Mobile LiDAR’s ‘Tipping Point’

As Joel has mentioned previously, we recently returned from a trip to the 90th Annual TRB Conference in Washington, DC. For me, the goal of the trip was to assess the state of the Mobile LiDAR industry as a whole and get feedback on some of the concepts we hope to introduce in this space.

First of all, many thanks again to everyone who took the time to meet with us, both in our Focus Group and individually; your expertise and input will help to shape our offerings as we progress in the development cycle.

The Mobile LiDAR industry is at a fascinating place in its maturity. At this point (a few years in), the initial benefits of Mobile LiDAR are beginning to be seen (safety and efficiency at the project level). But, we have yet to achieve the ‘tipping point‘ that will push the technology into the mainstream. The key to achieving this push is recognition of the value of the technology at all levels of an organization. Mobile LiDAR needs to be part of corporate and public best practices, not just a tool in a project-level toolbox.

I came away from the trip with three themes that I feel will be critical in taking the Mobile LiDAR industry to the next level:

  • Tailoring LiDAR data collection to intended use

There was much talk during the conference about the various levels of quality (‘Survey Grade’, ‘GIS Grade’) that can be achieved with Mobile LiDAR. I get the sense that some customers hope to save money by relaxing accuracy requirements. For example, a DOT who needs to perform a sign inventory may only specify a LiDAR accuracy requirements of +/- 2′. This allows the surveyor to cut corners and submit a lower bid for the project.

This approach is problematic, as it can severely limit the value of the collected LiDAR data to the organization. An organization can only achieve maximum value from LiDAR if it can re-use the collected data across multiple projects, teams, or corporate levels. If a future, related project requires a higher level of accuracy, the previously-collected data could be worthless. End users should look at Mobile LiDAR as a data source which can be continually mined for different information.

  • The need for tools for communication and collaboration

It is ironic that LiDAR data in essence models reality (the ‘as-built’ world), but most users still resort to CAD models, texture-maps, and other decimated representations to communicate and collaborate with others about a project. This is rooted in the fact that 3D tools can be hard to understand for an untrained user; further, the huge data sets common in this industry make transferring and visualizing LiDAR files very difficult. There is a clear and present need for an enterprise-scale system for sharing and collaborating with large LiDAR data sets. Check out Joel and Aaron’s talks at the ILMF and StreetMapper conferences for more on this.

  • The mystery of accuracy

It seems that I everyone I talk to in the Mobile LiDAR field has not only a different definition of accuracy, but also a different way of measuring it. Proper assessment of the accuracy of each component in the system (control, GPS, LiDAR measurements) is critical for both proper project specification and correct generation of down-stream information products (e.g. vertical bridge measurements, contour assessments, etc). Some standardization efforts have occurred at places like NIST, but there is a long way to go before we are all on the same page when it comes to accuracy.

As platform-agnostic software providers, this issue is critical to Allpoint because we need to ensure a baseline quality for the data submitted to our system. Further, many extraction and measurement algorithms require knowledge of measurement noise/accuracy to perform optimally. As a Mobile LiDAR user, accuracy should be important to you because you need a standard way to specify requirements to hardware, software, and data providers (surveyors), and to verify the results you receive. You need to ask the right questions and be able to understand the answers. Stay tuned for more on this subject.

Ryan Frenz, Head of Software Development

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