Point of Beginning

Flying High

March 1, 2009
A LiDAR point cloud of Walt Disney World’s Space Mountain in Orlando, Fla. Image courtesy of Photo Science Geospatial Solutions


The technology to collect LiDAR data from aircraft has been commercially available since the mid-1990s. As this technology has become more widespread and more familiar, it has been increasingly used to measure topography and create digital elevation models. The last three years in particular have seen a substantial amount of growth in LiDAR applications.

In an effort to identify the key trends, Cary and Associates in Longmont, Colo., conducted a study in which the firm surveyed more than 250 people associated with LiDAR technology and applications. The results of this study provide a glimpse of where most of the growth has occurred and how the industry might develop over the next several years.

Figure 1. Growth in LiDAR processing from 2005 to 2008.

Developments and Comparisons

The status of the industry was last documented in 2005[1] and 2006[2]. The new study focused on data from 2005 to 2008 and specifically addressed scanning system capabilities, technology advances, market drivers, processing opportunities and the number of LiDAR systems and operators.

Scanning system capabilities. In 2005, airborne laser scanning systems operated between 50,000 and 100,000 cycles per second (50 and 100 kHz). Now, scanners operate in programmable ranges with a much higher top end of 150,000 to 300,000 cycles per second (150 to 300 kHz). Higher pulse rates mean more points aimed at a given area, which, in general, will result in improved representation of areas of complex terrain.

Technology frontiers. In 2005, discrete-return signal processing was dominant and waveform digitization (which captures more detail about the surface than the traditional discrete-return approach) was relatively new to the marketplace. Now, waveform digitization is fairly common and the newer technology is multiple pulse in air (MPiA), which enables a plane to fly higher and thus collect data more efficiently than traditional systems that could only manage one pulse in the air at a time. Other research frontiers include the use of intensity data from LiDAR and the development of software for automated feature extraction.

Imagery is typically collected with LiDAR, so systems today often include both a LiDAR sensor and an imaging sensor.

Market drivers. In 2005, urban expansion was considered a major factor driving demand for map data. In the Cary and Associates LiDAR survey, a list of 17 applications was provided, and respondents were asked to mark all of the applications for which they use LiDAR data. Three applications were marked by more than half of the survey respondents with 81 percent selecting topography (DEM), 60 percent selecting flood risk mapping and 53 percent selecting watershed analysis. These results suggest the threat of natural disasters is driving the current market.

Growth in LiDAR processing. Respondents in two categories--those who do only value-added processing of LiDAR data and those who both acquire and process LiDAR data--were asked about growth in LiDAR processing from 2005 to 2008. Respondents who both acquire and process data reported higher growth (11 to 20 percent) than those who do only value-added processing of LiDAR data (1 to 10 percent growth). (See Figure 1.)

Number of LiDAR systems and operators. In 2005, the number of topographic LiDAR systems worldwide was reported to be 110 operated by 70 organizations; now the number is 180 systems operated by 100 organizations (Figure 2). In other words, the number of sensors increased by 64 percent, or an average of 16 percent per year worldwide, and the number of organizations increased by 43 percent, which was an average of 10 percent per year.

Figure 2. The number of LiDAR operators and sensors by region in 2005 and 2008.

Market Predictions

The survey asked respondents who currently offer LiDAR value-added processing services and those who acquire and process LiDAR data what they expect to happen to the market for LiDAR processing in the next three to five years. Forty-one percent of those who acquire and process data expect sales to increase 11 to 20 percent per year, while 33 percent of those who only process data expect sales to increase 1 to 10 percent per year. Interestingly, however, 15 percent of respondents who only process data expect to see growth in excess of 30 percent per year, while only 11 percent of those who acquire and process data are that optimistic (Figure 3).

In an open-ended question about major trends in the LiDAR industry for the next three years, five developments were identified by at least 10 percent of the respondents. These included increased point density (mentioned by 25 percent of survey respondents), decreased data costs (18 percent), improved and easier to use post-processing and analysis software (14 percent), the ability to gather and fuse multisensor data (11 percent), and the establishment of government coalitions to fund large-area data collection (10 percent).

Figure 3. LiDAR processing market predictions for the next three to five years.

Increasing Demand

Over the past three years, the global airborne LiDAR market has grown more than 10 percent per year in the number of systems, number of operators, and processing revenue. Growth is expected to continue, though at a lesser rate. Improvements in LiDAR-related software and hardware will also continue thus encouraging the development of an increasing range of applications and more demand for LiDAR data in ground control and quality assurance services in the next three to five years.


References

1. “The Global Market for Airborne Lidar Systems and Services,” TMS International, April 2005.

2. “LiDAR – Overview of Technology, Applications, Market Features & Industry,” Centre for Applied Remote Sensing, Modelling and Simulation (BC-CARMS), University of Victoria, Victoria, BC, June 2006, carms.geog.uvic.ca/LiDAR%20Web%20Docs/LiDAR%20paper%20june%202006.pdf.

Sidebar: Survey Details

To develop the survey, Cary and Associates spent hundreds of hours scouring company Web sites and trade publications to identify all of the airborne LiDAR systems in use today. The online surveys asked different questions of respondents depending on whether they identified themselves as manufacturers of hardware, providers of software, owner-operators of LiDAR systems, members of organizations doing value-added processing, or end-users. In total, 268 people from 20 countries on six continents completed the survey. Fifty percent of survey respondents work for companies, 31 percent for government agencies, 12 percent for academic institutions and 3 percent each for utilities and nonprofit organizations. (One percent of respondents selected “Other.”) Respondents who identified themselves as end-users are distributed across all types of employers with 55 percent from government agencies. All other parts of the LiDAR industry are dominated by private firms.