Unless your work involves carrying out land surveys, you probably won’t have heard of LiDAR before. And even if you are well-acquainted with this technology, you might not realize how much it’s improving the world we live in.
LiDAR is driving change in several different industries. In fact, you’re probably benefitting from it on a daily basis. From improved roads and railroads to impressive cityscapes that have been transformed into modern masterpieces, LiDAR has played a role in both the tiny details and the major revivals of the modern world.
What Is LiDAR Technology?
LiDAR is a type of remote sensing technology and stands for light detection and ranging. It’s used for surveying natural and urban landscapes as well as individual buildings.
LiDAR systems work by bouncing laser light pulses off of land or buildings. The LiDAR sensor then measures how long it takes for the light to hit the surface and reflect back to the sensor. The various speeds of the light pulses are then used to calculate distance and coordinates.
Each 3D coordinate collected during a LiDAR scan is known as a “point”, while the overall data from a scan is a “point cloud”. Point clouds are simply groups of coordinates, which are used to create 3D maps or images.
After a scan, the LiDAR data is uploaded to a point cloud processing software. This software translates the data from a collection of numbers into a 3D digital image.
5 Industries That Are Being Improved by LiDAR Technology
1. The Transport Industry
If you’ve noticed that road or railworks are being completed faster than usual, your local transport agency might just be using LiDAR.
LiDAR makes surveying roads and railroads a faster process. Transport agencies can quickly analyze road and railroad conditions using point cloud processing software.
LiDAR data can also be used to evaluate collision risks and calculate speed advisories based on curves in the road. It will also highlight any objects like trees, bushes, or buildings that jut out into roads or railroads, potentially posing a safety risk. Once transport corridors have been analyzed, transport agencies can set about making improvements.
But it’s not just improvements that can be sped up with LiDAR. It’s also useful when planning the construction of new transport corridors. LiDAR surveys identify terrain features, and point cloud software can strip 3D digital maps back to a bare-earth model. This gives highway planning teams a digital blank canvas to plan routes and logistics.
2. Construction and Urban Planning
LiDAR is playing a key role in construction projects of all sizes. From small-scale projects involving individual buildings to those covering entire streets, LiDAR is used to survey both interior and exterior sites. There’s no need for surveys to require multiple visits to sites — LiDAR scans are incredibly fast, so many miles can be scanned in a single day.
Digital 3D models of towns, streets, or even building interiors can be created using LiDAR data. These 3D models are used by surveyors, architects, builders, and engineers to identify existing features and examine possibilities for renovation.
The digital models created from surveys can be manipulated as well as analyzed. Ideas can be tried and tested from the safety of the virtual world. For example, urban planners can explore possible locations for features such as utility poles, street lamps, or water supplies to maximize the practicality of street layouts. Builders and engineers can also try out structural ideas for building interiors.
LiDAR scans are also being used more and more by forensic teams investigating road accidents and crimes.
After accidents, roads often need to be closed while a map of the crime scene is made for later analysis. This usually takes hours and costs tens of thousands of dollars. In the UK, motorway closures due to accidents have previously cost the government £1 billion a year. But with LiDAR, this information can be gathered for a fraction of the cost. LiDAR systems are mounted to vehicles so that accident scenes can be scanned quickly. As a result, roads can be reopened as soon as possible.
LiDAR’s role in forensics also extends beyond road accidents. Forensic teams have started using LiDAR to locate unmarked graves and missing bodies. Over time, graves shrink, causing depressions in the ground. These depressions can be identified during a series of LiDAR scans. Although this is a more morbid use of LiDAR, this could help speed up the time it takes to close a case and bring closure to victims’ families.
Archaeologists too can benefit from LiDAR by using it to find potential excavation sites. Often, sites of interest are buried not only beneath soil and earth but also beneath dense vegetation, making them harder to find.
The light pulses used by LiDAR systems are thin enough to penetrate gaps in tree canopies and vegetation, so the terrain beneath can be surveyed. Point cloud software can then use this data to produce a bare-earth topographic map.
Archaeologists can analyze bare-earth maps and identify specific features such as mounds and field boundaries, changes in vegetation, and depressions and trends. It’s these features that indicate to the trained archaeologist’s eye that an area might have been the site of prehistoric activity.
5. Environmental Science and Conservation
Environmental science and conservation are more important now than ever for keeping our world healthy and safe, and LiDAR can help with these efforts on a number of levels.
LiDAR’s ability to “see through” vegetation and tree canopies isn’t just useful for archeology — it also makes LiDAR the perfect tool for forestry management and observation. It can be used to measure the structure and height of forest canopies, canopy density, and the health of ground beneath trees. By monitoring forests, conservationists can keep an eye on biodiversity and increase efforts to protect and preserve rare species of plant and ancient trees.
LiDAR data from forest surveys can also be used to predict forest fires. By analyzing the forest’s fuel capacity, experts can use LiDAR data to predict how wildfires may spread. They can then prevent the fire from spreading and put safety measures in place (such as evacuation) as soon as possible to limit the risk.
Measurements collected from LiDAR scans can also be used by environmental scientists to calculate the root expanse of trees. Knowing how far tree roots extend under the ground allows construction work to be planned around the roots. This prevents projects from being disrupted by unexpected tree roots and means construction is less likely to lead to trees being cut down and uprooted.