NEI Featured in The American Surveyor

As the digital age carries us forward, methods of surveying are constantly changing. Because of this, it can be especially challenging for schools to keep their students at the forefront of the profession. Colleges and universities that offer geomatics and surveying programs are faced with the task of balancing classic theories with new technologies. But at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, Louisiana, the geomatics program has a recent addition that is sure to give students a competitive edge on graduation day.

Dr. Balaji Ramachandran joined the Nicholls State University in 2004 as an Assistant Professor. He is currently the Geomatics Program Coordinator and Head of the Department of Applied Sciences. It has been Dr. Ramachandran’s goal to grow the geomatics program each year–and in the fall of 2011 that goal was met by leaps and bounds with the opening of the new Harold C. “Charlie” Poche Jr. Laser Scanning Laboratory.

The Poche Scanning Lab includes four 3D laser scanners (a phase-based scanner, two time-of-flight scanners and one hybrid scanner), advanced 3D modeling software, and ten high-end workstations for processing and modeling data. The main goal of this facility is to train students and returning professionals on all aspects of laser scanning applications. It has already proven fruitful, boasting a list of student projects including a 3D model of historic buildings on the Nicholls campus, volume calculations of a design to raise the City of Thibodaux soccer field by two feet, and an as-built model of the Poche Lab facility.

Funds for the lab were raised with a combination of competitive grants, support from Louisiana Society of Professional Surveyors (LSPS), Nicholls State University Technology Initiative, and Navigation Electronics Inc. (NEI), a surveying and geospatial distributor headquartered in Lafayette, Louisiana. Today, the state-of-the-art Poche scanning lab facility is valued at more than $512,000.

Ahead of the Curve
“The Poche Lab gives students opportunities to have an extremely capable set of technology,” said recent graduate Brett Antill. Along with three other students, Antill developed an as-built model of the 3,000 ft² (280 m²) Poche Lab facility using Trimble® FXTM and Trimble CXTM 3D scanners. The students performed a total of five scans. For control points, black and white targets were made from paper and placed around the room. A Trimble S6 total station was used to measure the location of the targets and tie them to an assumed coordinate system. The five scan observations, saved in TZS file format, were then processed and tied together using Trimble RealWorks® software.

“Our initial task was to register the scan data and stitch together the multiple scans,” Antill said. With that completed, the EasyPipe feature within the RealWorks software was used to identify pipe geometry from the point cloud while the Geometry Cleaner tool was used to identify the walls and doors of the room as well as separate objects such as the desks and chairs at the workstations. The overall goal of the project was to demonstrate the efficacy of scanners in performing as-built surveys.

“Working on these kinds of projects allows students to gain knowledge about the efficiency of scanning over conventional surveying methods,” said Ramachandran. “They see how the profession is continuously changing with emerging technologies.” He said the scanners are steadily being integrated into the program curriculum’s strong foundation of conventional surveying and mapping. Currently the scanners are reserved for final year students to use on their capstone projects. However, first and second year students are encouraged to come by and work along with the seniors in the lab.

A Model Ambition
Another recent graduate of the Geomatics Program, Andrew Szush, said his final year project was developed to “educate students on the capabilities of laser scanning.” Szush led a team of students who scanned the school’s Elkins, Otto B. Candies and Picciola halls.

The group performed scans from a total of 24 stations, logging a total of five hours of observation time. Trimble R8 GNSS receivers were used as rovers and base stations in RTK, conducting two two-minute observations at each location to tie control points to the Louisiana State Plane Coordinate System. The point cloud data collected by the scanners was also processed using Trimble RealWorks software. Geometric shapes were then best fit to the point cloud data in order to generate the walls of the structures. Because the students used multiple project files for each scan station (to download the files more quickly), they later struggled tying the multiple project files together. The complete 3D models of the buildings went unfinished due to the size of the project and the constraints of the school year schedule. However, the next year’s seniors were able to finish the models.

While Szush admits, “It would have been advantageous to start on a small scale,” the students’ ambition to model the three halls echoed Ramachandran’s ambitious vision of the scanning lab’s future.

Supporting the Program
The lab’s eponym–Harold Charles “Charlie” Poche, Jr.–was owner and president of NEI until his death in 2000. NEI is currently owned and operated by Poche’s widow, Barbara, who serves as president, as well as his two children, William Poche and Kelli Poche Guidry. When NEI heard Nicholls was to have a geomatics program, the Poches reached out to university administrators shortly after it began in 2003.

“Our father believed in the state of Louisiana and in the importance of education,” says Kelli. “When Nicholls was selected by the state to host the Geomatics Program, we knew we had to put our full support behind the university and Balaji. It goes without saying that this technology and this profession was near and dear to our father, and still is to our family today.”

NEI today has a commitment to place five high-precision survey-grade GNSS receivers and relevant software, worth $150,000 annually, at no cost to the university. In addition, NEI donated some high-end total stations. It wasn’t until 2008 that Ramachandran began allocating resources for a new scanning laboratory to give students the latest scanners and have a facility on campus dedicated to scanning where data could be processed. A dedication ceremony for the lab was held in October 2011.

Teaching, Research and Outreach
Ramachandran’s hopes for the lab are “teaching, research and outreach,” he said. Already, a student has approached Ramachandran with a proposal to contract the scanners to a local shipyard to calculate air volumes of warehouses in order to better understand the effects of indoor air pollution. One of Ramachandran’s objectives is that the scanners will become a part of the third-year curriculum which will include highway design work. He would also like to see a research project focused on the progress of coastal restoration along the Gulf of Mexico. In addition, he hopes to offer adult or continuing education classes in scanning for returning professionals.

Ramachandran is currently working on an initiative to set up an Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) laboratory that will complement the Poche terrestrial laser scanning lab. Currently the Nicholls Geomatics Program is the only school in the state of Louisiana to have achieved the distinction of obtaining FAA Certificate of Authorization (COA). This allows them to fly UAS over the barrier islands to study bird habitats, coastal restoration and offshore petroleum platforms. His goal is to provide a “rich undergraduate educational experience,” he said, for Nicholls geomatics graduates. He would like to see the Nicholls Geomatics program as a “one-stop education portal for geospatial technologies.”

The students understand their scanning experience will be a gold star for them on graduation day. “As a graduating student, this experience with scanning gives me added benefits that not many other graduates around the country have,” said Antill. “Scanning may be the way of the future—and to have this experience may prove to be invaluable at some point in my career.” An alumnus to the geomatics program, Jake Rodrigue, had similar sentiments: “I believe laser scanners will become the norm just as GPS has become the norm in modern surveying. Because Nicholls Geomatics Program gave me access to laser scanning equipment, I will be ahead in the field when 3D models inevitably become required by our clients.” Rodrigue said the Poche Lab’s presence at Nicholls made him excited as an alumnus. “It is wonderful that geomatics students have access to such high-quality equipment and software,” Rodrigue continued. “I believe the Poche Lab is an important asset to the program and will produce great students with innovative ideas.”

Written by Gordon M. Wilson

October 25, 2013

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