Lidar Surveying is Gradually Being Democratized
Simon Ritchie, based in London is tracking the democratisation of Lidar Surveying, but his research shows that the pace is still slow, despite the emergence of the price crushing, autonomous vehicle market.
Lidar has been used for land surveying for fifty years or more. In days gone by the scanners were heavy and had to be carried by a light aircraft. Collecting survey data involved hiring a plane fitted with a scanner and putting a team of people on board to run it. That’s expensive and only feasible for government agencies. The rest of us had to make do with any data that they released.
Here in the UK, the Environment Agency has been running Lidar surveys for years, steadily increasing the coverage and publishing the point clouds for free on their website. They collect the data for forestry and flood management, but it’s used by the rest of us for farming, archaeology and construction. Most of the data is at 1m resolution, which is not always detailed enough for those uses.
Change is in the Air
That situation is slowly changing. New Lidar scanners are appearing which are cheaper, easier to use and light enough to be carried by a drone. It’s now feasible for smaller organisations to run their own surveys.
That sounds exciting, but cheaper, lighter and smaller are relative terms. Professional Lidar surveying scanners are now available for a mere $100,000 or so. They weigh maybe 7Kg. A scanner of that weight can be carried by a drone, but a very expensive one. So large construction companies can buy their own equipment and run their own surveys to order, but it’s still a big boy’s game.
To see how things could go further, think about another remote sensing technology, the metal detector. Originally designed to find landmines, metal detectors are used by builders, archaeologists and treasure hunters to find all sorts of buried objects. I doubt if the people who invented them envisaged that. Those uses emerged when the equipment became cheap enough for amateurs to play with it. So I’m interested in what will happen when the same kind of people can afford a Lidar scanner and a drone to carry it. I would say that there’s a magic cost limit of about $2,000. At that price a few well-healed enthusiasts will buy the equipment. Below that, the cheaper it gets, the bigger the market becomes.
Mass Market Driving Down Prices
Driverless cars are expected to use Lidar for guidance and collision avoidance. That market is potentially huge and to address it, “Lidar-on-a-chip” has emerged. That’s a complete scanner in a single integrated circuit using solid-state lasers. For vehicle navigation the scanner needs to be fairly accurate. One of them promises to be able to “count the leaves on the trees”. Once in mass production, they should cost a few hundred dollars or less and weigh just a few grams, so they could be carried by a very cheap drone. Right now they are still in evaluation by car manufacturers, who are paying upwards of $85,000 per unit to try them out. They don’t work the same way as conventional land survey scanners, but it may be possible to re-purpose them. The devil is in the detail.
Jeff Fagerman has had some success with Quanergy’s solid state scanner.
Some cheap Lidar scanners are already available, used for things like collision avoidance in drones. Whether these are accurate enough for land surveying is another matter.
Where are We Today?
Are there any affordable Lidar survey solutions available today? Depending on your definition of affordable, I found one, on paper at least. It’s the LD-MRS from the German company sick.com: https://bit.ly/2pYFnI5. A salesman at a trade show gave me a guide price of $8000. It weighs 1Kg. That’s a bit heavy for your average drone, but you could use something like a DJI Matrice 600, at around $6,000. You may also need a base station for accurate positioning. In theory that gives you a complete flying instrument for under $20,000. Unfortunately, I haven’t managed to get any information out of the manufacturer beyond what is on their website.
If that device is all it seems to be, it would represent a step change in the cost of Lidar surveying equipment, taking it out of the realm of the mega corporations. It’s way too expensive for a hobbyist, but a medium-sized architecture practice could afford one.
Apart from that, so far I’ve seen lots of cheap Lidar scanners that are useful for other things but not for land surveying, and I’ve seen a few scanners that might be interesting in a year or two when they get out of the labs and into volume production.
So there’s revolution in the air, but I don’t think it’s happened just yet.
Simon Ritchie is a UK-based software engineer interested in remote sensing. Simon has explored the falling price of Lidar scanners in more detail in the Lidar Mapping discussion group: http://bit.ly/2COINEP. He recently started the London Remote Sensing meetup which will meet monthly in that city: http://bit.ly/2OYFyC8.
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