3D Laser Scanning and the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman Case

We have all heard and seen the news reports of the terrible tragedy that occurred in the altercation and subsequent killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman.

The case will be prosecuted on the facts of whether Zimmerman was acting in self-defense or whether he was stalking Martin and therefore the aggressor and his fate will likely be decided by a jury.

Watching the extensive coverage of this case, I noticed a laser scanner on the scene in some of the many news reports. I don’t know exactly how the data collected will be used, but I do know many ways that it could be used.

Police departments all across America are purchasing high definition laser scanners to use in their crime scenes investigations. Prior to laser scanning, a series of photographs would have been taken and lots of notes and measurements recorded as a way to document what happened.

Until recently, that was the best way to thoroughly document a crime scene.

But as soon as a scene is released, it is contaminated, making it unlikely that more useable evidence will be found. 3D laser scanning has changed all of that.

First used on crime scenes by the FBI, Secret Service and Scotland Yard, laser scanning is now becoming a “best practice” for the documentation of a homicide. There are many reasons for this, but here are just a few:

  1. The 3D element: Scanning a scene in 3D enables all of the evidence in the scene – from the buildings, sidewalks, parked cars, and surrounding areas – to be preserved in three dimensions. This means that you can look at the scene from every possible view, not just the view of the photographer and camera angle.
  1. Data capture: As cases progress, there will be evidence that comes up later that was not looked for originally. If you have done a thorough job of scanning, objects like drink cups, candy wrappers, or even potential weapons that were unknown at the time can be seen in the scan. This has proven to be an excellent tool for the prosecution in criminal trials. Many cases have been helped by data captured in a scan that was totally unknown at the time of the initial investigation.

So how can this technology be used in the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case?

If you remember the scene where the killing occurred, it was on a sidewalk between two adjacent apartment buildings. There were many witnesses who testified that they heard and saw all or part of the incident from inside their apartment.

With a thorough laser scan, you could easily capture the view from each window in the adjoining apartment building. Armed with this data, if Witness A later says he saw the incident from his window and Witness B says she saw something from her window, you could easily use the 3D ‘point cloud” (dense scan data) to go behind the windows referenced by the witnesses and check the exact line of site.

This view would essentially allow investigators to stand in individual apartments and view the crime scene in 3D, enabling them to confirm or refute the testimony of a witness as to what they said they saw.

This extremely detailed data would also enable them to determine if something like a lamp or curtains was inside the apartment and obstructing the witness’ view.

This type of scan actually exonerated an accused person in a California case in which a man was accused of shooting his wife from his house, across the road from a hill where she was walking.

Several witnesses reported this. Turns out, the police scans showed that the line of site from the man’s window to the path the victim was walking on was blocked by low trees and high bushes. No one inside the house could have seen the victim from this viewpoint.

This knowledge ultimately led police to continue their investigation and eventually catch the guilty party.

High definition scanning can also be used to compute the exact location of a shooter. If a bullet enters a house from the outside and goes into the wall across the room – and that room is then scanned – the exact path of the bullet can be shown with a great degree of accuracy.

If multiple shots penetrated the house, the evidence is even more compelling. Because of the multiple trajectory lines that are formed by multiple bullets, the area of shots will be very precise. This data can help determine if the shots came from a house across the street or from a parked car in front of the house, for example.

The tunnel that Princess Diana’s car crashed in is still probably the most thoroughly scanned crime scene in the world. The scan data, combined with the physical data, was able to help determine the precise path of the car.

Similarly, there have been several scans conducted of the “Grassy Knoll,” where a second shooter of President Kennedy was allegedly positioned. In this case, however, there was no conclusive evidence.

I don’t know how the Trayvon Martin-Zimmerman case will ultimately be resolved. I’m not even sure if the authorities with the data understand completely how it can be used. But I do know that courts across America have allowed laser scan data to be introduced as evidence in all types of trials, both criminal and civil.

What used to be viewed as an unproven technology has now become much more common and mainstream.

Then there is also the other side – the defense team. If they know how to more effectively leverage the collected data, they may be the ones to show that what a witness said he saw was not possible from the data collected by the prosecution.


Tate Jones has over 40 years of experience in land and aerial surveying and was one of the country’s earliest adopters of 3D laser scanning technology. A nationally recognized expert in the field of 3D data capture, he has worked with hundreds of clients in the forensic engineering, law enforcement, criminal defense, architectural and construction industries. For more information, visit or contact him at

What’s all the fuss about high definition scanning?

When it comes to making precise measurements in complicated environments, high definition scanning – or 3D laser surveying, as it is sometimes called – is quickly making its way to the front of the line in a wide range of industries from engineering to historic preservation.

Engineers use laser scans to work with real-world conditions in complex industrial as-built and plant environments. Construction companies use them to gather precise data on site terrain and renovations, and architects use them to check proposed design models against existing conditions to fine-tune their designs.

Even insurance companies and law enforcement have gotten on board, utilizing the technology to recreate large-scale accident scenes.

Why is it better? For one, laser scans are incredibly precise. Images are created from a “point cloud” of millions of points that can be measured precisely including the distances and elevations between points. They are also versatile. The scans, when used with digital color photos, can produce survey-quality files, videos or even 3D animated computer models and are so intuitive that even a novice can understand the information.

Laser scans are also fast. In 2006, when we bought our first scanner, it took almost an hour to produce a full dome 360 degree scan. Now we can scan in 6-8 minutes. This allows us to take many more scans and capture more detail than we did before.

Scanning almost always pays for itself. It is cheaper in the long run because you can revisit the original scan multiple times from your computer desktop without having to revisit the project site. Also, because the technology is so precise, the need for construction reworks and expensive retrofitting is minimized or removed alltogether.

For firms thinking about getting involved with this technology, there are currently three ways to capture 3D data on large scale projects: Airborne LiDAR (Light Detection And Ranging), Mobile LiDAR, and Terrestrial Scanners, which all produce LiDAR data.

Typical projects for terrestrial scanners are large pipes and tunnels, manufacturing facilities, plant process facilities, airport conveyor systems, bridges, buildings, towers and construction projects. (Our firm focuses on terrestrial jobs, as most cannot be readily scanned from airplanes or cars.)

The cost of entry into this kind of scanning is generally between $150,000 to $250,000 for the first units and software. (Although less expensive scanners are now available, software packages can still be expensive and the cost of training should also be considered.)

Aerial platforms and Mobile Platforms start at $500,000 and go up to $5,000,000. These units are constantly being upgraded with newer and better digital sensors and data management enhancements. We currently work with service contractors on these types of jobs, which are typically focused on documenting civil infrastructure on a much larger scale than terrestrial scans.

Projects could include scanning 100 miles of road to prepare a pavement analysis, mapping 1,000 miles of rail line, or mapping the City of Atlanta and producing 3D models of all the buildings.

If the cost of these units seems intimidating, keep in mind that firms that have already invested in these technologies are often open to partnering opportunities with smaller firms.

Small scanning focuses on objects the size of a Volkswagen all the way down to the mechanical components inside of a watch. The applications in this field – commonly referred to as “reverse engineering” – include quality control of manufactured parts or data capture for a manufactured process. A typical project could be scanning an ornate stair rail so that an exact replica can be created from wood, metal or composite.

This scanning method is so precise that you could dissemble a toaster, rifle or carburetor, scan the parts, manufacture duplicates, and they would all work when re-assembled.

What can be scanned?

If it can be built, it can be scanned. There is virtually nothing built that cannot be duplicated and modeled with current scanning techniques.

In addition to the engineering, construction and manufacturing industries, this technology is also being used by insurance companies and law enforcement to reconstruct accident scenes – like when a highway bridge falls during rush-hour traffic or a multi-car pile-up – and even on Hollywood sets. There are companies that make their living scanning elaborate movie sets before and after they are constructed.

To give you an idea of the wide-ranging capabilities of this technology, in the last month, we have scanned a 120-foot pipe in Chicago, a 737 aircraft in Delaware, a luggage system in LaGuardia, and the interior of a peppermill in Virginia. This technology is everywhere!


Tate Jones has over 40 years of experience in land and aerial surveying and was one of the country’s earliest adopters of 3D laser scanning technology. A nationally recognized expert in the field of 3D data capture, he has worked with hundreds of clients in the engineering, architectural and construction industries. Contact him at or visit

Surviving 2012: Six things every business can learn from the surveying industry

As a professional land surveyor for 40 years, I have a first-hand understanding of the housing downturn and subsequent economic recession we have been experiencing for the past six years.

At our firm, we began seeing the impact in early 2008, just one year after the peak in our business in 2007. Surveying is often viewed (at least by banks) as part of the construction industry and when construction loans dried-up, so did our business.

For surveyors, the hit was especially hard because our industry doesn’t just rely on the housing market, but also on commercial and retail expansion, which depends on the public sector to build infrastructure like new roads, sewer outfalls, parks, schools, airport expansions and industrial parks.

When things got bad, many surveyors began discounting their services in an attempt to hold onto their clients and market share. Over the past three years, for example, I have seen the fee and value of ALTA surveys – surveys required by banks before they will refinance a loan – sell for half of what they did before the fall.

The irony is that as the economy slowed, interest rates began to fall and investors, shopping centers and businesses began to refinance their properties. The need for ALTA surveys actually grew as a result! It was only a matter of months before attorneys representing banks began calling our firms asking for “ALTA updates,” implying something other than a new survey.

The firms of the future will be smaller with fewer permanent staff. Fees will change. It will no longer be just about how many crews you have, but how smart you are at collecting and selling 3D data. And those firms that can find ways to use existing sources of 3D data will be even better equipped to weather the storm.

For survey firms – as is true for all industries in this economy – the way to survive is to simply be a better businessperson. Here are six important things every business can learn from the surveying industry:

#1: Control your price. There are only two ways to control your prices: have a healthy backlog of profitable work and provide valuable services to your clients.

#2: Utilize subcontractors. Have a permanent staff large enough to process the workflow and provide quality control, but maintain relationships with good subcontractors and associate firms to expand your workforce when you have a wave a work that your permanent staff can’t handle.

#3: Make profit your goal – not billing. Just because you bill a crew out at $1,000 doesn’t mean you make $1,000. Your actual profits are typically closer to $150.

#4: Don’t buy – rent, swap and borrow. If you can rent a piece of equipment for $500 and make $150, you have greatly reduced your cash flow and improved your profit margin. Take a look at all of the expensive equipment you have purchased and must pay for every day. Unused equipment sitting on the shelf is not a good investment. Swap with other firms when you can, rent when you have to, and buy when the workload demands it.

#5: Always have a contract. Make the signing of a contract the starting point for every job. Even with an established client, having a signed contract can save a lot of scope creep and misunderstanding even on the simplest jobs.

#6: Don’t cut your price without changing the scope. Many lawyers have called to tell me that my price is too high. I remind them that it’s less than their price and they don’t even have to leave the office!

Lastly and most importantly, be realistic. If your workload goes down, you must cut your overhead immediately. For most of us, this means staff, which is always the hardest thing to do.

At one point, we had to reduce our employees from a high of 45 to just seven. We have since slowly built back up, but it was this reduction in staff, combined with tight cash management and a realistic outlook, that enabled us to survive.

The key to surviving this economy – for land surveying firms, as well as all business – is to be realistic, creative and adaptable. This is what it will take to survive and grow into better times.


Tate Jones has over 40 years of experience in land and aerial surveying and was one of the country’s earliest adopters of 3D laser scanning technology. A nationally recognized expert in the field of 3D data capture, he has worked with hundreds of clients in the engineering, architectural and construction industries. Contact him at