LiDAR is Changing the Worlds of 3D Measurement and Modeling

Nothing like spending four days with a bunch of really smart engineers to give me a little humility and to remind me again just how little I really know about the world.  The SPAR conference is an annual conference focused on 3D imaging technologies.  (For an excellent post on what LiDAR is and how it can be used see Matt Ball's excellent post in Spatial Sustain)   This year the US event (there is one in Japan as well) was held in The Woodlands (just north of Houston) Texas.  Attendance was up this year to around 775 which is a record for this event.  Around 20% of the attendees were from outside the US, I met many from Europe but there were a number from Australia, New Zealand, Japan, China, and other Pacific rim countries.

Mobile mapping LiDAR on display. Cost - $300K - $750KWhat impressed me most about the SPAR conference is how rapidly the industry is changing, and what a dramatic impact the technology of 3D imaging based on LiDAR is having on the worlds of 3D measurement and modeling.  This is game-changing technology.  If I were in the traditional surveying business, I would be very nervous.

So, what is it about this technology that gives it the potential to revolutionize the market for spatial measurement?  I think that there are several factors:


  1. You can collect a LOT of data with LiDAR very rapidly.  By mounting the collectors or airborne platforms on ground-based mobile platforms, you can collect a vast number of measurements (many billions of points) in hours.  The vehicle-mounted platforms are capable of collecting very accurate data at highway speeds.
  2. The sensors are capable of amazing accuracy.  Some of the systems being shown at SPAR are capable of measurements to tenths or even hundredths of a millimeter.  While it is not possible (or necessary) to get this kind of accuracy from a mobile platform, for some kinds of applications (forensic investigations, historic documentation, etc.) it is now possible to create 3D models that were previously only fantasy.
  3. The technology is very expensive.  You have to have some deep pockets to play in this game.  Table stakes is somewhere in the order of $250,000 and it goes up quickly from there.  The technology is also changing very rapidly.  I spoke to several folks active in the field that reported that the useful life of a sensor is about 18 months.  After that point, new sensors have made the equipment you own obsolete.


I believe that the combination of these three factors is going to drive significant consolidation in the survey industry in the coming decade.  Gone are the days when you could purchase a $1,500 theodolite and expect that investment to last 5-10 years.  New business models will be necessary to enable the new technology.  Given the economics of the technology, it will be only the larger businesses that have the capital resources necessary to play.

For those of us that consume spatial data, there is amazing opportunity unfolding before us.  In our own business, the ability to collect 3D LiDAR of the insides of buildings from mobile platforms represents a tremendous leap in our ability to model the built environment.  Suddenly it becomes economically viable to create Building Information Models (BIM) for existing buildings - at least at a level that is suitable for facilities maintenance and operations.  In the fullness of time, these capabilities will have the same effect on the in-building measurement industry that terrestrial LiDAR is having on the survey industry.  In the brave new world, a simple 2D CAD floor plan pulled together with a $500 hand-held will not deliver kinds of 3D, semantically-rich information that will increasingly be demanded by more sophisticated building owners and operators.  The Public Safety community will expect maps of building interiors and our underground environments to support their planning, analysis, response, and mitigation work flows.

The next few years are going to be very exciting.  Do these new technologies represent threats or opportunities?  Yes.