Leica's new flying robot laser scanner

The company is mastering reality capture by pairing sensors with advanced robots.

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Leica Geosystems

Leica Geosystems has two new autonomous hardware products that are pushing robots to bold new places. Announced recently is a flying UAV laser scanning sensor and a reality capture product for robots, including SPOT from Boston Dynamics.

The flying sensor is called BLK2FLY, and Leica Geosystems, which is a brand of global information systems company Hexagon AB, calls it the world's first autonomous UAV laser scanning sensor. The user sets up a flight path, taps a tablet, and it flies off to accurately scan and capture the dimensions of an area or building. It's best for inaccessible or hard to reach areas, such as facades or rooftops, or to document site conditions after a disaster. 

High fidelity reality capture is critical for a number of industries, including pipeline and infrastructure inspection and construction. Drones and robots are already proving critical tools for inspection. The big difference is that UAVs take a top-down approach to scanning, whereas the scanning laser is designed to capture details with millimeter level accuracy from multiple angles, resulting in a high-fidelity representation. Weighing under 6 pounds, the UAV knows how to avoid obstacles and automatically redirects its flight path.

The second product is called BLK ARC, and it's essentially an add-on laser sensor for robotic platforms. According to a spokesperson: "picture Boston Dynamics' SPOT dog with an autonomous reality capture product for a head."

Pairing the sensor with an autonomous platform like SPOT, a user is able to get visibility into dangerous or hard to reach places like waterfalls, coal mines, power plants, bridges, movie location sets, or crime scenes. Once the robot is in, the sensing system delivers accurate scans of the area. Built as a platform-agnostic sensor, the BLK ARC will work with other robotics carriers as well.

"The BLK2FLY and BLK ARC illustrate Hexagon's commitment to empowering and autonomous future with smart digital realities. The purposefully integrated sensor-software systems are tailored to bring autonomous agility and speed to any reality capture workflow," says Hexagon President and CEO Ola Rollén. "The robots, sensors, and software work together, dynamically adjusting reality capture missions to offer seemingly limitless business applications – from as-built site documentation for buildings to monitoring and situational awareness of remote or hazardous environments, such as mines, factory floors, off-shore facilities, fire investigations and more."

The increasing fidelity and shrinking form factor of sensors are helping drive a robotic revolution in a number of industries, particularly those with dangerous working conditions, such as mining and sectors that rely on remote infrastructure. Robotics and UAV providers are rushing to capitalize on increasing demand for critical inspection tools, particularly as infrastructure comes into the spotlight thanks to new federal attention.

By some estimates, the inspection robotics market is set to grow by $3.72 billion from 2020-2024, a CAGR of almost 19%.