Sensor fusion is the way ahead

Sensor fusion is the way ahead

Max Elbaz
Max Elbaz
Optech, Inc.

Sensor and data fusion is giving way to uni-modal sensors, says  
Max Elbaz, President, Optech, Inc.
He also sees LiDAR technology as a
natural fit for exploiting the exploding UAV platforms


How do you see the demand for LiDAR technology shaping up?
It took many years for LiDAR systems to reach this threshold. Optech has been a Li- DAR pioneer since the early 1970s, when our founder, Dr. Allan Carswell, also the current chairman of the board of Optech, was a Physics professor at York University in Toronto, Canada. He saw LiDAR’s potential for solving terrestrial problems beyond atmospheric ones. It was a very astute decision: Optech was among the first to develop a technology for measuring ice fields and ridges from the air, and we also led the way in LiDAR bathymetry. We then applied that early expertise to terrestrial mapping applications, and there have been many improvements over the years since then. What we are seeing now is a strong move towards a 3D world, where a full solution includes the hardware and software workflows necessary to support the needs of customers and the markets they need to serve. More recently the world has seen an explosion in UAV technology and applications, which is transforming the remote sensing markets and generating new business models that are pushing the miniaturisation of related technologies. LiDAR is a natural fit for UAV platforms, and the integration of the two is here to stay.

Which are the industries propelling this demand?
Construction and infrastructure expansion are important drivers, especially in developing countries such as India and China, and regions such as Southeast Asia and Latin America. Another growing area is the urgent requirement to map and understand coastal waters. With climate change and rising populations – up to 40% of the population lives near the coast – coastal mapping is now critical for many countries. Bathy/topo data and flood plain mapping are essential for understanding and managing near shore habitats and handling disaster planning, environmental impacts and the challenges from growing populations and rising sea levels. As for our regional strengths, North America is our stronghold and we also have a good presence in Europe. Optech is now focusing on Asia in particular, where the ratio of GIS business to GDP is rising fast. China is currently a growing market for us, and Optech’s acquisition by Teledyne Technologies is enabling us to further expand our operations in the region, thanks to their already strong presence in the region with offices in major cities. We will soon have our own office in China co-located in one of the Teledyne offices.

ilris survey
As more applications are found, the demand for 3D information,such as this ILRIS survey, will grow

Which are the latest innovations from Optech?
Optech has long been a leader in LiDAR technology and data quality, but we have now refined our technology even further. Our aim is to achieve the accuracy that our clients require without sacrificing productivity of mapping projects. Optech is focusing on a full system workflow solution, not just on hardware, enabling clients to deliver data that meets project specs and deadlines faster and more economically.

In terms of products, our road maps support the introduction of new products designed to meet many of the needs mentioned above — but that is all I can say at this point! Our line of airborne LiDAR mappers branded ALTM includes our flagship model, the Orion. It was the first LiDAR mapper specifically designed for UAV operations, thanks to its very small footprint and is being successfully deployed in-theatre. It is also used for commercial mapping projects using standard airborne platforms (fixed wing or rotary). We recently introduced the Pegasus ALTM, the first dual-laser system, which delivers highly accurate and dense data at higher altitudes.

Moving to the mobile LiDAR side, we have introduced the mapping grade Lynx MG1 product to complement the award-winning survey grade Lynx SG1, which lets us meet the specific needs of both the surveying and mapping markets. While the Lynx MG1 leverages the power of the Optech LMS workflow, the Lynx SG1 introduces a new paradigm to high volume and complex 3D data processing with Optech LMS Pro. This has taken the dedication to efficiency and accuracy of LMS to a new level, enabling blazing fast speeds through distributed processing while using complex optical and mathematical models to rectify LiDAR data files to such a level of accuracy and quality that they require no further refinement, independent of the operator of the software.

In LiDAR bathymetry, an important but highly technical and challenging sector, we continue to advance our coastal mapping and imaging system, CZMIL, which was developed by Optech for the US Army Corps of Engineers and US Navy for their bathymetric needs. With CZMIL, we feel that airborne bathymetry has come of age. Previously, airborne bathymetry had been limited to fairly clear waters, but with the development of new electronics and algorithms our system can now extract information from muddy bottoms and turbid waters that were previously impenetrable to airborne platforms. This unique sensor system is opening several opportunities for us in other fields, as well.

How has the acquisition by Teledyne helped Optech?
It has been a big help. Teledyne comprises of several technology companies that are well-aligned in various market segments. In particular, Teledyne has a strong marine segment, and Optech technology and products are complementing nicely their current product portfolio by providing our customers with a full spectrum of solutions to meet their needs from the efficiency of an aerial platform as well. Like Optech, some Teledyne companies are involved in the geospatial industry, which generates the opportunity for synergy between sister companies and their technologies. For example, not long ago a ship sank off the coast of Italy. Sonar technology from a Teledyne sister company and LiDAR mapping technology from Optech were used to map the ship above and below the water simultaneously.

Another advantage of being part of Teledyne is that it facilitates “not-for-profit” research and development, and whenever a technology of interest is developed, it can be shared and deployed by all sister companies.

Optech has a very good presence in software and hardware market. How have you maintained this balance?
Everyone talks about “solutions,” though that is an overused term. A solution is only useful if it really meets a need, and this means different solutions for different applications. We have a tremendous depth in LiDAR and related technologies, and we have leveraged that to focus on developing relevant solutions to serve specific vertical markets, ranging from terrestrial and marine to space. A complete solution for the rail industry is different from what is needed for marine or engineering, and the Optech advantage is that our core technology platform focuses on providing collection efficiency while maximising data accuracy, enabling customers to achieve their business goals. The CZMIL HydroFusion software, for example, integrates data and imagery from three different sensors, using a common workflow from flight planning and acquisition to data processing and the production of bathymetric data products. For simpler applications, we also provide software that efficiently parses and processes LiDAR point data for easy ingestion by industry-standard software.

What are your plans of diversification?
Our focus on client needs gives us two main drivers. First, we bend over backwards to ensure that the delivered system performs to its maximum. Second, we adapt systems to meet their project requirements. This focus means we continuously innovate to provide our clients with system solutions that meet their business needs. Optech has a history of firsts since our founding over 40 years ago: first laser terrain profiler, first airborne bathymeter, first terrestrial system, first multisensor airborne systems, first mobile mapping system, etc. This has been achieved by incorporating new technology while making systems simpler and more efficient, which has contributed to the growth of the industry.

optech cs lw640 heat loss
Data fusion allows the combination of Orion ALTM LiDAR data withthermal imagery from Optech’s CS-LW640 for heat-loss analysis

What, according to you, has been the biggest change in the fields of terrestrial and mobile mapping?
Clearly, the biggest change has been the need for multispectral LiDAR systems (not just the hardware side) for specific applications such as infrastructure building, forestry and bathymetry. To develop the right solution, we have been developing different types of lasers along with complementary software that enables the extraction of accurate information in an efficient manner. We have moved from what I call uni-modal sensors — one LiDAR or one camera system — to true sensor fusion, in which different sensors are coupled together in a fully co-registered manner. CZMIL, for example, uses a bathy/topo LiDAR, RGB camera and hyperspectral imager, and most of our airborne and mobile systems also incorporate both LiDAR and cameras. The result of this has been the successful development of software that can process, visualise and fuse the data. Sensor and data fusion is an area where Optech has made enormous strides, winning numerous awards for software suites such as Optech LMS (airborne and mobile data/imagery), and HydroFusion (bathymetric data/imagery).

Optech has been the first in many areas. We were the first to develop commercial airborne bathymetry systems, compact ALTM LiDAR systems, sensor fusion software with processing automation, sensor fusion systems, and other key innovations. Of course, innovation is only good when it can be useful. Innovation that helps our clients meet their needs faster and more efficiently is technology with a purpose, and is what we strive for.

How do you see the market changing in the next few years?
I see the miniaturisation of applications, which will drive the development of new technology and new ways to disseminate location-based information. For example, we see that mobile phones incorporate miniaturised GPS devices, though not with the highest accuracy. However, going small doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice quality — a product can be smaller but it must offer the same or better quality than customers are accustomed to. When you put these trends together, you get an emphasis on more information from more sensors in smaller packages. That is quite a challenge, and one that Optech is already tackling every day.

The need and demand for 3D information is only going to grow, resulting in the democratisation of location-based information. These trends are pushing the development of new technologies and applications, and that is where Optech excels. There is nothing but opportunity ahead for Optech.