BLK is Coming – Be Ready! - 05/09/2017

Breakfast press briefings seem to be the fashion. This time the topic was Leica’s BLK360 laser scanner, which has apparently been taking North America by storm and had also aroused interest at Autodesk University in London earlier in the week.

Burkhard Boeckem, CTO of Hexagon Systems, opened by saying that Leica had identified a gap in the market between commercial and HDS scanners and that this was home for the BLK. He likened the development and impact of the BLK with that of the T2 in the 1920s. The objective was to miniaturise, simplify and game-change. It’s a scanner but it also has coaxial cameras which can be used to produce 360° dome views and a thermal camera, which outputs actual temperature values. It operates with one button press and has some internal data storage, but the objective is to transfer data wirelessly to an iPad Pro. As part of Leica’s tie-up with Autodesk, they supply ReCap Pro to run on the iPad free of charge for a year.

Hand baggage only

There are two remarkable features about the BLK360. Firstly, its physical characteristics. It is light and small. It, along with an amazing and very lightweight tripod can fit easily into an overnight bag. It runs off a standard Leica battery with the capacity to complete around 40 scans, has an IP54 rating and is intended for indoor and outdoor use. Secondly, its price. At 15,000 euros it is far cheaper than anything we have seen before.

Another participant at breakfast was Lewis Wenman, lead BIM manager at Bouygues UK, who compared the difficulty of obtaining management approval to buy a Leica P40 scanner to the ease with which he was able to get approval for a BLK360. For him, the prime operational benefit of the BLK360 is that anyone can use it. ReCap 360 registers the scans automatically, along with accuracy statistics, and builds up the registered point cloud on the fly.

Ignorance could be disastrous

One can imagine the BLK360 being worked to death to build up clouds from dozens of scans without considering basic surveying principles, leading to a wave of survey horror stories. When challenged on this, both Leica and Autodesk, who were represented by Brett Casson, Digital Infrastructure Leader, claimed that users would be made fully aware of the instrument’s limitations. That is encouraging, but history has taught us that ignorance usually wins over knowledge.

Calibrated in Switzerland

All sensors in the BLKs are calibrated robotically in a special room in the Heerbrugg factory. When delivered, each scanner has a specified 3D point accuracy of 6mm at 10m range and 8mm at 20m range. This is effectively ‘noise’. Its maximum range is 60m, so it would be wise to check the spec sheets if intending to use at longer ranges. We were told that BLKs would need ‘periodic’ recalibration, but Leica would not be drawn on the recommended interval.

The answer for BIM

The overall impression was that although the BLK360 will be sold online – waiting time is currently 16 weeks, it has been designed with the same, if not greater, thoroughness as any Leica instrument. It is not however alone in its market. There is already a competitor from NCTech, as well as structured light technology from Matterport, photogrammetry and mobile scanners. Leica and Autodesk see BIM as the market for BLK. It will allow as-built data to be collected quickly by anyone. It means that more data will be collected and as-built models will consequently be more complete and therefore more valuable throughout a building’s lifecycle. Facilities managers might also use it to record changes to building layout.

Where does this leave surveyors?

Autodesk see BLK360 as just the start of a ‘democratisation’ process. Will this process result in surveyor obsolescence, or will we find opportunities further up the ‘food chain’, ensuring that survey principles are respected, and the data that ‘anyone can collect’ is quality assured and managed properly and users understand the benefits and limitations?

This article was published in Geomatics World September/October 2017

Last updated: 20/09/2017