Lidar – Terminology, Tracing the Growth and Types of Detection

February 2021

LiDAR, the acronym for Light detection and ranging, is a term you might have come across quite often in recent days. It is a remote sensing technology that uses eye-safe laser beams to measure distances. It is also referred to as 3D laser scanning as it combines 3-D scanning and laser scanning. It allows one to examine and map both the natural and artificial surroundings with precision and accuracy.

A LiDAR instrument is generally made up of a laser which is beamed onto the surface to be scanned, a scanner responsible for scanning the images into the system, and a specialized GPS receiver that collects the laser beams once they hit the surface and are reflected back. Based on the type of application, and the type of topography or objects being scanned, the type of instruments, and the beams are changed.

Growth over the years

The military and government have been using LiDAR for ages for mapping topographies, measuring distances from submarines, locating enemy weaponry, etc. Over the years, the usage of LiDAR has expanded from the scope of military and geospatial sectors to much more. Not long ago, this was a technology mainly used by companies that used to serve B2B purpose and were hardly used for consumer electronics or B2C products.

The last decade has however witnessed something quite different. Numerous start-ups have emerged, which have used this technology in consumer-facing products. Tesla, Uber, Waymo are a couple of brands that have opened new avenues by bringing this technology to automobiles. Their auto-pilot services use LiDAR at the core of their intelligence systems to understand the surroundings of the vehicle and navigate accordingly. Mobile phones have recently started integrating LiDAR sensors into their camera systems as well. Apple uses it to increase the autofocus time significantly and for depth detection, especially under low-light conditions.

Types of Detections

As mentioned earlier, there are different types of systems, and laser beams, which are used, based on several factors, such as the range needed, the depth required, the topography of the surface to be mapped, etc. However, LiDAR platforms can be broadly categorized into the following three:

Ground-based - Also known as terrestrial systems, these are primarily used to create highly accurate models and measurements of land formations, archeology sites, and buildings. They may either be stationary platforms, mounted on tripods, or on moving vehicles.

Airborne - These systems are mounted on helicopters, UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), or airplanes. Systems with a higher range are used in such cases and are used most often when a large topographical area needs to be mapped with precision. The cost involved in airborne measurements are relatively higher.

Satellite - Spaceborne LiDAR platforms are used when a huge area needs to be mapped, with fairly less detail and precision. They generally map the vegetation, polar ice caps, etc.

The rate of adoption for industries using LiDAR for making their systems more accurate and intelligent has been growing significantly the last couple of years, and this trend is here to stay as more organizations start realizing the plethora of opportunities its application opens up. It is only a matter of time when this becomes a necessity for several consumer electronics.

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