How Government Agencies are Using LiDAR to Cut Costs Across Hundreds of Use Cases

Hearing a lot of buzz about LiDAR lately? We’ve been blogging about the benefits of LiDAR for a wide variety of public sector projects for some time, but it seems that only now is LiDAR getting the attention it deserves. In fact, according to a recent article by Government Computer News (GCN), LiDAR (which stands for Light Detection and Ranging) is revolutionizing how federal, state and local government agencies for mapping and geospatial projects.

LiDAR, a remote sensing system used for mapping the surface of the earth, has been around for decades, but it’s only in the past few years that it’s undergone a boom and is now at the heart of many government data gathering projects – from mapping desert terrain in Afghanistan to creating forest height maps.

How does LiDAR work?

LiDAR can scan everything from the ocean floor to forest undergrowth – all from an airborne laser pointed at a targeted area on the ground. Airplanes and helicopters are the most commonly used platforms for acquiring LiDAR data over broad areas and are equipped with a LiDAR instrument consisting of a laser, a scanner, and a specialized GPS receiver. It works by reflecting a beam of light on any surface it encounters. A sensor then records this reflected light to measure a range. When laser ranges are combined with position and orientation data generated from integrated GPS and Inertial Measurement Unit systems, scan angles, and calibration data, the result is a dense, detail-rich group of elevation points, called a “point cloud.”

Images courtesy of NOAA

Speaking to GCN, John English, LIDAR data coordinator for Oregon’s Department of Geology, explains that agencies are increasingly turning to LIDAR because the technology has gotten both less expensive and more accurate, and, because surveys are generally done from aircraft, vast amounts of territory can be covered quickly. “It’s been a huge timesaver,” he said.  “The estimate of savings is incalculable.”

NOAA is also leaping on board and realizing the cost savings, NOAA uses LiDAR to produce more accurate shoreline maps, make digital elevation models for use in GIS systems, and to assist emergency response operations, and more.

LiDAR simplifies 3D mapping and modeling

LiDAR is also a core part of many 3D information modeling projects thanks to ability to quickly support the creation of 3D objects. One such example comes from a fascinating project in which LiDAR was used to create 3D models of the tiny Micronesian island of Kosrae with the goal of preserving the history of the island and documenting what exists today.

The project started back in 2007, when Autodesk’s Pete Kelsey traveled to Kosrae to begin digital documentation of the island. This year, Joe Travis, a geographer and senior manager of technical sales at Autodesk, teamed up with Pete and began working with KnowledgeWell, a nonprofit that delivers business expertise to emerging parts of the world, to continue the project.

One of the key areas of Kosrae that the team mapped is an ancient city known as the Lelu Ruins. “We basically take a large piece of survey hardware to scan different feature on the island, which shoots out millions of points with a laser beam, and allows us to capture the walls of an ancient city,” Travis says. “We scan these features and create 3D models with our software. With measurements and analysis, we can get a good idea of what the city looked like hundreds of years ago.” This same technique is being used on many features, both ancient and from the WWII era.

In addition to preserving an island’s history, reality capture software technology (the team also used side sonar and photography imported into Autodesk 123 Catch) has numerous uses for government agencies. Travis says this technology could be used to create 3D models of bridges, buildings and even natural features such as glaciers or volcanoes. “You could potentially compare models of landforms over time,” he says. “We have to think bigger in terms of mapping and 3D reality capture now that we have increased technology potential.”

Other government agencies may want to capture an electrical substation or a nuclear power plant. “With reality capture hardware and software applications, you can quickly create a three-dimensional model of almost any structure or natural feature,” Travis says. Read more in this blog: Autodesk Employees Volunteer with KnowledgeWell to Help Preserve Historic Kosrae Using Reality Capture Software and BIM.

Autodesk’s Pete Kelsey and other team members survey the walls of the ancient Lelu Ruins on the island of Kosrae

Other Government Uses for LiDAR

A 2012 U.S. Geological Survey report found that LiDAR has the potential for up to 600 different uses with the biggest savings to be realized in fields such as flood risk management, infrastructure and construction management, natural resources conservation, agriculture and water supply management.

LiDAR for Dummies – Free eBook

Want to know more? Download this free ebook: LiDAR for Dummies . Produced by our sponsor DLT Solutions and Autodesk, this eBook spells out the basics of LiDAR, including what it is and how it works.  You’ll learn the main capture techniques along with how LiDAR is used and how it helps you pinpoint different features in the environment.

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