LiDAR Technology & New Indian Geo-Data Rules
LiDAR Technology and New Indian Geospatial Data Guidelines
Bharat Lohani, Professor, IIT Kanpur & Founding Director, Geokno India Pvt. Ltd. Lidar tech.
On 15th February this year Indian government published its New Geospatial Data Guideline. The news left all working in geospatial and related sectors, and especially in high-resolution data, totally awestruck and full of disbelief.
Collection and dissemination of high-resolution data, particularly aerial photographs and LiDAR have been highly regulated in India. When I was pursuing my doctoral research in LiDAR in the UK in 1998, I could see the utility of the technology to India and started pursuing government and private enterprises to invest in this area. The idea and possibilities excited all, but none would dare to invest considering uncertainty due to unambiguous and restrictive regulations. I recall when I tried to obtain LiDAR data of an Indian city for my research from a University I was told that data were kept inside a specially built vault and one could not copy data, process data, view data or run a software on data for the fear of violating security concerns.
So was the case with a few LiDAR campaigns that were carried out during early 2000s. The only agency that started capturing LiDAR data in India around 2007 was a government undertaking-NRSC. However, an owner of the data was oath-bounded not to share data with any and submit data safety certificates every year. A few LiDAR companies including Geokno started capturing aerial LiDAR data and using these for problem solving since 2014 onwards. A large number of projects have been done in these years and the utility of the technology has been established by these companies in several verticals.
Through lot of education and information dissemination the user community in India is now fully aware of the uses of LiDAR. However, carrying out an aerial LiDAR and photographic survey remained the toughest task due to regulations. The advantage of speed offered by aerial LiDAR was marred by the array of permissions that would take 4 to 6 or more months to come. There are instances where permission was denied even at the last stages. Similarly, restrictions on sharing data over public platform curtailed the mobile or terrestrial LiDAR industry.
The regulation regime had severe adverse effect on the development of the airborne surveying field in India. The first casualty was the subject itself, as it was not taught or researched in Universities as there were no data to practice upon. Due to relatively easier reach to satellite data in India most of research and education were limited to satellite remote sensing. This caused irreparable damage to capacity building in airborne technologies.
The other casualty was that India missed the opportunity of using superior aerial survey data for infrastructure projects, disaster management, water resources, city planning and relied on slower and less-reliable ground-based surveys thus resulting in delays and cost-escalations. In a few cases where aerial survey data were obtained their use could not be maximized due to data sharing limitations. Aerial survey business did not pick up at all in India neither any international company chose to invest in India.
Fortunately, the new data guidelines are in total contrast to the earlier regulations. The basic pillars of the new data guidelines are (i) freedom to an Indian entity for data capture and dissemination at any resolution, and (ii) accessibility to public-funded data to all Indian entities. While the implementation document is yet to come in public, but considering the enthusiasm shown by the government, it is assured that the spirit of the guidelines will be retained.
The new data policy is going to have a multitude of effects on Indian geospatial business and especially on airborne mapping including drones. The Indian customers today clearly recognize the usefulness of aerial LiDAR and photographic data. The National High-Speed Rail Corridor Limited (NHSRCL) carried out Final Location Survey (FLS) of its first project between Mumbai-Ahmedabad using aerial LiDAR. Satisfied with the output and the usefulness for project execution the NHSRCL has now decided to carry out FLS survey of all incoming six corridors using LiDAR.
The same has been the case with the Ministry of Railways which is doing FLS of Dedicated Freight Corridors, Leh-Manali-Bilaspur and other corridors using aerial LiDAR. National Hydrology Project, aiming at generating 50 cm vertical accuracy DEM, is using aerial LiDAR technology for over 60,000 sq km. The Ministry of Forest and Environment is carrying out pilot projects across all states for forest and forest floor mapping using LiDAR. There are several other projects which are being planned using aerial LiDAR technology. Though India has excellent remote sensing program and also the Survey of India has mapped entire country at 1:50k scale, still the majority of India (~90%) is not yet mapped at higher resolution (scales like 1:10,000 to 1:1000). Moreover, the need of high-resolution data is being felt severely for modern uses like 5G, autonomous vehicles, drone delivery, carbon stock estimation, precision agriculture, 3D city modelling and traditional applications like cadastral survey, disaster management, infrastructural projects, irrigation, and water-resources. The overall geospatial data market estimated for India is over USD 14 Billion by the end of this decade.
With the new policy in place, India is going to witness intensive activity in high resolution data capture, dissemination, and solution development. This will include aerial LiDAR, drone LiDAR, Mobile LiDAR, and similar technologies. The existing players will look forward to scaling up their business to cater to the increased demand while several new players will enter the market who hitherto were sitting on the fence due to regulations. A range of startups will flourish on solution development using publicly available high-resolution data. The new policy mandates that high resolution data can be generated and disseminated only by the majority-owned Indian entities and the data should be housed in servers placed on Indian soil. This will promote international players, who have necessary experience and capital, to seek strategic partnerships with Indian companies which will lead to a win-win case for these companies and Indian customers.
The coming few years are going to be interesting for industry, researchers and the users of geospatial data, especially the high-resolution LiDAR and photographic data in India. Good things are contagious-and soon it is expected that the other countries in Indian sub-continent would also follow the suit thus building the largest block of geospatial data market in this part of the world.
Dr. Bharat Lohani is Professor at IIT Kanpur with research interests in generation, processing and application of high-resolution LiDAR and other sensor data, including the use of deep learning for data segmentation. He is also Founder-Director at Geokno India Pvt. Ltd., the first total LiDAR company of India, which has successfully completed several challenging LiDAR mapping and application projects in India.
Dr. Bharat Lohani, firstname.lastname@example.org
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