UAV LIDAR and the 400 ft FAA Ceiling Limitation

When Jeff Fagerman, CEO and Founder of LiDARUSA provides his insights on an important topic like UAV lidar it is a good idea to take a few minutes to read what he has to say.

Editor’s Note – This is one of the first documented examples of how the autonomous vehicle start-ups are putting pressure on the lidar manufacturers. It is happening.

Jeff Fagerman on UAV Lidar

Jeff Fagerman on UAV Lidar

UAV’s are changing the way mapping is being performed. While using standard RGB cameras is by far the most prevalent use for mapping on a UAV, lidar is gaining momentum as the audience demands points on the ground. Unlike cameras that have a virtually unlimited range, lidar systems are active sensors designed to operate within a well-defined range.

At this time (fall of 2018), practical UAV use is limited by the FAA to a 400 ft ceiling. Over the past several years only a single lidar manufacturer has been able to provide a suitable UAV-borne sensor for 1 ft (or better) contour mapping from heights of 250 to 400 ft (or more). After patiently waiting for almost three years, the Quanergy M8 has matured enough to be useful in this same range. Hooray!


Who is Quanergy? They are probably the first unicorn in the autonomous car lidar market. Some of you may have read the disparaging article published a few months ago about Quanergy by Bloomberg entitled How a Billion-Dollar Autonomous Vehicle Startup Lost Its Way. It was not a flattering review and I think it really missed the point.

The article set out to painstakingly identify as many apparent failures and short comings which Quanergy has experienced over the past several years. My interpretation of the same time frame and happenings is a bit different.

Image of Passes flown at 400 ft AGL, over 650 ft wide using UAV lidar

A screen shot of two Passes flown at 400 ft AGL, over 650 ft wide using UAV lidar

Obviously building a lidar unit is not trivial and the undertaking, like most things that are worthwhile, is going to be fraught with trials and tribulations. Just because Quanergy lost employees, missed certain success-oriented schedules, fell short on specifications, etc., doesn’t mean it lost its way. It means it set high goals.

Hard work and persistence in the face of such challenges may seem like futility to others not experienced with such challenges, but to the committed and strong of heart it is not unexpected. This is where sound, strong, committed leadership makes a big difference.

For our part, and that of our customers seeking a longer range, mapping quality lidar sensor, we are some of the early benefactors from Quanergy’s efforts. The M8 weighs in at around 900g. This alone makes it possible to fit it to a system that isn’t necessarily a “heavy-lift” UAV. Sure, it is too heavy for a system with a payload of only 500 to 1000g (which happens to be vast majority of UAV’s on the market) but it fits on those with 1.5 to 2.5kg payloads and that is still a pretty big market. It easily fits on the 5 to 6kg lift systems.

photo of A Quanergy M8 UAV Lidar ready-to-fly system on a DJI M200

A Quanergy M8 UAV Lidar ready-to-fly system on a DJI M200

M8 UAV Lidar Specifications

The size isn’t the key though. It’s the 150m range. This range is what makes it possible to fly at 400 ft AGL. It has to have the rest of the key features as well. This includes sufficient point density (up to 420,000 pts/sec), two and even three returns possible, a FOV of 20 x 360 deg in 8-lines, and an accuracy of 2 to 3 cm.

Of course, if it were exorbitantly expensive it wouldn’t be of much value to us in most cases, and this is definitely a bonus – it’s well under $10,000 as a standalone unit. This makes it an excellent candidate to be part of a UAV mapping system.

While the M8, like most other lidar units burning up the tabloids, was built primarily for the auto industry, it just so happens that it makes a great tool for the mapping professional. Its performance has demonstrated that it can clearly be used to do 1 ft, or better, contour collection from 300 to 400 ft AGL.

It isn’t the most accurate system, doesn’t have the greatest range, isn’t the cheapest, nor the highest data rate, but it is a great piece of technology offering the right combination of features to do a wide range of surveying jobs. Don’t forget, it can just as easily be used to map from a ground vehicle as from a UAV so it’s a great for asset and roadway work as well.

Looking Ahead

More scanners are coming. There are already a few other scanners capable of scanning in this same range, but none of them offer the whole package like the M8. Each scanner has its place with key differentiating features. We’re happy to say the M8 has found a nice place in our workshop.

Jeff Fagerman, CEO LidarUSA

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