LiDAR 101: Choosing the Right Mapping Method Technology

Posted by Ashley Little on July 14, 2020


LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) is becoming a go-to technology for many industries. The use of thousands, or even millions, of laser light pulses per second to measure distances has a multitude of applications.

LiDAR has existed for decades, but for much of that time its users were limited to a few fields, such as military operations, law enforcement, and large engineering firms. Although LiDAR data has always been potentially useful in other fields, the cost was prohibitive.

Over the past few years, the technology has continued to improve. LiDAR equipment has gotten smaller, more flexible, more accurate, and less expensive, although at the highest end it’s still a long way from cheap. In the beginning, aerial mapping with LiDAR required airplanes or helicopters. Today’s LiDAR units are lightweight enough to be carried by drones. Now industries as varied as agriculture, archaeology, and energy, as well as institutions concerned with flood prevention and pollution control, are putting LiDAR data to good use, as outlined by Geospatial World.

Some utilities also are using LiDAR mapping to gather quick, accurate data about their assets, and others are likely to join them as the price of the technology continues to drop. Some in the industry foresee massive reductions in costs within the next few years. A wide range of small handheld scanners are available that use lasers to take measurements. 

Defining the Mission 

At Alden, we advise clients considering various forms of data collection, including multiple methods involving LiDAR, to first define their mission. Some common questions we ask include the following:

  • What kinds of data do you need to capture? 
  • How much data do you need? 
  • How quickly do you need it? 
  • Are you collecting it for a single use or multiple uses, including potential future applications? 
  • How difficult is the terrain where the data needs to be collected? 
  • Do you need to capture information in 360 degrees, or will 110 degrees suffice? 
  • Are measurements within a centimeter accurate enough, or do you need to be more precise than that?

Answering such questions help narrow the logical options. Companies use LiDAR only when they can justify the additional cost, and several key factors affect the price tag of the system employed. Generally, the more detailed and accurate data you need, or the faster you need it, the more it’s going to cost.

The growing variety in available LiDAR equipment is making it a practical solution for more companies since they don’t want to pay for extra data they don’t need. Small, high-tech laser scanners use LiDAR technology at a level that can meet the needs of many users without breaking the budget.

Key cost variables in LiDAR equipment include:

  • Speed – More expensive equipment generates data more quickly.

  • Range  – How deep is the field you need to measure? Do you want data only on an asset or on its surroundings as well? An advantage of 3D LiDAR is that its data can be used to create a 3D point cloud or digital twin of the objects measured, such as utility poles, cables, and attachments.

  • Accuracy – On the high end, LiDAR units can capture data at 2 million points-per-second (PPS), but units that capture data at a few hundred thousand PPS, for example, may serve your company’s purposes just as well. Measurements within a centimeter are sufficiently accurate for many jobs.

Ways to Collect LiDAR Data

Sometimes the solution to a company’s data collection needs will involve a combination of methods, including traditional fieldwork, high-resolution digital photography and video, and one or more methods of LiDAR asset measurement. Those methods are:

  • Handheld 
    A handheld LiDAR scanner is similar in size to a smartphone. If time permits, the number of assets to be measured is not too large, and ground-level measurements are adequate for the mission, handheld (or, in some cases, backpack-mounted) may get the job done.

  • Vehicle-mounted 
    Where terrain and asset location allow it, a LiDAR unit mounted on a truck can be the ideal way to collect the data you need. It’s more cost-effective than aircraft and offers speed advantages over strictly handheld measurement.

  • Drones – When an aerial perspective is valuable and you need data on miles of assets,  drones equipped with LiDAR can be an efficient solution. The speed of collection is an obvious benefit of this method, but, of course, it adds expense.

  • Fixed-wing aircraft – For massive jobs that require mapping hundreds or thousands of miles. This is the most expensive form of LiDAR data collection, but depending on the geographic footprint, could be the best solution.

Finding the Right Methods

At Alden, we don’t see utility data collection as a single-solution job. From traditional hot-stick measurements to laser-based technology, to high-tech 360-degree photography, we work with whatever best suits our clients’ needs and wishes. The best technology is the one that works for you.

In that spirit, we continue to explore new avenues in data collection. Alden’s recently announced alliance with Leica Geosystems is an exciting new development. Our Task Agent® software now runs on BLK3D handheld imagers, giving technicians in the field and back at the office instant access to data collected. That information flows smoothly into Alden One®, our centralized joint use asset management platform that simplifies organization, coordination, and communication.

Whether you turn the field data collection over to us to coordinate or leave it to your own staff, Alden One® can help you make the most of the information you gather. We’re ready to work with your company, your contractors, and our partners to find the solutions that best suit your mission.

If you’d like to learn more about Alden’s services and software, click here to contact a product specialist.

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