The Year for Mobile LiDAR

May 23, 2011
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Three years ago, mobile LiDAR was just beginning to emerge as a potential mapping and surveying tool. A few forward-thinking firms took a chance--with a rather hefty technology investment--and began blazing new trails in railway, infrastructure and asset data collection.

Today, those investments are paying off through an increasing number of mobile mapping contracts. According to Eric Andelin, group manager for Woolpert’s recently acquired Dallas office and one of the early adopters of mobile LiDAR technology, mobile systems have advanced significantly over the last several years as new manufacturers and different types of laser systems have entered the market. “We’ve seen mobile collection rates go from 50,000 points per second up to 400,000 points per second per laser, and most systems have two lasers on them. Recently Optech has introduced an even faster system that collects 1 million points per second,*” Andelin says.

The software has also improved. Early obstacles such as file incompatibility and overwhelming datasets have been minimized through an increasing level of standardization and the introduction of new tools that allow seamless data merging and easier detail extraction.

Woolpert, which uses a Lynx Mobile Mapper system, and GeoNav, which uses the Topcon IP-S2, are both seeing increasing demand for mobile LiDAR services.

State transportation departments, utilities and other end users have been taking notice. Woolpert has been able to negotiate to add mobile LiDAR to some of its existing contracts in Texas and several other states. And new applications are also emerging. “We’re seeing a lot of demand for engineering- and design-level work as well as asset data collection,” says Casey Saxton, chief technology officer for GeoNav Group International, a geospatial technology firm based in Great Falls, Mont., that operates a number of vehicles with Topcon IP-S2 mobile mapping systems. “With the advances in scanning technology and the additional sensors that are now integrated into vehicles, the sky is the limit. On any given day, you can pick a vertical market and we’ve probably talked to someone within that vertical [about a mobile mapping project] because the technology is applicable across so many different types of businesses and for different decision-making levels. There are so many different ways this data can be consumed.”

Of course, the hurdles haven’t been removed completely. Andelin points out that a certain level of expertise is required for any organization that wants to get involved in mobile mapping. “Mobile LiDAR is a very intense technology that requires a lot of skill understanding GPS and inertial navigation systems,” he says. “There aren’t that many people out there who understand all the components of it, so it takes a lot of R&D, a lot of back-end processing, and some very out-of-the-box-thinking employees to make it all work.”

Additionally, while huge leaps have been made in processing mobile LiDAR data, information overload is still a potential threat. “It takes a lot of time and patience to get to what the client truly needs and focus solely on that,” Saxton says. “A lot of prep work needs to go in ahead of time to make sure you understand those needs. And after the scan work is done, there’s a lot of effort involved in going through the data and sifting out what isn’t needed. It requires a lot of time spent with clients before and after to make sure they understand what they’re looking at, what the deliverable is and what they can do with that information--both for their immediate needs and later on for secondary uses.”

Saxton, who has actually been involved with mobile mapping for 10 years and saw some of the earliest forms of the technology, notes that the biggest challenges are still related to software. However, he adds, “The exciting thing is that there is a lot of emerging software that’s coming very rapidly that’s helping to drive this technology. [What’s commercially available is] just the tip of the iceberg; there’s more to come.”

Although some of the early adopters are seeing the biggest success with the technology, there’s plenty of room for other players to get involved. “There are systems out there that may cost $100,000 to $200,000 that are perfectly good for asset management projects, whereas you also have systems out there that are high-accuracy survey tools, so it depends on what you’re looking to do,” Andelin says. “There are options for smaller firms to get into this type of service, especially if they’ve already had some experience with terrestrial LiDAR.”

Saxton agrees, noting that GeoNav Group partners with firms for specialized work. “There are times where we might need to rely on somebody that has experience in a certain type of deliverable or package, so we actively seek out partners that aren’t looking to add vehicles to their process,” he says. “Some people are going to be able to buy equipment. Some people will be able to invest in specialized personnel for building datasets out of this data. Some people will do the survey work, and some will build specific software packages. There’s room in this market for a lot of people in a lot of different ways. However, you have to do your due diligence and make sure you understand the challenges.”

Because mobile mapping projects require good control, traditional surveying services are also in demand. “Where DOTs may have had limited funds to do a project [in the past], and the project size was limited by the man-hours the surveyors could put out in the field, we’re now seeing the mobile projects stretch that distance,” Andelin says. “So we’re extending the project size and we’re changing what the surveyors do, but it’s actually providing more work for our surveyors as we go forward.”

Both Andelin and Saxton are optimistic about the opportunities. “This year seems to be the breakthrough year for mobile LiDAR acceptance and actually starting to do large projects,” Andelin says.

Saxton agrees. “It’s mind blowing how much has evolved in basically a very short period of time,” he says. “I think over the next one to two years, we’re going to see an explosion of new software packages, new technologies--all kinds of things that are really going to launch this into the mainstream.”

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