Abroad thoughts from home

I hope Robert Browning will forgive me mutilating his title, but at least it is April and many of us are yearning to be elsewhere! Mostly, we are at home, in lock-down and, thankfully, healthy so far.

We learned that the new iPad Pro has lidar. The announcement of the LiDAR Scanner – yes, Mr Cook’s folk use one of the correct spelling options! – came near the top of Apple’s mass e-mail on 25 March. With a range up to 5 m, the LiDAR Scanner is designed to work with the iPad Pro’s cameras, motion sensors and software to measure depth. Apple is pushing augmented reality applications. Why does this matter, when the performance is so different from other lidar devices in the geospatial world? There is a parallel to the transfer of automotive lidar technology to geospatial, mainly UAV, applications. The automotive market is huge and therefore has deep R&D pockets, resulting in technological developments from which the geospatial community is a beneficiary. The LiDAR Scanner comes from another gigantic market – the consumer one. Arguably, the availability of decent cameras on smart phones gave a jolt to some structure-from-motion and UAV developments on the photogrammetric side, so maybe this the LiDAR Scanner will foment low-cost software packages for registering and modeling lidar point clouds. Also, we know from our daily interaction with social media that the consumer community is optimistic and positive about technology and its wonders – that’s another force for progress in itself! Apple is working in both the consumer and vehicular worlds, so the tech titan will contribute in multiple ways. I’ve seen rumors that the LiDAR Scanner may be included in the iPhone 12…

What’s going on while we’re at home? We’re busy rearranging travel and seeking refunds related to conferences that have been postponed or canceled. The XXIVth ISPRS Congress, for example, has been postponed from June 2020 to July 2021, still in Nice, France. Geo Week, which would have taken place in Washington, DC, in March, has been postponed to Chicago at the end of July. Diversified Communications also took the sensible step of combining this with their SPAR 3D/AEC Next event, which would have taken place in Chicago in June. And so it goes on. When ASPRS learned that Geo Week would be postponed, it decided to run its board and committee meetings, annual business meeting and awards remotely. Importantly, however, it also ran its workshops – these are two- or four-hour sessions for which registrants pay extra – remotely and something remarkable happened: because it was possible to spread the workshops out, rather than have them all on two days within the Geo Week program, the workshops attracted more attendees than they would have done at the face-to-face event. Most of the instructors proved willing to give their material remotely and the feedback was excellent. This may give a jump start to ongoing ASPRS initiatives in distance learning. If the rescheduled Geo Week becomes threatened, either because Covid-19 proves less amenable than some folks think, or because the McCormick Place Convention Center in Chicago is currently serving as a hospital, ASPRS may run its technical sessions remotely, to fulfil its duties to members to provide a platform for them to present their papers. This is crucial now that papers from ASPRS events are being published in the ISPRS Archives series.

Another route to staying geospatially current is webinars. I’ve heard three excellent ones recently. The first wasn’t related to lidar, but enthralled me: a webinar in the ASPRS GeoBytes series entitled, “The Equal Earth projection”. This is a new map projection, invented by Tom Patterson (retired in 2018 from the National Park Service), Bojan Šavrič (Esri) and Bernhard Jenny (Monash University). The equal area, pseudocylindrical projection is indeed marvelous, but the subtleties of the public-domain maps that are available on it are even better!

The organizers of INTERGEO, the enormous trade show and conference that takes place in central Europe every autumn, are hoping that this year’s event, scheduled for Berlin in October, will go ahead. They provided a webinar, with several speakers, on UAVs and Covid-19. One application is looking for gatherings in places where they are forbidden and issuing loudspeaker warnings. Another is biometric detection using images of people and analyzing their micro and body movements (to detect coughing and other symptoms) and, if a good thermal IR sensor is available, temperature. This included putting rings round people in the enhanced imagery to check for social distancing. There was a fine presentation on UAV deliveries, especially for medical purposes, with the UAV landing on a purpose-built, 2.4 m high station that can be located near the destination: the package disengages from under the drone and falls into the station, from which it can be retrieved using a hatch nearer the ground. This is a BVLOS technology safeguarded by redundancies, so it may not suit all countries and, indeed, another speaker covered the regulatory environment. For Covid-19, issues of privacy and data security were paramount.

Diversified Communications ran a webinar in their Geo Week series, “What’s the future of lidar?”, vivaciously moderated by Carla Lauter from the firm’s editorial staff. The panel shared 14 decades of experience and oozed expertise: Ron Roth (Hexagon Geosystems), Jim Van Rens (Riegl USA), Martin Flood (GeoCue Group) and Qassim Abdullah (Woolpert). Need I write more? The one-hour recording and 38 slides are available – seek them out. The hour passed in what seemed like a few minutes and I emerged with many pages of notes and felt more on top of the trends. There were 829 registrants and 506 attendees – I’m sure they were all as riveted as I.

At the very end of the webinar, there was a question about the LAS 1.4 format. LIDAR Magazine is working with the ASPRS Lidar Division to get a short article on how LAS is evolving to match the continuously improving technology. Also in the pipeline is an interview with Quantum Spatial’s Mark Meade. Though locked down at home, Mark is very positive about Quantum Spatial’s activities: apart from flight crew, virtually every employee is working successfully from home. All aircraft and helicopters are operational. The acquisition by NV5 has gone well. Projects are being completed, some of the, spectacular, but also deep in terms of assessing what can be accomplished with different sensors and approaches to usage. We will publish a full version of this interview soon and, later in the year, features about some projects.

Stay safe, follow the guidelines and keep well. We will try to help with news and insights about what’s going on in the restless world of lidar.

About the Author

Dr. A. Stewart Walker

Stewart is the Managing Editor of the magazine. He holds MA, MScE and PhD degrees in geography and geomatics from the universities of Glasgow, New Brunswick and Bristol, and an MBA from Heriot-Watt. He is an ASPRS-certified photogrammetrist. More articles...