3-D lasers give USF a new look

A group of researchers on campus are using the latest combinations of technology to take the university, as well as sites all over the world, into another dimension.

In its latest of several projects, the Alliance for Integrated Spatial Technologies (AIST) is embarking on a mission to document the USF campus in a way never done before. Once complete, the project, consisting of 3-D laser scanners and GPS technology, will detail and document the entire university as a visual model for anyone to access.

Joe Evans, a graduate student and research associate for AIST, helped scan many of the projects and works on programing the scannings into 3-D visualizations.

“We can turn the world into a museum,” Evans said. “(They will) no longer be limited to buildings, and people can go outside and interact with stuff the way they want to on their own terms.”

With the research and programs coming out of AIST, Evans predicts that students will no longer need to study artifacts and historical site from a distance or from behind a glass case in a museum.

Travis Doering, co-founder and director of AIST, said his facility’s research projects have documented sites including Florida, ancient villages and monuments in Mesoamerican jungles, Caribbean islands and ancient Greek war monuments.

“We’re all about visualization of the data,” Doering said. “It’s much easier to understand and appreciate if you can see it.”

The AIST, Doering said, was founded around 2007 as a core research facility of the College of Arts and Sciences to combine both cutting edge and traditional technologies, something he came across in his earlier career in archeology.

“We bring all those technologies together and figure out a problem or issue,” he said. “When we started using these technologies, we realized they had much broader applications.”

Since its founding, AIST has worked on projects such as documenting historic sites for Florida Parks and Wildlife, recording abandoned missile silos in Cape Canaveral for the U.S. Department of Defense, and has teams travel the world to preserve natural and cultural heritage in places like Guatemala, Spain and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The latest technology AIST is using is laser scanners. Though there are several types and many techniques, Doering said the lasers are a type of measuring instrument that can take pictures and record vast numbers of points in space with 3-D coordinates.

“What you do is take a scanner, set it up on a tripod, let it go and within six minutes I would have a point cloud…,” he said. “(A laser scanner can gather) up to 925,000 points per second and gives millions and millions of XYZ coordinates after a single scan.”

Doering said AIST owns six scanners on campus and has access to several others from corporate partners. Each scanner, he said, can cost anywhere from $3,000 to $150,000 in addition to processing software and other resources.

AIST’s corporate partnerships with companies, such as Geomagic and FARO, provide the program with resources and support for its projects, Doering said.

“We really develop an interesting blend of academics and private sector, because the private sector is really what is out there and moving things along,” he said.

These community partners will aid AIST with its ambitious goal of creating a detailed model of the entire university campus, a project which began in a small scale more than a year ago, Doering said.

“The objective is to completely document the campus inside and out, so it is all 3-D,” Doering said. “It uses many many different techniques and can be useful for a number of stakeholders across campus, especially students to really find their way around campus.”

Doering admits it is a large project, and will take many months to complete. However, he and members of AIST have already documented much of buildings such as the Bio-science building as well as the Marshall Student Center, which students can already see a 3-D virtual tour of on AIST’s website and YouTube channel.

According to Doering, the project, which will incorporate the help of undergraduate and graduate students and volunteers, faculty and student organizations across campus, as well as top 11th and 12th grade students who will be participating in a STEM program on campus over the summer.

“It’s got a really strong academic component as well as a strong research component,” he said. “The nice thing about what we do is that it is all orientated toward teaching students skills that they can get a job with. This whole area of 3D is where everything is going.”