Albert Einstein once said, A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new. Nobody likes to make mistakes but we all have and will continue to do so. It seems that generally when we try something new, we are prone to make mistakes, no matter how much planning and care we exercise.
Since mid 2010, LiDAR USA has been developing and refining its ScanLook Snoopy mobile mapping system. Each improvement has been a direct result from an experience that we wished to improve upon. You could justifiably say we were correcting the mistakes in our system. The only way to find the mistakes is to push the system into more diverse and varied projects. In spite of immense R&D efforts, nothing quite compares to a true field test.
In a recent project, we were presented with the opportunity to scan a small island in the Gulf of Mexico, roughly 0.5 by 1+ miles. The island is an area of interest for wildlife habitat and the study of the influence of human efforts to improve certain conditions, particularly waterways. Initial thoughts were to use traditional static scanning. However, this would have required an abundance of setups and many targets. One of the restrictions on this project was that it needed to be non-intrusive and non-invasive. It also had to be done in a hurry. A large number of static scans and numerous targets would have violated this requirement.
Next up was the use of a mobile scanner. While this may have worked in most situations, in this particular case it would not. The surface of the island was just above sea level, partially covered with extremely dense, albeit short, plant growth, and the soil was super saturated making passage on foot alone almost impossible. Consideration was given to using a swamp buggy (with tracks) but it would have most certainly left plenty of evidence that it had just greatly invaded and disturbed the native habitat. Basically, it would have made new waterways just traversing the island.
With static scanning out and mobile scanning doubtful, we turned our thoughts toward the sky. We had deployed Snoopy on a gyroplane months earlier. This was considered but was ruled out due to mobilization cost. So we turned our sights towards a helicopter, something we had not yet used with a Snoopy system. After a brief round of discussions, and gaining approval from the client to use a helicopter from a low-altitude, it was decided to try using Snoopy for this project.
Snoopy has been built with extreme prejudice towards size and mobility. It seems we encounter a large variety of projects many of which we would never conceive of ourselves. For this reason the small size is essential but size alone is not the end of it. While being small is great, it must also be easy to mount. Equally as important, it must be easy to reconfigure the power source quickly and easily.
The day of scanning arrived and we found ourselves looking at a 4-passenger helicopter. Armed with only a modest set of tools and parts, Snoopy was ready to be deployed for scanning within 20 minutes. The moments after readiness were the moments of truth for us. How would Snoopy work from the side mount? What impact would the vibrations have on the point cloud? Is everything snug enough that its not going to fail once we were underway.
We left the airport, flying over the city with Snoopy hanging out the side through the one open door. This was our first helicopter ride and we were admittedly a bit tense. After just a few minutes in the air we cleared the city and became comfortable with the situation. For the most part scanning the island was uneventful and really wasnt much different than scanning from the ground. We landed, setup our base station, scanned and finished the project.
We learned a number of things on this project. Most importantly, we learned that Snoopy works fine from a helicopter. We had no issues with excessive vibrations and the point cloud looked great. Was a helicopter the right tool for this job? Absolutely. Unlimited payload, quick and easy mobilization, land and take off at site, and affordable. At $300 to $700/hour for a helicopter rental, we can travel anywhere in the US and confidently collect low-altitude LiDAR data affordably. Additionally, unlike other platforms we have no issues with violating FAA regulations.
In closing, George Bernard Shaw is noted to have said A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing. In our office we are busy making mistakes, trying something new, and learning every day. We hope our mistakes and efforts can bring you some benefit just as they have us.