April 5, 2023

Can Lidar Save the Earth?

As lidar and supporting technologies collect more and better data about the world around us, the opportunities to detect, monitor and address climate change effects are increasing.

Growing up, one of my most well-worn books was a copy of "50 Things Kids Can Do to Save The Earth". While that overly optimistic title may give away my age - the book was clearly the product of the peak of environmental activism wave of the 1980s and early 1990s - I vividly remember the days when the rainforests needed saving, the ozone hole was growing and acid rain was a daily news item. As our understanding of climate change and other environmental impacts have continued to evolve, so, too, have the technologies that help us to understand and combat it. 

While the ways in which lidar and related technologies can be utilized towards these ends have not been fully explored, we’re already seeing use cases that are eye-opening.

Really Seeing the Forests (For The Trees)

While lidar has been used to examine forests for decades, and have included remote sensing efforts from satellites (including the well-known Landsat that has provided decades of imagery for forest mapping) as well as on-the-ground and aerial data collection efforts. However, with advances in lidar sensors, aerial cameras, as well as processing software, it is possible to get more insights than ever before. 

Forest structure, forest volume and wood biomass can now be assessed with lidar measurements. Potential fire risk can be modeled, and areas previously affected by wildfires can be tracked for recovery. The applications of lidar for forestry are emerging, including the newer fields of wildlife habitat mapping and the ability to examine canopy and forest structure in more detail. 

From the manufacturer's side - sensor makers like RIEGL are all-in on the hybrid approach (combining lidar and imaging), and many are making versatile sensors that can be put to work on specific tasks including forestry management. 

Other companies, including YellowScan, have created a portfolio of scanners that can be attached to UAV payloads, with medium and long-range possibilities. The Explorer, launched by YellowScan in 2021 can be mounted on either light aircraft or UAV platforms - increasing its versatility. 

Outsight also launched a ‘Smart’ lidar box last year that includes algorithms that allow for individual trees to be identified within lidar data, which can be annotated by forestry professionals to create much more accurate assessments of forest species composition. With other advances in machine learning on the way, this identification process may soon be an automated process. 

Keeping Eyes on Fragile Coastlines

The advances in topographic and bathymetric sensors in the last two years has been astonishing, with some sensors that are now capable of seamlessly scanning from land to the water - capturing topography and bathymetry in one pass. 

Earlier this year, Woolpert showcased their new high-altitude, wide-swath topobathymetric lidar system, the result of joint research that brought together a team of engineers and scientists. Because of the crucial nature of the areas where land meets water, this new sensor could allow for more responsive imaging of sensitive areas. With a wider swath and faster collection, data from oceans, lakes and other waterways can more easily help track erosion, monitor the environmental impact of natural disasters, perform volumetric studies, support sediment management, ensure safe navigation and port security, and drive economic development.

Leica Geosystems also released the Chiroptera 4X system that can simultaneously collect bathymetric and topographic lidar data with high-resolution imagery. The key breakthrough here, however, is the near-real time detection of underwater objects. This feature is aimed at safety and security applications, but could also have applications for monitoring coastal damage and strategically deploying assets for restoration efforts where they are most needed. 

The Future?

Laser scanning, photogrammetry and 3D reality capture have emerged as technologies that, combined with advances in computer processing, have contributed to our understanding of both the changes wrought by climate change, as well as documenting the world’s most fragile regions, providing a baseline for natural disaster recovery, and more.

While the above examples only scratch the surface of what is possible, the future of using advanced lidar technology, machine learning and other 3D processing techniques is one that is paved with opportunity.

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