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Mobile based LiDAR will take RS by storm

Don Carswell
Optech Inc.

How does it feel after selling over 100 units of ALTM? Did you do any analysis on the demand of units from different regions of the world?

We are quite pleased about that; indeed, we have touched about 140 now. And the demand for LiDAR equipment is continuously increasing. As far as the analysis of demand for LiDAR is concerned, we have done that along with a number of commercial studies. One of the things that everyone points to is the increasing demand for LiDAR data. Depending on the study on which you believe, it is growing by about 15% a year. We are seeing an increased demand in the airborne LiDAR mapping market and the new area that is coming up is the mobile LiDAR market. This is where we have high business projections. Clearly, there is a lot of demand for accurate geo-referenced LiDAR data for a variety of applications.

Could you elaborate on ‘many products – one family’ philosophy of Optech?

The way our products complement each other could be stated in two parts. One part is complementarity in terms of their manufacturer. All our products share the underlying technology called iFlex, i.e. Integrated Flexible Electric Optics. Whether it is an airborne terrain mapping system or a mobile system, the fundamental laser design approach and the fundamental electronics are common. They are then specially shaped for the applications.

From the manufacturing standpoint, we do try to make sure that our inventions and discoveries in one product are utilised for other range of products too. Second aspect of the family approach is the uniformity in the software aspects. For our customers, it would mean that we use the same planning and processing software in our mobile product (LYNX Mobile Mapper) as we use in our airborne product. For somebody doing an airborne survey and also wanting to get higher resolution intensive data as part of mobile survey, though the equipment is different, the software and all the training they need to impart to their employees will be same. This makes it easier for the user to adopt our LiDAR equipment since the design philosophy and many operations are the same.

What motivated you to invest in mobile based technology?

We were looking towards this for years. The big push came when the buyers of both – ALTM and ILWIS on tripod map together, made requests for integrated solution where ILWIS is part of the mounted equipment on a vehicle and which they could be driven around to get high resolution city models. Or for measuring all the wires underneath the bridges without moving from place to place. So we took those requests. But rather than having Applanix for ILWIS, we stepped back and started from scratch. We did some preliminary design and went again to our customers for further suggestions. Then we came up with LYNX system.

How do you see the complementarity of airborne and mobile LiDAR mapping systems?

The complementarity of mobile and air borne mapping has turned out to be really fruitful. There are places where conducting air-borne survey becomes difficult, such as cities. You can have an excellent imagery of the whole city but certain aspects pose challenges. One such problem area is with shadows. Also when you get further down the city to street level, obtaining the desired resolution becomes difficult. The mobile mapper solves the problem and you have data sets at higher resolution. The combination of both the datasets gives fantastic resolution on all aspects of the city and gives completely compatible datasets.

way engineer would want details up to centimetre level, say how the crown of the road looks like. Also, in case of bridges, what kind of terrain is shaped underside the bridge. An airborne system will not be of use to obtain such fine details but mobile system will be.

Civil engineering is an exciting area where this mobile LiDAR system is proving to be very economical. The availability of more economical data is poised to open up more and more application of LiDAR in civil engineering. This is a system that measures hundreds of thousands of points in a second at centimetre accuracy, can do repetitive surveys of any construction site and because there are no complexities of deploying an aircraft or weather restrictions, one gets complete visual datasets. The strength of this LiDAR is that it can work 24 hours a day along with the civil engineering work in big projects.

How do claim this mobile system to be an economical option?

The equipment costs quite less. It is hundreds of thousands less than any airborne system. It is also economical in terms of area coverage vis-avis the labour deployed for a similar amount of area. The system proves cheaper than the direct acquisition of the data.

Earlier, it used to be like camera systems added with LiDAR systems, but it is a different case with our system. We have a LiDAR system mounted on camera and it is meant to have very higher accuracy elevation.

What are the key drivers of LiDAR industry?

One of them is, which you might find funny, is our longingness for 3D. We live in 3D and we experience it. We are 3D creatures and we desire for it and this, I feel, is the basic driver for LiDAR. Along with it is the level of advancement we are going through.

Your computer advances everyday and so are the software. The datasets are getting more intense in terms of points per sq mtr and more and more information may be pulled out from such data. Data currency, i.e., how fresh is the data, is going to be another major driver. There are certain amounts of LiDAR data available for public and becoming ‘commodity’ and universally available. For you and me, the quality of this available data may not matter since we are not using it for professional purposes. The data may be three years old. But in case of a professional utilisation of the datasets, one needs as fresh and as accurate data as possible. This requirement of data currency too is moving up in the industry.

Large infrastructure projects is another area of growth. In such projects, the challenge is managing the information about what you are actually building and how it is different from what you have planned to build. As per certain statistics, about 10% of the cost of the project is expended on information management – it goes off in non-timely availability of information. There too, you have LiDAR data saving the cost. There are software at back office that will give you time-line based information on the quantum of work done, the stage at which the cut and land fill volumes are, etc.

Do you see more opportunities in Asian countries with restrictions on flying?

There will be a natural fading out of restriction policies on aerial mapping. This will primarily be driven, first by the availability of mobile LiDAR systems. You have such systems and you may drive through anywhere using any vehicle. Second is more and more availability of very high resolution satellite imagery on the Web. This does not mean that there will be a boom in aerial borne data but this surely will lead to increased demand for data and how it could be obtained. So, for example, India can deploy mobile LiDAR systems in great number.

For me, availability of data is key to economical development. In China, there are restrictions on flying but they are not letting down the acquisition of LiDAR data. Similarly, there are areas where ease exists in terms of restrictions since the key development projects need to be finished within set timeframes. If restrictions become too tough, then time gets wasted. The sooner you finish the project, the more benefit on the investment.

What are the areas of growth and what are the challenges?

The challenge remains that the solutions are yet not as complete as they can be. As new applications of data arrive, the actual solution that takes full advantage of that in the most economical fashion usually follows. That is, kind of, a global problem.

Growth is quite uniform around the world and this is due to reasons. We see good growth in BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) countries backed by development related projects. We are also seeing growth in Europe and North America. That is driven by more advanced applications like city management. In fact, there is no area of the world where we are not seeing growth for remote sensing systems whether they are camera systems, LiDAR or hyperspectral scanners. The whole RS industry looks robust, though with certain impediments in terms of software and availability of trained manpower. You also need an environment where issues like getting export permits for equipments are as low as possible because all these systems contain ultimately export controlled technology.

This puts up an extra layer of complexity. Things are difficult for start-ups rather than established companies. It is of course not the laser technology but basically geopositioning technology. So things required in an Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU), most of them start their lives as either missile technology or rocket technology. So that poses a challenge but it is not insurmountable for most of the countries.