The beginnings of LiDAR – A time travel back in history

Lidar technology emerged already in the 60s and has evolved from application in aeronautics and aerospace to areas of environment detection such as autonomous driving today.

The sensing technology LiDAR is most commonly related to mobility and autonomous driving today and therefore appears more recent than it actually is. Dating back almost 60 years, LiDAR technology has evolved over the course of the decades and exploited several different fields of application. Here is how the path of 3D sensing started off:

How it all began

LiDAR systems were developed back in the 1960s and found their first applications predominantly in terrain mapping of aeronautics and aerospace. During the 70s, remote sensing based on lasers concentrated on airborne sensor deployment where topographic mapping of forests, ice sheets, oceans and the atmosphere was conducted. What most people certainly don’t know, under Apollo 15, NASA were to apply the scanning technology for surface mapping purposes of the moon.

LiDAR sensors are being used to produce 3D satellite images

What followed

LiDAR development proceeded in slow pace. Until the 80s, the dissemination of LiDARs was throttled due to a lack of commercial GPS systems required to foster aerial sensor deployment. When GPS solutions and efficient satellite communication for data transmission later came up, aerial photogrammetry was enabled and the way for widespread aerial LiDAR employment was smoothed. In the following years, due to its outstanding resolution, LiDAR became especially popular for calculating precise geo data as well as for deployment in meteorology and atmospheric research. The laser light’s short wavelength which enables detection of tiny objects such as particles of clouds and aerosols is crucial for airborne and terrain mapping.

The Manifestation of LiDAR technology

First commercial LiDARs with 2,000 to 25,000 pulses per second were manufactured and delivered out for topographic mapping purposes by the mid-1990s. These sensors solidified the belief that LiDAR technology was the wave of the future for all mapping applications. Although at that time still in a primitive state, geospatial users were interested in the dense data for surface mapping generated by LiDARs. Since airborne LiDARs’ ground coverage is close to that of aerial cameras, high-resolution mapping of terrains conducted by LiDARs could be accompanied by the usage of photogrammetry for feature data and flight planning.

LiDARs are used to calculate precise geo data

Benefits

LiDARs faced out several other technologies that were not precise enough in their environment detection and data caption. For several challenges such as scanning between trees, LiDAR provided a fast, precise and direct – non-inferential – procedure of 3D mapping with highly accurate captured data and good possibilities to interpret them. These benefits made LiDAR a higher-performing alternative over e.g. photogrammetric techniques which posed difficulties towards the interpretation of ground elevations. With LiDAR sensorics, natural interpretation became less distorted and costs of survey creation could be driven down. Later, with stabilizing prices, LiDAR turned into an attractive means for 3D mapping.

LiDAR today

It lies in the nature of LiDAR evolution to bring along new ways and applications for science and industry to integrate 3D sensing. With each new field opening up, subsequent usage scenarios can be derived and developed. Consequentially, this is how the proliferation of laser-based sensing technology was and is enhanced.

LiDARs for commercial and non-commercial use – such as in military or research implementations – constantly evolved during the last two decades. Today, up to 2 million data points per second can be generated within 5 mm accuracy. LiDAR sensing entered a wide range of different fields in which it is still in use up till today, such as:

  • glacial monitoring
  • fault detection
  • forest inventories
  • uplift measuring
  • shoreline change monitoring
  • bathymetric surveying
  • landslide risk analyses
  • habitat mapping
  • telecom as well as urban planning

Also mining, agriculture and archaeology represent ideal fields for LiDAR deployment. In short, whenever the assessment of terrains plays a role, LiDAR comes into play. With rapid technological innovation, new symbioses through sensor integration are explored these days. Fields such as infrastructure, smart city, IoT, transportation, logistics, and industrial applications will – and in some cases already are – highly benefitting from LiDAR technology.

LiDAR and Autonomous Driving

Autonomously driving vehicles use various sensors to be able to detect and thus ‘see’ their environment. RADAR and cameras are widely deployed already, but 3D scanners surmount these in resolution and precision. LiDARs directly capture the environment in 3D data which allows for reliable software-based interpretation and autonomous navigation. Experts in the industry agree thath LiDAR technology will enable everything from level 3 of autonomous driving onwards. The current challenge is tackling the mass market: Scalable and cheaper solutions are required to unlock a broad diffusion of LiDAR sensors. Once the mass market will be reached, further areas of everyday life – that can be improved by LiDAR integration such as smart city and IoT – will hardly remain untouched from the manifold operational scenarios LiDAR sensing can offer.