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Great things are done by a series of small things.

Small business’s 3-D laser scanning helps keep it real

September 22, 2013

SANDRA BRETTING, For the Chonicle | January 10, 2010

Photo By Eric Kayne/ChronicleDoug Smith, left, and Richard Lasater, principals with Smart GeoMetrics, show their $150,000 camera with the results of their imaging of the Alamo on the monitor. Their business creates 3-D images.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, imagine what a 3-D technology that captures half a million measurements a second, to an accuracy of 2 millimeters, might be worth.

The technology is called high-definition laser scanning, and it’s often used by petrochemical companies to measure tanks, pipelines and the like. However, local small business Smart GeoMetrics adapts the technology to digitally document everything from historic buildings to a U.S. battleship.

“We like working with companies who have never heard of 3-D laser scanning before,” company co-founder Richard Lasater, 44, said. “Or if they have, they don’t know all of its applications.”

From Switzerland
The system used by Smart GeoMetrics was developed in Switzerland by a company that pioneered surveying equipment. Using a camera that costs some $150,000 and software that costs another one-third that amount, the company has scanned everything from a local church slated to be demolished, to the USS Missouri, the 877-foot-long battleship that is part of the Pearl Harbor memorial in Hawaii.

The results are 3-D images that can be used as historical documents, to help with ongoing maintenance of a building or object or for educational purposes. In fact, the company’s other co-owner, Doug Smith, has a background in long-distance learning with groups ranging from the Houston Museum of Natural Science to the Houston Zoo.

“In a few days, we can scan something that would take weeks to record by hand,” Smith, 45, said. “It’s a great tool for lesson planning, because it allows people to see spaces that normally aren’t accessible.”

The Missouri’s hull
For instance, with the Missouri, the company scanned the hull of the ship in late December, which is plated with more than 13 inches of steel.

“We worked with three other local companies to get that task accomplished,” Lasater said.

“Now, the Battleship Missouri Memorial has a permanent record they can use in their exhibits, or if they need to work on the hull again.”

For Immanuel Lutheran Church in the Heights, the company scanned the inside and outside of the original church, which was built in 1927 and added to in 1932.

Plans call for the old structure to be demolished in May.

“This way, we’ll be able to preserve the digital images and make them available to people who would like to see them … like architectural students, so they can have precise information on what it looked like,” said Ken Bakenhus, president of the congregation. “The congregation has wanted to demolish the building for many years now, but this way we’ll have a lasting record of it.”

Donated services
Smart GeoMetrics, a subsidiary of a seven-person small business called Houston-based Smart MultiMedia, donated its services for that project, Bakenhus said. Smart MultiMedia is owned by the same two men and provides such services as graphic design, Web development and video production.

Founded in 2006, Smart GeoMetrics began using this particular 3-D laser scanning technology in 2008. The owners declined to provide revenue figures.

A point cloud
The company has since scanned a computer system for Hewlett-Packard Co., for use by overseas call center service engineers when they haven’t actually seen the product, and for petrochemical company Texmark, which wanted a model of one of its chemical distillation units.

Lasater, who has experience in media production and once worked for Republic Pictures in California, said the company also has started to scan federal buildings through an initiative of the General Services Administration.

“It provides very technical, very detailed information on a building’s structure,” Lasater said. “While the technology doesn’t replace blueprints, it does supplement them for when the federal government will need to renovate or expand their buildings.”

According to Lasater, a current example of such technology can be found in the 20th Century Fox movie Avatar, which shows a 3-D point cloud of a large tree.

While that image is of an imaginary object, the actual image is similar for buildings, boats and the like, Lasater said.