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BLK360: Seeing is believing

By Peter Fitzgibbon - 27th June 2017 - 16:50

At a media gathering in London last week hosted by Leica Geosystems and Autodesk, it was confirmed that Leica’s BLK360 3D imaging laser scanner is now being shipped to customers in Europe

The move follows hot-on-the heels of shipments to customers in the United States and will, says Leica Geosystems’ CTO, Burkhard Boeckem, satisfy pre-orders for a product that fills a gap in the market between low and high-end products such as the ScanStation P40 HDS.

Perhaps as importantly, he believes that the virtually automatic operation of the BLK360 and its ‘scan-and-see’ immediacy will appeal to a new breed of user and “democratise the 3D laser scanning market.” As part of their €15k-per-unit purchases, customers will also receive a year’s free subscription (worth around €300) to a mobile version of Autodesk’s ReCap® Pro reality capture software. Configured for the iPad Pro, this also acts as the controller app for the BLK 360. It’s worth noting that, for more advanced users, the scanner can also be used with Leica’s Cyclone 3D point cloud processing software.

For Brett Casson, Digital Infrastructure Leader for Autodesk’s Strategic Innovation Group, the result of the partnership with Leica Geosystems marks the start of a revolution in 3D data capture. “The universal need of our software users in the AEC sector is for rapid access to robust and reliable information. While 3D reality capture enables this, the BLK360 makes it practical and affordable for a much wider audience. This democratising of digital to help tackle the big challenges of our time is an ambition shared by Autodesk and Leica Geosystems.”

Single-button operation

As its name implies, the diminutive BLK360 (standing just 16cm high and weighing around 1 Kg) conducts 360° horizonal and 300° vertical scans at ranges up to 60 m. And it does so entirely automatically once the start button is pressed.

Mounted on a firm surface or an optional fold-flat tripod, the self-balancing unit rotates slowly on its ring bearing, initially photographing and/or thermally imaging the required scene for referencing purposes and then performing a laser scan at data capture rates of up to 360,000 points per second. The entire process is completed in under three minutes.

Acting as its own Wi-Fi hot spot, the BLK360 dispenses with a cable link for data transfer but does have 64GB of onboard memory, sufficient to store more than 100 medium density scans. The absence of external ports has a particular advantage says Boeckem. “The only part of the casing not constructed of aluminium is the base where several antennas are located and which provide wrap-around coverage. Eliminating external sockets and their internal wiring reduces RF interference and also makes the casing more secure against the ingress of dust or moisture.”

Unlike other scanner workflows, HDR optical/thermal and laser scanned data is downloaded in real-time to ReCap® Pro and registered on-the-fly so the field operator has an immediate visual check on the evolving point cloud model. Seamless integration of scanner and software is fundamental, says Casson, as it enables customers to confidently capture reliable data in the field and have it readily available on their return to the office for good quality design. “This is increasingly important as governments in the UK and elsewhere adopt digital mandates such as BIM Level 2 for public sector projects,” he adds.

Breakthrough design

While simplicity of use and ‘live’ data viewing and editing were key requirements of the BLK360 design brief, these were not the only considerations says Boeckem. “We sought to replicate the same innovative thinking that went into the legendary Wild T2 theodolite of the 1920s by pushing the latest technologies to make it lighter, smaller and more rugged than anything hitherto.” That allusion to the T2 is reflected in the BLK360’s removable plexiglass housing … but what lies below is pure 21st Century.

A multi-disciplinary team in Heerbrugge was established as a mini start-up and, using Agile project management techniques, evolved 24 design concepts for the BLK360 based on a high level of solid state integration, IP54/IEC 60529-compliant environmental protection, and minimal operator intervention.

The final design, unveiled at the Autodesk University in Las Vegas in late 2016, has already garnered awards for its minimalist looks. Boeckem agrees that the aesthetics are important but insists that what lies beneath is critical. Probe below the sleek anodised aluminium casing and one is immediately struck by the absence of moving parts, save for the ring bearing and the BLK360’s gold-finished rotating titanium mirror. Unlike any other device, the three in-built 15 MP optical cameras and thermal sensor - the first for a scanner - all intersect with the mirror for parallax-free panoramic imaging. Claimed ranging accuracy is from 4mm at 10m to 7mm at 20m (at 78% albedo) – which would represent the typical use scenario for the BLK360 - but absolute accuracy will depend on the type of surface to be scanned and angle of scanning.

Early thoughts of using integrated Li-ion cells similar to those used in the iPhone gave way to the possibility of inductive charging using replaceable batteries. In the end, the scanner makes use of Leica’s standard GEB212 removable and rechargeable Li-Ion battery which is good for around 40 scans before a recharge is needed. In practical terms, this should be sufficient to scan three typical residential properties from top to bottom.

No gimmick

Although something of a late addition to the BLK360 design, Boeckem dismisses the idea that the inclusion of a thermal sensor is something of a gimmick. “For building renovation and other AEC applications, there is often a need to trace water leakages, air circulation, insulation deficiencies, structural defects and so on. For such purposes, the longwave infrared sensor from FLIR Systems Inc., is fully integrated with and geometrically-calibrated to the BLK360.” The only compromise is its more restricted FOV (360° x 70°) compared to the spherical optical cameras.

The optical cameras are radially and distortion-corrected, white-balanced, and robotically-calibrated in Heerbrugge as part of the BLK 360’s QA process. Its Class 1 laser is subjected to a battery of range and volumetric performance tests and hot targets are employed to calibrate the IR sensor.

A flex link between cameras/sensor and the BLK360’s single PCB represents the only internal wiring – a major technical achievement and one fully exploited in the ease and speed of manufacture. “To demonstrate this, we asked our CEO, Juergen Dold, to assemble a unit without any prior instruction. He accomplished it just six minutes slower than a trained factory assembler,” says Boeckem.

Put to the test

A hands-on perspective was offered by Lewis Wenman, Lead BIM Manager at Bouygues UK, one of Britain’s leading construction companies. Having trialled the BLK360/ReCap® Pro solution, he has no doubts as to its advantages. “Provided one isn’t intending to capture the full exterior of a building, it’s an ideal combination, being incredibly portable and lending itself to surveyors and non-surveyors alike. Using traditional instruments, it would normally take us an afternoon to record a dozen interior scans at several locations on multiple floors. By using this new solution, we managed to achieve the same work in an hour.”

If the speed of capture was impressive, so too was the ability to get live feedback. Wenman explains. “It meant that before we moved from one location to another, it was possible to check and confirm on the tablet that we had captured what we wanted. With registering already completed, it took us no more than a further hour to return to the site office, preview the results, transfer them to Revit, complete the analysis and present to the project team.”

Convincing sceptics

Wenman recollects that what was intended as little more than a check on some as-built Mechanical, Electrical & Public Health (MEP) services had some far-reaching benefits. “The scans revealed that setting-outs for some of the room sizes differed from the as-builts. This, together with other information that wasn’t previously recorded, convinced the technology sceptics that the BLK360/ReCap® Pro combo had real value as a grab-it-and-go site tool.” As a result, new workflows are being developed to exploit its potential within the London-based Bouygues UK operation. And, just like others who have pre-ordered, Wenman is now patiently awaiting the expected 16-week delivery for his BLK360 consignments.

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