Mixed Feelings at Year’s End

Lidar shines despite global turbulence

We couldn’t hide disappointment as 2021 drew to a close. US politics are deadlocked. Travel remains risky and limited. There is uncertainty, indeed volatility in several areas of the world. Things can only improve—or is there scope for worsening?

The conference scene has been severely compromised by the pandemic. People’s longing to meet face-to-face, however, ensured that 2021 saw some very successful events, particularly the Commercial UAV Expo, held by Diversified Communications in September in sweltering Las Vegas. There were many excellent online events, for example those run by ISPRS and ASPRS, the latter both national and regional. Some events were hybrid, such as the Fall Lidar Workshop run by the ASPRS Florida Region and the University of Florida, hosted in the hangar of GPI Geospatial, Inc. in Orlando—generous social distancing in a space designed for aircraft! We long for face-to-face events in 2022 and have already listed some1. Preparations are advanced for Geo Week in Denver in February, which will be a fine conference and we will include the presentation of the Lidar Leader Awards, for which once again we have received a large number of excellent nominations. The French organizers of the XXIVth ISPRS Congress, now scheduled for June 2022 in Nice, France, provided two online events to compensate for the postponements of the live event in 2020 and 2021. We exhort readers to attend and firms to exhibit, to ensure that the Congress is successful, the extra costs borne by the organizers are recouped and we all learn as much as we can from this exquisitely organized feast of photogrammetric and remote sensing research, amongst which lidar plays a lively role.

This issue is an important one. We have reported on the tragic death of lidar guru and personality Dr. Martin Isenburg. Here we offer an obituary penned by Howard Butler, who also contributes an article on his firm’s Cloud Optimized Point Cloud specification, which augments Martin’s renowned LAZ format.

We have an extraordinary article by the engineering and environmental consulting firm Langan, derived from a presentation given at the Lidar Workshop run jointly by the ASPRS Florida Region and the University of Florida, which took place remotely on 21 June 20212. This describes the surveying of an enormous transporter to move NASA’s Orion spacecraft from assembly to the launch pad, a journey of 4.1 miles at Kennedy Space Center, for the Artemis I mission, currently scheduled for March 2022. The weight of the transporter and payload is an astonishing 12,500 tons, so the track they follow is likely to be affected—that’s the crux of the surveying challenge!

Equally remarkable, we learn about an extraordinary topobathymetric sensor from Woolpert—we didn’t know until recently that this company makes sensors, though it has been involved in sensor development for quite some time—that can fly higher than the existing sensors of this type, resulting in broader coverage, fewer flight lines and savings in mission cost and time. The science and engineering behind this sensor are truly impressive. Since receiving the article, LIDAR Magazine has visited Woolpert’s maritime lab in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi to see the sensor at first hand and learn more about the technology and the team involved—the report is in preparation.

LIDAR Magazine has covered the vibrant lidar activity in the automotive world, where the demands of the vehicle manufacturers coupled with the sprouting of numerous energetic, innovative start-ups, spurred in many cases by SPAC financing models, has caused the cost of sensors to plummet. Some of these are barely good enough for geospatial work, but others are just fine. Not only their cost, but also their weight and power requirements, have transformed the UAV-lidar world. On vehicles, the ADAS applications are universally welcome—we all enjoy gadgets that keep us in lane, help us park and stop us from hitting the car in front—but AVs still encounter a mixed reception; reports of failures, injuries and deaths are carrion to the naysayers. The article by DeepRoute, the second time we have featured this company, is focused on robotaxi applications in China, undergirded by testing on a massive scale, and is compelling. Progress is being made—enjoy your stickshift while you can!

Qassim Abdullah (also Woolpert) and Tom Ruschkewicz provide invaluable advice as they describe how Woolpert fuses datasets of different provenance and accuracy into products that meet the requirements of transportation projects. Behind this is commonsense “horses for courses”, to which are applied rigorous adherence to specifications and appropriate merge technologies. The economic implications are considerable, because existing data, often in the public domain, can be re-used, saving costs while meeting specifications.

Many of us have entertained dreams of founding our own geospatial companies. Some readers have done it. The story of GeoWing Mapping is a heart-warming one, following industry veterans Becky Morton and Alan Mikuni to success with photogrammetry and lidar after six years of hard work. GeoWing’s business model is intriguing as it combines in-house UAV-photogrammetry with subcontracted lidar data acquisition, followed by in-house processing. We wonder if this will change as the system cost of UAV-lidar falls…

The issue concludes with a book review. Tom Ager retired after decades with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and drew upon his accumulated expertise and experience of explaining to others the intricacies of synthetic aperture radar, to write The Essentials of SAR, comfortably accessible to those without strong backgrounds in physics and math.

As is our wont, we end with nuggets from journals, half a century apart. We came across a piece about the use of the time-of-flight of pulses of ruby lasers to measure the positions of satellites from Earth in Jena Review, the scientific-technical journal of Carl Zeiss Jena in East Germany3. These were early days for lidar and the results were remarkable—remember that this was done 50 years ago. Returning to the present day, we spotted a release from Southern California Gas that it has signed a deal with Bridger Photonics, Bozeman, Montana, “to detect, pinpoint and quantify methane emissions thoughout [its] distribution area”4 What a wonderful world!

Thus we should end a tough year, where the daily news offers little respite, by reflecting on the positive. It’s clear that the sensing technologies at the center of this magazine’s world are rapidly developing and improving our world in multiple ways. Moreover, the community surrounding them—developers, suppliers, users—is lively and anxious to meet to exchange views and cement friendships. LIDAR Magazine looks forward to 2022 and wishes its readers well in their endeavors.

2 Karlin, A., 2021. Energetic data acquisition in Florida, LIDAR Magazine, 11(4): 40-45, Oct-Nov 2021.

3 Steinbach, M. and R. Neubert, 1972. Measuring the positions of satellites with the aid of laser pulses, Jena Review, 1972/7: 331-336.

4 Anon, 2021. Gas mapping lidar quantifies methane emissions, Photonics Spectra, (55)11: 20, November 2021.

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...