What is 3D laser scanning? – A special three part video series (courtesy of LGS).

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The purpose of a 3D scanner is usually to create a point cloud of geometric samples on the surface of the subject. These points can then be used to extrapolate the shape of the subject (a process called reconstruction). If color information is collected at each point, then the colors on the surface of the subject can also be determined.

3D scanners share several traits with cameras. Like cameras, they have a cone-like field of view, and like cameras, they can only collect information about surfaces that are not obscured. While a camera collects color information about surfaces within its field of view, a 3D scanner collects distance information about surfaces within its field of view. The “picture” produced by a 3D scanner describes the distance to a surface at each point in the picture. This allows the three dimensional position of each point in the picture to be identified.

For most situations, a single scan will not produce a complete model of the subject. Multiple scans, even hundreds, from many different directions are usually required to obtain information about all sides of the subject. These scans have to be brought into a common reference system, a process that is usually called alignment or registration, and then merged to create a complete model. This whole process, going from the single range map to the whole model, is usually known as the 3D scanning pipeline.

There are a variety of technologies for digitally acquiring the shape of a 3D object. A well established classification divides them into two types: contact and non-contact. Non-contact solutions can be further divided into two main categories, active and passive. There are a variety of technologies that fall under each of these categories.

A coordinate measuring machine with rigid perpendicular arms.
Contact 3D scanners probe the subject through physical touch, while the object is in contact with or resting on a precision flat surface plate, ground and polished to a specific maximum of surface roughness. Where the object to be scanned is not flat or can not rest stably on a flat surface, it is supported and held firmly in place by a fixture.

The scanner mechanism may have three different forms:

A carriage system with rigid arms held tightly in perpendicular relationship and each axis gliding along a track. Such systems work best with flat profile shapes or simple convex curved surfaces.
An articulated arm with rigid bones and high precision angular sensors. The location of the end of the arm involves complex math calculating the wrist rotation angle and hinge angle of each joint. This is ideal for probing into crevasses and interior spaces with a small mouth opening.

A combination of both methods may be used, such as an articulated arm suspended from a traveling carriage, for mapping large objects with interior cavities or overlapping surfaces.
A CMM (coordinate measuring machine) is an example of a contact 3D scanner. It is used mostly in manufacturing and can be very precise. The disadvantage of CMMs though, is that it requires contact with the object being scanned. Thus, the act of scanning the object might modify or damage it. This fact is very significant when scanning delicate or valuable objects such as historical artifacts. The other disadvantage of CMMs is that they are relatively slow compared to the other scanning methods. Physically moving the arm that the probe is mounted on can be very slow and the fastest CMMs can only operate on a few hundred hertz. In contrast, an optical system like a laser scanner can operate from 10 to 500 kHz.

Other examples are the hand driven touch probes used to digitize clay models in computer animation industry.

Non-contact active
Active scanners emit some kind of radiation or light and detect its reflection or radiation passing through object in order to probe an object or environment. Possible types of emissions used include light, ultrasound or x-ray.

This lidar scanner may be used to scan buildings, rock formations, etc., to produce a 3D model. The lidar can aim its laser beam in a wide range: its head rotates horizontally, a mirror flips vertically. The laser beam is used to measure the distance to the first object on its path.
The time-of-flight 3D laser scanner is an active scanner that uses laser light to probe the subject. At the heart of this type of scanner is a time-of-flight laser range finder. The laser range finder finds the distance of a surface by timing the round-trip time of a pulse of light. A laser is used to emit a pulse of light and the amount of time before the reflected light is seen by a detector is measured. Since the speed of light c is known, the round-trip time determines the travel distance of the light, which is twice the distance between the scanner and the surface. If t is the round-trip time, then distance is equal to. The accuracy of a time-of-flight 3D laser scanner depends on how precisely we can measure the t time: 3.3 picoseconds (approx.) is the time taken for light to travel 1 millimetre.

The laser range finder only detects the distance of one point in its direction of view. Thus, the scanner scans its entire field of view one point at a time by changing the range finder’s direction of view to scan different points. The view direction of the laser range finder can be changed either by rotating the range finder itself, or by using a system of rotating mirrors. The latter method is commonly used because mirrors are much lighter and can thus be rotated much faster and with greater accuracy. Typical time-of-flight 3D laser scanners can measure the distance of 10,000~100,000 points every second.

Time-of-flight devices are also available in a 2D configuration. This is referred to as a time-of-flight camera.

Principle of a laser triangulation sensor. Two object positions are shown.
Triangulation based 3D laser scanners are also active scanners that use laser light to probe the environment. With respect to time-of-flight 3D laser scanner the triangulation laser shines a laser on the subject and exploits a camera to look for the location of the laser dot. Depending on how far away the laser strikes a surface, the laser dot appears at different places in the camera’s field of view. This technique is called triangulation because the laser dot, the camera and the laser emitter form a triangle. The length of one side of the triangle, the distance between the camera and the laser emitter is known. The angle of the laser emitter corner is also known. The angle of the camera corner can be determined by looking at the location of the laser dot in the camera’s field of view. These three pieces of information fully determine the shape and size of the triangle and give the location of the laser dot corner of the triangle. In most cases a laser stripe, instead of a single laser dot, is swept across the object to speed up the acquisition process. The National Research Council of Canada was among the first institutes to develop the triangulation based laser scanning technology in 1978

Strengths and weaknesses
Time-of-flight and triangulation range finders each have strengths and weaknesses that make them suitable for different situations. The advantage of time-of-flight range finders is that they are capable of operating over very long distances, on the order of kilometers. These scanners are thus suitable for scanning large structures like buildings or geographic features. The disadvantage of time-of-flight range finders is their accuracy. Due to the high speed of light, timing the round-trip time is difficult and the accuracy of the distance measurement is relatively low, on the order of millimeters.
Triangulation range finders are exactly the opposite. They have a limited range of some meters, but their accuracy is relatively high. The accuracy of triangulation range finders is on the order of tens of micrometers.

Time-of-flight scanners’ accuracy can be lost when the laser hits the edge of an object because the information that is sent back to the scanner is from two different locations for one laser pulse. The coordinate relative to the scanner’s position for a point that has hit the edge of an object will be calculated based on an average and therefore will put the point in the wrong place. When using a high resolution scan on an object the chances of the beam hitting an edge are increased and the resulting data will show noise just behind the edges of the object. Scanners with a smaller beam width will help to solve this problem but will be limited by range as the beam width will increase over distance. Software can also help by determining that the first object to be hit by the laser beam should cancel out the second.

At a rate of 10,000 sample points per second, low resolution scans can take less than a second, but high resolution scans, requiring millions of samples, can take minutes for some time-of-flight scanners. The problem this creates is distortion from motion. Since each point is sampled at a different time, any motion in the subject or the scanner will distort the collected data. Thus, it is usually necessary to mount both the subject and the scanner on stable platforms and minimise vibration. Using these scanners to scan objects in motion is very difficult.

Recently, there has been research on compensating for distortion from small amounts of vibration [4] and distortions due to motion and/or rotation

When scanning in one position for any length of time slight movement can occur in the scanner position due to changes in temperature. If the scanner is set on a tripod and there is strong sunlight on one side of the scanner then that side of the tripod will expand and slowly distort the scan data from one side to another. Some laser scanners have level compensators built into them to counteract any movement of the scanner during the scan process.

Hand-held laser scanners
Hand-held laser scanners create a 3D image through the triangulation mechanism described above: a laser dot or line is projected onto an object from a hand-held device and a sensor (typically a charge-coupled device or position sensitive device) measures the distance to the surface. Data is collected in relation to an internal coordinate system and therefore to collect data where the scanner is in motion the position of the scanner must be determined. The position can be determined by the scanner using reference features on the surface being scanned (typically adhesive reflective tabs, but natural features have been also used in research work [6][7]) or by using an external tracking method. External tracking often takes the form of a laser tracker (to provide the sensor position) with integrated camera (to determine the orientation of the scanner) or a photogrammetric solution using 3 or more cameras providing the complete Six degrees of freedom of the scanner. Both techniques tend to use infra red Light-emitting diodes attached to the scanner which are seen by the camera(s) through filters providing resilience to ambient lighting.

Data is collected by a computer and recorded as data points within Three-dimensional space, with processing this can be converted into a triangulated mesh and then a Computer-aided design model, often as Non uniform rational B-spline surfaces. Hand-held laser scanners can combine this data with passive, visible-light sensors — which capture surface textures and colours — to build (or “reverse engineer”) a full 3D model.

Structured light
Main article: Structured-light 3D scanner
Structured-light 3D scanners project a pattern of light on the subject and look at the deformation of the pattern on the subject. The pattern is projected onto the subject using either an LCD projector or other stable light source. A camera, offset slightly from the pattern projector, looks at the shape of the pattern and calculates the distance of every point in the field of view.