Asian Surveying & Mapping
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Professor Manfred F. Buchroithner (Technische Universität Dresden, Germany), Professor Biswajeet Pradhan (Universiti Putra Malaysia, Malaysia), Professor Donald A. McFarlane (Claremont College, USA), and Associate Professor Joyce Lundberg (Carleton University, Canada), and Park Director Mr. Haidar Ali Fig. 1 – Structures built by the locals for the collection of bird’s nest.(Niah National Park Administration), together embarked on this project to explore the various aspects of this extraordinary landform. Also joining the group were Head of Marketing Beng Chieh Quah and Application Engineer Anthony Lur from FARO Asia-Pacific.

Upon commissioning the trip, Professor Buchroithner had invited FARO Asia-Pacific to join the expedition and to provide technical and equipment support in 3D measurement. FARO is a global technology company that develops and markets computer-aided 3D coordinate measurement devices and software. Known for its portable equipment capable of high-precision 3D measurement and documentation, FARO was considered the perfect complement to this collaboration. Professor Buchroithner shared, “I’ve had the chance to work with FARO in the past, and I was very impressed with the advanced capabilities that their products possess! For this study, I was again confident that the FARO Laser Scanner would address our specific needs.” 

About Niah Caves

Located on the Niah River, around 110 km south-west of Miri, the Niah National Park is a National Historic Monument. While it is one of the smaller national parks in Sarawak, Niah National Park’s significance is not in its size but its substance. The park has the oldest human remains within Southeast Asia, as well as relics of prehistoric man, indicating the earliest signs of civilization in the region. At the well-known Painted Cave, archaeologists have also uncovered a gravesite with paintings of red human figures on the cave walls. 

faro3Fig. 2 – Enroute to the Niah Caves scan site.At present, the Niah Great Cave is home only to bats, swiftlets and other adapted forms of life.

These inhabitants bear attraction for the locals, who make trips to the cave to collect guano (bat droppings) and bird’s nests for sale.

Spanning over 60 m in height and 250 m in width, the cave, essentially a large chamber with a network of interconnected tunnels, has tall primitive bamboo structures within it.

Built by the locals, the structures help them gain access to the bird’s nests at the top of the cave. Deeper into the cave, the air becomes evidently still and light reduces to pitch-black darkness. 

Getting to Niah Caves

Approximately a two-hour drive away from Miri, the Niah National Park HQ served as the base camp from which the team of seven set off. From this base camp, a short river crossing followed by a 3 km hike on foot had to be completed before arriving at the entrance to the Great Cave. The hilly terrain, thick vegetation, and winding trail meant that the trek was by no means an easy one. Fortunately, the FARO faro4Fig. 3 – The compact and portable FARO Focus3D Laser Scanner requires no additional equipment.Laser Scanner Focus3D weighs no more than 5 kg, and doesn’t require an additional laptop, large battery packs or Digital SLR camera for it to capture data. For these reasons, the portability of the scanner was indeed a major plus to the team during the expedition.

Laser Scanning in Action

Once the team arrived at the site, the survey work began. FARO helped to deploy the scanner with directions from the academic professionals on the various areas that required scanning.

As each of the professors had experience with other survey equipment in the past, they initially articulated their concerns, which included the sufficiency of the scanner’s battery life, scanning distance capability, resolution of the results, and speed of each scan. “Our collective past experiences made us very aware of difficulties that could arise in this study,” revealed Professor Buchroithner. “However, challenging as the scanning requirements were, the Focus3D eventually put our concerns to rest.” 
Given the environmental conditions, the expedition team met with some difficulties related to the inherent nature of a cave. The areas of interest that needed to be scanned were broad and uneven, with multiple large cavities in the ceiling, as well as large ravines on the ground and walls. In addition, the extreme low-light conditions, and soft, unstable ground composed of layers of bat guano meant that any scanning device would likely be stretched to the furthest of its capabilities. Despite that, the Focus3D handled it with relative ease. 
faro5Fig. 4 – (Left) Focus3D scanning the cave with white spheres of reference for data alignment. (Right) Setting up of the laser scanner

Multiple scans had to be made to ensure the data was complete. This was due to the poor line of sight caused by the dim lighting, as well as the drastically-reduced scanning distance caused by the terrain constraints. In spite of the tough conditions that seemed to work against it, the Focus3D still managed to perform accurate scans of even the deep ceiling cavities in near complete darkness. With the onboard computer and inclinometer, each setup was quick and fast, allowing every preview and actual scan to be completed within just 15 minutes. Ultimately, the efficiency and accuracy of the scanner enabled the team to complete their planned objectives in much less time than expected. 

faro6Fig. 5 – Sample 3D grey scans acquired on Day 1.Expedition Outcome

At the end of the expedition, the Focus3D successfully produced detailed 3D representation scans of the cave system for the sections that were needed, including various nesting sites for the resident bats and swiftlets in the Great Cave.

The professors were all extremely pleased with the scan results obtained by the Focus3D, as the amount of detail captured by the scanner exceeded their initial expectations. In fact, the professors and Park Administration have plans underway to develop virtual tours for the Park’s website using the scan reports. 

Individually, the professors are convinced that the Focus3D will continue to serve as an important tool for their ongoing research activities, and help enhance their respective areas of study. “The Focus3D enabled us to collect valuable data on this trip,” said Professor Buchroithner. “We each acknowledge the Focus3D to be a powerful tool. Given the option, we’re more than happy to work with FARO products again.” The ability to document 3D measurement data for future analysis and consumption was exactly what the team needed, and the Focus3D truly delivered the desired results for a successful expedition. 

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