When the 46th Test Wing's Air Force SEEK EAGLE Office purchased a 3-D laser scanner system six months ago, they had no idea how much of an impact the system would make.

An image of an F-15 from SEEK EAGLE's 3D scanner currently in use at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.
(Photo: U.S. Air Force)

"This is state of the art," said Mark Hillman, lead engineer at the SEEK EAGLE. "We are breaking ground for the military."

The approximately $150,000 Leica HDS 7000 3-D laser scanner and Rapidform reverse engineering software program was purchased to quickly build accurate digital models of Air Force aircraft and weapons for use in aircraft-weapon compatibility analyses.

"Before, we had to implement the real tests to determine how capable a system would be," said Paul Collins, lead contract engineer for SEEK EAGLE. "Now we build models for use in simulated test environments for a good indication of the outcome, before we go into actual testing, which can save hundreds of thousands of dollars."

After one month of trial scans, they were able to use it to quickly scan an entire aircraft. "Four years ago, it took six people two weeks to manually collect 3-D data for the A-10 aircraft," said Collins. "With the laser scanner, two people can collect the same amount of data in two days, a 93 percent reduction."

Additionally, the accuracy of the laser is +/- 0.01. Using the manual method, the accuracy was at best +/- 0.03, according to Collins.

The data collection process involves positioning the scanner at various positions around the airplane. The scanner automatically sweeps a laser beam across the aircraft to generate a 3-D point cloud.

"Any areas where good data is not collected, such as shadows, are depicted as black holes in the scanner software requiring the scanner to be re-positioned for optimal results", said Collins.

After scanning an aircraft, SEEK EAGLE engineers use Rapidform reverse engineering software and the 3-D point clouds to construct solid digital models.

"Improvements in using Rapidform to construct the solid models from the scanned data have been significant", said Collins.

The SEEK EAGLE engineering team didn't go into this venture lightly. They started with requirements from the entire Air Force SEEK EAGLE Office and did an in-depth comparative analysis of the viable systems before choosing their current combination of hardware and software. Overall, the scanner and software has reduced their costs by about 75 percent.