Is flash LIDAR the next technical breakthrough?

ASC recently announced news about the DragonEye Flash LIDAR camera on board shuttle Discovery’s final flight.  This is great news – congratulations to ASC.  Gene Roe wrote about this in his blog, LiDAR News, suggesting Flash LIDAR is the next technical breakthrough in the LIDAR survey industry.  Based on our experience, we believe he is right but there are material hurdles to consider.

Flash LIDAR is truly a promising technology and one that those of us in the 3D industry should gain familiarity with.  The great advantage of this technology is the simultaneous capture of measurements across the camera’s entire field of view.  Instantaneous acquisition of an entire scene lends itself well to applications where motion and high speeds are unavoidable: automotive, aviation, robotics, motion capture, etc.
 
Expect it to make a big impact in the near future in gaming and other interactive technologies (think Kinect but better).  This technology works in nearly any lighting condition, isn’t susceptible to motion blur and can operate at high frame rates.  While cost is prohibitive at the moment, Flash LIDAR technology is really just silicon.   When economies of scale come to bear, this is a technology that can be manufactured cheaply.
 
Flash LIDAR may soon find its way into 3D surveying applications as well.  The biggest hurdle currently preventing this is resolution.  Most commercially available Flash LIDAR cameras have imaging arrays of 128×128 or smaller.  Unless you use a very small field of view, this will not be useful to a surveyor.  Look for these devices to find relevance in surveying when the imaging arrays advance to the megapixel range.  Given the similarities to technology in digital photography this may not be long.  Finally, if the gaming industry or other applications can drive down costs, this could be a very cheap and efficient data acquisition tool enabling rapid growth of the LIDAR surveying industry.

Seth Koterba, Vice President of Research and Technology

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