growing at rates at least double that of laser scanning and lidar hardware. In fact, the fastest growing 3D sector is in the industrial metrology fields, where having precise measuring systems on the shop floor are proliferating. The rapidly growing use of handheld structured light scanners are essentially using the same mathematical calculations of the original fringe projection measurements, but with much greater speed and accuracy than was available without computers and software in the 1800’s.

Software Vendors

We see companies like Innovmetric (Quebec, Canada), Applied Imagery (USA), Orbit (USA) and SimActive (Quebec) that are growing rapidly while remaining independent in the lidar visualization and analysis software fields. Many others have been acquired by large software or hardware manufacturers looking to expand revenues, such as Pointools being acquired by Bentley, BlueView acquired by Teledyne, Faro taking Kubit over, among numerous others.

This trend clearly shows the power that software has to enable companies to diversify quickly and even enhance growth for hardware – based firms. Other even greater early examples are IBM which was once primarily a computer hardware and business machine manufacturer but now is essentially a software and cloud computing company, or Xerox whose roots were in photocopiers but now represents itself as the “document company” focusing on software and workflow solutions.

Many of the 3D visualization methods used in lidar that we see actually come from the first 3D medical imaging CAT and MRI scanners of the 1980’s (this is actually where I started my 3D imaging career, in the image analysis computers used for microscopes and confocal imaging systems), where the concepts of 3D visualization are the same, essentially points in 3D coordinate space, but not georeferenced space. We now see many innovative companies emerging with software that originally was developed and used as an in-house tools for providing data collection services.

A prime example is Siteco Informatica (Italy) who over 15+ years provided data collection services to their diverse roadway, infrastructure, construction and rail customers. They even built their own mobile scanners, giving them very intimate understanding of both the equipment used, and the required workflow required for specific data collection. Their in-house developed software is now being commercially sold for very specific roadway asset management, airport runway analysis, road pavement analysis and most recently launching a comprehensive railway line and tunnel analysis software.

They have taken the business “pivot” from being a data collector to being a highly flexible hardware builder and software provider with very specific but comprehensive end-to-end application – oriented solutions. Most interesting is their compatibility with most existing mobile mapping system on the market today.

Too Many Products

I speak with many different data collection providers who all have similar complaints. Namely the enormous amount of software they need to purchase and maintain just to deliver data to their clients. The future trends will undoubtedly lean in the direction of more end-to-end solutions, rather than the general toolboxes that have been the norm in the lidar industry up to now. The entire laser scanning industry is empowered by massively powerful and flexible software systems. The future will be further driven by these advances in 3D visualization and data analysis along with the rapidly advancing computing power offered in the scanner hardware itself.

Now looking back to my humble slide rule, if only the computers of today could be built with no need for power consumption and software updates. Then we could also solve the huge problem of greenhouse gas emissions in the manufacturing of the computers and energy production. My Sun Hemmi is actually made out of bamboo, one of the most renewable wood types on this planet, so it must have the best carbon footprint of any computer ever.

(Editor’s Note: I obtained a BS in Civil Engineering using my Post Versalog bamboo slide rule that I still have.)


Brent Gelhar is a technology commercialization strategy consultant. He is involved with a variety of diverse technology start-ups. Brent works at his Toronto-based consultancy Spatial Initiatives Consulting and can be reached at

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