Sensing Improvements? The Future of Lidar & UAVs

By Neil Sandler

What does the future of lidar and UAVs look like in our world?

We’re preparing this issue of xyHt just as we return from the important International LiDAR and Mapping Forum (ILMF) in Denver. Coincidentally, this issue will be widely distributed at the SPAR 3D conference and expo in Houston this April (both events are put on by our partners at Diversified Communications).

So, we reached out to Diversified’s SPAR editor par excellence, Sean Higgins, for his observations:

“If you were looking for innovation at ILMF 2017, you might have noticed that the industry didn’t make any great leaps forward this year,” he observed. “Instead, the show was a place to see incremental—but necessary—improvements.”

For UAVs, Higgins said, that means vendors have started offering much more sophisticated processing and data management tools. The major software solutions are now more fit for purpose than before. Features like real-time point cloud processing and UAV instrument monitoring were demonstrated. Expect to see more like this in the future.

Such tools will only speed the adoption of the UAV, which this year looked every inch the must-have tool for surveyors. Torin Haskell of Merrick & Co told Higgins that the systems are going to continue dropping in price, making them a “tool that must be in the tool box rather than a tool that we’d like to be in the tool box.”

Experts said that they expect better, less expensive, and smaller UAV lidar solutions in the future, driven by market demand for automotive sensors and smart city data.

Higgins also observed that single-photon lidar (SPL) and Geiger-mode lidar (GPL) case studies showed that the technologies have been making astonishing progress over the past few years and continue to improve quickly. These advanced sensors are proving useful for wide-area collects, but they may have another, less expected, effect on the industry.

Qassim Abdullah, senior geospatial data scientist with Woolpert, told Higgins that he expects a proliferation of data-licensing models like those HXGN and Harris are using for their next-generation airborne lidar systems. Instead of selling the sensors, the companies sell the final data products or else partner with customers to produce those products.

If this model becomes more prevalent, the future might bring less reliance on local computing power to process data and reduced QA staffing needs, Higgins predicted. It could also mean the growth of online marketplaces where detailed geospatial datasets can be purchased for a low cost instead of collected anew or put up for sale by surveyors who want to offset the cost of collection.

Although SPL and GML are taking the market by storm, manufacturers of conventional aerial lidar sensors (like Optech and RIEGL) were on hand, making the case for their conventional airborne lidar sensors. Judging by the improvements these companies have made over the last few years, Higgins noted, it looks like they will remain viable options for smaller-area data collects for years to come.

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