NV5 Provides Integrated UAV Lidar Mapping Services

This is an interview with Lukas Fraser, LiDAR Specialist and Matt O’Brien, UAV Director, at the NV5 office in San Diego, CA.

  1. Can you please provide your personal background and experience with UAV’s, LiDAR and 3D laser scanning technology, as well as a brief history of the growth of your company? Please include an idea of the timelines.

In December 2017, NV5 acquired Skyscene, a leading provider of Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) flight services, headquartered in San Diego, California. Integrating NV5’s LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) mapping technology with Skyscene’s UAV flight services positions, NV5 has become one of the leading UAV LiDAR and aerial mapping service providers in the nation.

Photo of NV5 VUX-1


The founders of Skyscene, Matt O’Brien and Kurt Kathol, had years of UAV mapping experience and now work as the directors of NV5’s UAV Group. Shortly after the acquisition, they brought on Lukas Fraser to handle all of the LiDAR processing. He has a degree in Geodesy and Geomatics Engineering with experience in terrestrial, mobile, and aerial LiDAR processing, using the RIEGL LMS-Q680i, VQ-780i, and VQ-1560i airborne laser scanners. Since the UAV group began in December of 2017, employee numbers has grown from four up to nine. 

  1. Can you provide an inventory of the 3D surveying and mapping hardware and software that you currently use, as well as any other related products? Please include an idea of the timeline of purchases.

NV5 San Diego Office:


        RIEGL VUX-1UAV with Applanix AP20: purchased in 2017


Applanix POSPac MMS, RIEGL Post-Processing Software Suite (RiPROCESS, SDCImport utilizing RiMTA, RiWORLD, and RiPRECISION UAV), LASTools, Microstation, TerraScan, TopoDOT, AutoCAD Civil 3D, Power Line Systems (PLS-CADD), Potree, Leica Cyclone, CloudCompare. 

  1. What attracted you to the use of RIEGL hardware and software? Did you look at other products? Why did you choose RIEGL?

We have not been able to find anything that matches the quality of the RIEGL systems that will fit onto a UAV. Combined with the GNSS receiver and IMU from Applanix, we have developed a workflow for producing survey-grade deliverables consistently and efficiently. We have done a significant amount of testing to determine the best way to collect and process data. From initialization methods to flight line overlap and pulse density, we have a specific workflow that is followed for various types of projects.

One of the keys to our success has been working closely with our survey department on projects requiring a high degree of accuracy. The accuracy of an aerial survey depends in large part on the ground control and check shots used to position and check the data. We work closely with the surveyors in our office to ensure that the data collected on the ground will allow us to achieve the required accuracy for every project, and often pass our projects along to them for a second check before delivery.

graphic of NV5 Contour Map

Contour Map

The USGS’s LiDAR Base Specification and ASPRS’s Accuracy Standards for Digital Geospatial Data provide clear directives on how to calculate and report mapping statistics such as relative and absolute accuracy, and we make sure to follow them. In the past, the UAV industry has had a reputation of promising unrealistic levels of accuracy and failing to follow national accuracy guidelines. We have worked extremely hard to meet these guidelines and educate our clients on what they should be expecting in terms of accuracy reporting.

UAV’s are just another platform for collecting aerial data so there is no reason that we should not be held to the same standards as the manned aircraft industry. Our VUX-1UAV allows us to obtain high levels of accuracy, and holds up to the level of scrutiny required to prove to land surveyors and other skeptical geomatics professionals that our data meets and exceeds their project accuracy requirements.

  1. How do you integrate RIEGL products into your workflows?

NV5 started integrating RIEGL products into our workflows nearly two years ago. It started with Matt O’Brien and Kurt Kathol working with the experts at RIEGL to design and incorporate the VUX-1UAV system onto the DJI M600 Pro platform. With everyone’s help, NV5 took flight on our first projects in May 2017.

Since then, NV5 has incorporated RIEGL hardware and software applications on all our airborne mapping projects. With the use of RIEGL LiDAR scanners, we have been able to complete projects faster while creating survey-grade products. Through the use of ground survey, we are able to check all of our data and provide deliverables to clients, along with meaningful quality assurance reports proving that project specifications were met.

  1. Can you provide a brief overview of two or three of the projects where you made use of RIEGL’s UAV technology, in particular the VUX-1UAV?

High-Density Power Line Survey

Image of Power Transmission Corridor

Power Transmission Corridor

A utility company needed to obtain LiDAR and imagery for a segment of transmission line. The timing for the collection was critically short, and the client wanted the project completed and delivered as a PLS-CADD model in two weeks. We performed the field survey, including establishing survey control, the LiDAR flight and the aerial photography collection. In accordance with our internal and the client standards, we processed the photographs into an ortho-photo and the LiDAR into classified data for PLS-CADD.

Image of Powerlines


We are constantly improving our LiDAR collection and classification procedures for specific applications. For this project, there were a number of large rock outcrops within the corridor that needed classification. NV5 staff developed a semi-automated classification procedure using Terrascan, LASTools and Python, accomplishing in a few hours what would have taken days to do manually. By creating efficiencies, as well as following standard procedures, we were able to deliver the project well within the two-week turn-around requested by the client.

Topographic Map and Planimetrics

Over the course of the past year, we have completed dozens of topographic maps with planimetrics and contours. Recently, we collected low-altitude imagery and LiDAR for a 3-mile section of urban roadway in San Diego. Using the imagery, we drafted all of the visible features and markout for the area in AutoCAD Civil 3D.

Image of 3D Mapping

3D Mapping

Due to the high-density of our LiDAR dataset (200+ points per square meter), we were able to create 3D breaklines on curbs, retaining walls and other vertical features using TopoDOT. This allowed us to thin the point cloud significantly before creating a TIN surface with contours without losing any definition on grade breaks. Doing projects this way minimizes the amount of time field crews have to spend on roadways and other potentially dangerous areas.

As-built Revit Building Model (Image 5 – RGB: terrestrial & Grayscale Intensity: UAV)

It is often necessary to utilize different laser scanning technology and work with other companies in order to get clients what they are looking for. In this case, we teamed up with DeWalt Corporation and Nexus 3D Consulting to create a 3D model of a high-rise building. Our FAA certified pilots took extra care when flight planning to ensure pedestrian safety would be maintained at all times.

Image of Building Model

Building Model

After receiving authorization for flights within the airspace, the pilots established a position from which the drone was kept within line of sight at all times and could monitor the area for any incoming air traffic. Two white LED lights were positioned on the drone to display positioning to any air traffic in the area.

Once all the safety checks were complete on the aircraft, the pilots were cleared to launch and collect all of the data quickly and safely. After collection, the data was processed, georeferenced into the site’s local coordinate system, and then combined with the terrestrial LiDAR to create an as-built Revit model. Click here for more information on the finished product.

  1. What do you see in the future for the use of 3D technology on your projects?

We are continuously working with our external clients and internal departments to identify problems they are facing and what solutions we can bring to the table. As discussion around the use of terrestrial, mobile, and aerial 3D data in the geospatial industry grows, more surveyors and engineers are becoming aware of the potential for the time savings and added value available from collecting 3D datasets.

Surveyors have adopted GNSS RTK technology as simply another tool to be considered along with total stations and levels depending on the project requirements and we believe that 3D technology is gaining traction in the same way. Every year, more geomatics professionals are adopting the use of this technology and expanding its uses.

We have also had a growing demand for ways that clients can interact with data without any external software or previous experience. Using Potree, we are converting our point clouds into a format that can be hosted online and viewed by clients using Google Chrome.

The future is bright for 3D technology and it should be considered as a viable option by everyone involved in the surveying and mapping industry.

For more information on NV5, click here.

For more information on RIEGL, click here.

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