Active scanners emit some kind of radiation or light and detect its reflection or radiation passing through object in order to probe an object or environment. Possible types of emissions used include light, ultrasound or x-ray.
The time-of-flight 3D laser scanner is an active scanner that uses laser light to probe the subject. At the heart of this type of scanner is a time-of-flight laser rangefinder. The laser rangefinder finds the distance of a surface by timing the round-trip time of a pulse of light. A laser is used to emit a pulse of light and the amount of time before the reflected light is seen by a detector is measured. Since the speed of light is known, the round-trip time determines the travel distance of the light, which is twice the distance between the scanner and the surface. If is the round-trip time, then distance is equal to . The accuracy of a time-of-flight 3D laser scanner depends on how precisely we can measure the time: 3.3 picoseconds (approx.) is the time taken for light to travel 1 millimeter.
The laser rangefinder only detects the distance of one point in its direction of view. Thus, the scanner scans its entire field of view one point at a time by changing the range finder's direction of view to scan different points. The view direction of the laser rangefinder can be changed either by rotating the range finder itself, or by using a system of rotating mirrors. The latter method is commonly used because mirrors are much lighter and can thus be rotated much faster and with greater accuracy. Typical time-of-flight 3D laser scanners can measure the distance of 10,000~100,000 points every second.
Time-of-flight devices are also available in a 2D configuration. This is referred to as a time-of-flight camera.
Triangulation based 3D laser scanners are also active scanners that use laser light to probe the environment. With respect to time-of-flight 3D laser scanner the triangulation laser shines a laser on the subject and exploits a camera to look for the location of the laser dot. Depending on how far away the laser strikes a surface, the laser dot appears at different places in the camera's field of view. This technique is called triangulation because the laser dot, the camera and the laser emitter form a triangle. The length of one side of the triangle, the distance between the camera and the laser emitter is known. The angle of the laser emitter corner is also known. The angle of the camera corner can be determined by looking at the location of the laser dot in the camera's field of view. These three pieces of information fully determine the shape and size of the triangle and gives the location of the laser dot corner of the triangle. In most cases a laser stripe, instead of a single laser dot, is swept across the object to speed up the acquisition process. The National Research Council of Canada was among the first institutes to develop the triangulation based laser scanning technology in 1978.