The Consumerization of LiDAR

A 404Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine complete with images is available by clicking HERE

Let’s start with a quick recap of two recent conferences. ILMF 2015 continued the tradition of this start-of-the-year, industry trade show event. The overall attendance was typical of past events. There was something like 18 new companies exhibiting in what felt like a cramped and somewhat disconnected show floor, but there was a lot of buzz and excitement.

The two hot items being discussed in the sessions and on the show floor were (as you might expect) UASs and something called Geigermode LiDAR. Just as some groups were beginning to think that LiDAR had all but eliminated the need for photogrammetry UASs, especially smaller ones that use cameras since they are not capable of supporting a LiDAR sensor, have blown that idea out of the water. It’s time to renew your membership in ASPRS. Right now the challenge for the mapping community is to find the right combination of UAS and LiDAR sensor that can be flown reliably and cost effectively given the risk of failure. That is going to be resolved in the not too distant future.

Harris Corporation made quite a splash with their announcement of a Geiger mode sensor that will be part of a service offering that is planned for release in a few months. This technology has been used by the government for the past 15 years, but this will be the first commercial offering. In theory these sensors can deliver order of magnitude increases in performance that allows them to be flown much higher and faster. LiDAR News will be offering a webinar with Mark Romano of Harris on March 24 to explain this exciting technology.

Moving on to Autodesk and the inaugural REAL conference held in San Francisco. Overall this was an impressive event, especially considering it was their first one. Rather than having speakers submit abstracts the organizers invited a truly impressive group of industry leaders representing a wide range of 3D gurus who supported the conference theme of "reality computing." If you want to find out what a true industry pioneer thought I would refer you to this excellent recap by Michael Raphael, the founder of Direct Dimensions. Congratulations to all that were involved in this informative and inspiring event.

A quick note on a supposedly "leaked" report from the FAA Office of Aviation Policy and Plans Economics Analysis Division lays out a strong case for the benefits of allowing the regulated use of UAVs in U.S. airspace. Currently the FAA is seeking comments on the proposed rules. Overall I think most people believe these are workable, but there are some key issues such as not being able to fly a UAS over anyone on the ground and only during daylight hours. The latter is a particular issue with LiDAR.

As you are reading this you may be at SPAR 2015. This event is returning to Houston, Texas with the goal of attracting more people from the oil and gas industry and plant space, one would assume. It looks like there are going to be three categories, or levels of presentations introductory, business and technical. Also new will be a UAS/ UAV pavilion, a university pavilion and a hologram room. The event runs from March 30 to April 2. I expect to see many of you there.

The recent BIG news in the 3D industry was the FARO acquisition of kubit. First of all, congratulations to both groups for making this happen. I think this has the potential to be a major win for both companies and as important–customers. Some would say that FARO has been weak on the software side so this enhances their competitive position and of course kubit is not in the sensor business.

As I have noted the success of these deals comes down to culture. Can 1 + 1 > 2? One important item is that both companies have a key part of their technical roots in Germany which I think will be a real bonus. Of course there will be potential issues with existing strategic partnerships, but the main concern is the potential narrowing of creativity on the part of kubit. Let’s hope that does not occur.

The value being created by the use of 3D laser scanning is in full evidence in this issue. The shear breadth of applications of this powerful technology can be seen in offshore drilling, cultural heritage, powerline inspection with UAVs, historic preservation, highway safety, industrial plant and much more. As always please let me know if you would like to showcase one of your recent projects.

I wanted to call particular attention to the Lewis Graham column in this issue and to his comment at the very end of the article where he wonders if we have reached the practical limits of laser scanning. I have learned from experience that when Lewis talks one should listen, "My own opinion is that we need to take a pause in one-upsmanship in the scanning LIDAR arena and really crack the calibration and geocoding nut. This would do more for the production industry than any other innovation." We should all take heed of this industry veteran’s advice and voice these concerns with the vendors. We have more than enough technology, let’s make it more useable.

On a closing note, over the years I have made mention of this in passing many times, but I thought it was worth a somewhat deeper look. I am referring to the similarities between the consumerization of GPS (now GNSS) and LiDAR. In many ways the adoption of these two technologies have paralleled each other, at least to the casual observer, but in the end are they really on the same path?

Both GPS and LiDAR have their roots in highly scientific, expensive and technical applications. Both are 3D. Both are becoming "consumerized" in large part because of the automotive industry and in both cases it remains to be seen whether the companies that are the leaders in the professional markets will make the transition to the consumer space. For the most part that did not happen with GPS and with the possible exception of Velodyne it does not appear that the major players such as Hexagon and Riegl are showing any interest in competing in the low profit margin world of consumer electronics.

So the hoped for economies of scale that developed with the digital camera do not seem to be lining up to produce top end laser scanners priced like a total station. It would seem on the surface that this could really open up the market, but the key vendors do not seem to be willing to take the risk to find out.

Now if Google is able to get Project Tango to deliver on its promise of a low cost handheld 3D scanner in a smart phone and/or tablet then LiDAR technology may become the next soccer mom buzzword, but I don’t currently see that as a threat to the professional market vendors for most of today’s applications. It’s going to take more time to realize the benefits of a mass market demand for LiDAR.

Gene Roe, PS, PE, PhD
Managing Editor & Co-Founder
LiDAR News Magazine

A 404Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine complete with images is available by clicking HERE