Researchers Promote Use Of Mobile LIDAR
March 16, 2013

Researchers Promote Use Of Mobile LIDAR

April Flowers for — Your Universe Online

What if you could drive down a road a few times and gather more data in an hour about the surrounding landscape than a team of surveyors could gather in a month?

Mobile LIDAR is a powerful technology, only a few years old, which has the potential to do exactly that. It promises to change the way we see, study and record the world around us. Mobile LIDAR will have applications in transportation, hydrology, forestry, virtual tourism and construction. Not bad for a technology that almost no one knows anything about right now.

A new report on the uses and current technology of mobile LIDAR may change that. The report, spearheaded by Oregon State University (OSU), has recently been completed and presented to the Transportation Research Board of the National Academy of Sciences. The authors hope it will help more managers and experts understand, use and take advantage of the capabilities of mobile LIDAR.

Currently, there are restraints on the full exploitation of this remarkable technology, as too few experts are trained to use it, too few educational programs exist to teach it, and mountains of data are produced that can swamp the computer capabilities of even large agencies. Additionally, the lack of a consistent data management protocol clogs the sharing of information between systems.

“A lot of people and professionals still don´t even know what mobile LIDAR is or what it can do,” said Michael Olsen, an assistant professor of civil engineering at Oregon State University. “And the technology is changing so fast it´s hard for anyone, even the experts, to keep up.

"When we get more people using mobile LIDAR and we work through some of the obstacles, it´s going to reduce costs, improve efficiency, change many professions and even help save lives,” Olsen said.

LIDAR stands for light detecting and ranging. It has primarily been used for aerial mapping for the last 20 years. LIDAR sends pulses of light, up to one million times a second, which bounce back from whatever they hit, forming a highly detailed and precise map of the landscape. Mobile LIDAR is ground based and takes advantage of much more powerful computer systems. However, it is still in its infancy and has only been commercially available for the last five years.

Compared to aerial LIDAR, mobile LIDAR can provide ten to 100 times more data points that hugely improve the resolution of an image. Even moving at highway speeds, a mobile LIDAR technician can create a remarkable, 3D view of the nearby terrain.

The possible applications are wide ranging. Used repeatedly in one area, mobile LIDAR could give engineers a virtual picture of an unstable, slow-moving hillside, or it could provide a detailed image of a forest, urban setting or surrounding geology. Construction workers could image a tangle of utility lines in a ditch before they are covered and use that image 30 years later to make repairs.

Other potential uses include driverless automobiles, or amazing visual images to enhance "virtual tourism" that would allow anyone, anywhere to see what an area looks like as if they were standing in the middle of it. Transportation engineering and surveying applications could change the industries forever.

Already, mobile LIDAR has been used for challenges such as moving the space shuttle Endeavor through the city streets to its new home in Los Angeles.

Olsen says some of the newest applications will have to wait until there are enough experts to properly exploit them. Currently, OSU has one of the few programs in the US to train students in both civil engineering and the newly emerging field of "geomatics." More jobs are available than there are people to fill them, even though fully trained and licensed professionals can make $100,000 a year or more.

OSU has a partnership with Leica Geosystems and David Evans and Associates that supplies enough hardware and software to maintain a variety of geomatics courses, but other nations such as Canada have made much more aggressive commitments to using mobile LIDAR and training professionals in the field. Olsen stresses that it is vital the US follow suit.