Bringing Airborne LiDAR to the Commercial Market


Puts everything into 3D world which provides more robust measurements of assets

When the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released the highly anticipated rules governing the operation of small UAS (sUAS) for commercial purposes, everything changed for drone and sensor manufacturers, aerial data service providers and forward thinking, innovative businesses. Scheduled to take effect by the end of August, the most significant changes for these groups is that commercial operations will no longer require approval by exemption, which has typically taken months to secure.  This means increased efficiency for commercial operators who will not be required to secure airworthiness certification for their sUAS or a manned aircraft pilot’s license. Eliminating these barriers is a significant win that will quickly open up the skies to more operators.

In the past, to have an aerial survey or aerial mapping business it required a huge amount of capital to invest in a manned aircraft and the sensors that can cost in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars. So the group that had the capabilities to fly real mapping projects was very limited. With the advent of drones, sensors have become more cost effective and miniaturized and now with the new commercial rule opening the market, the increased competition will provide an avenue for new players to get involved with fresh ideas on how this data can be collected and utilized across the commercial and academic space.

There has always been a group of people who want to collect LiDAR data over small areas of interest, or in remote locations. While LiDAR technology and its benefits has been well proven, due to the cost of mobilizing a manned aircraft and cost of the sensor, people have been unable to take advantage of the technology. Drones are changing that mindset by allowing a wide range of users to mobilize quickly and efficiently in areas where it is either not possible, due to the site location, or simply not economically feasible (the usual case) to use a manned aircraft.

Opening up access to the drone market means that companies, from the large engineering firms to the family size mapping companies, will be able to add LiDAR to their arsenal of tools, and select companies, like DataMapper, are providing the infrastructure to handle the vast amount of data for those flying UAV-based LiDAR. Beyond just the commercial space, this advancement in regulation and technology in parallel is also going to open up space for the academic world to greatly expand their research with LiDAR and take the downstream processing and product deliverables to the next level for the market.

In this photo above, the Lancaster drone from PrecisionHawk is outfitted with dual-frequency GPS and swappable LiDAR in payload bay.

In this photo above, the Lancaster drone from PrecisionHawk is outfitted with dual-frequency GPS and swappable LiDAR in payload bay.


The fact that LiDAR is still a relatively heavy sensor with high power consumption compared to standard cameras, means aerial LiDAR for drones is going to continue to be specialized at its start. There is a misconception that you can buy an off the shelf drone or an off the shelf LiDAR and just start flying. At this stage in technology development, LiDAR mapping requires a specialized drone equipped with dual frequency GPS and inertial measurement unit along with a configured sensor to work with that specific drone. In the future, it will absolutely become more of an out of the box solution, but at this point, particularly due to the complexity of collecting the data from the drone and the complexity of working with the data, it is recommended if you want to get into this space you should rely on one of the few companies who have done the testing and refined it.

Today, the benefit for these drone-based LiDAR systems is being proven on the engineering and construction side as well as for applications that contain volumetrics such as mining site or landfills. Because of their relatively small area and the fact that they are generally away from populated areas, drones can be flown easily and legally.

orchirdThere are also a number of applications that PrecisionHawk has been actively developing in agriculture for smaller fields and at test sites where LiDAR can be an extremely effective tool in research and development. A couple of agricultural benefits of drone LiDAR include the collection of digital surface and elevation models, production of crop height analytics to a higher degree of accuracy, calculation of yield based on the biomass that can be identified from point clouds as well as building on top of existing algorithms for more advanced crop counting, health and yield assessment.

One of the current drawbacks, whether you’re collecting aerial imagery with a manned aircraft, satellite or drone is the inability to accurately map the surface beneath vegetation. UAS-based LiDAR systems are providing those surface maps and generating contours to engineering level accuracy for mapping from watershed studies, water runoff, design build applications and 1:20 and 1:40 scale planimetrics.

Another drawback with current LiDAR, as opposed to aerial imagery derived products, is the inability to automatically process the data. At this point LiDAR data is still very heavy on the manual work to filter down to a usable product. The goal is to develop automated algorithms that take the raw, point cloud and turn it into an actionable product instantly, without needing a lot, if any manual input.

As regulations progress and companies/users request experimental exemptions from the FAA to fly over larger areas at higher altitudes and at extended or beyond visual line of sight, the demand for LiDAR units will continue to grow as the units themselves go down in weight, footprint and power consumption.


Author- Matt Coleman, VP at PrecisionHawk


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