It's official, light detection and ranging (LiDAR) is the next big thing in the world of technology. And I have unequivocal proof: The first LiDAR for Dummies book has been published. Publishers do not print Dummies books unless there is a great deal of interest in a subject. By the way, it is a free downloadable e-book from Autodesk and DLT Solutions, if you are interested.
Seriously, LiDAR seems to have caught everyone's attention lately. It has not been quite two years since the publication of our first LiDAR supplement (T&D World, February 2010), and already it is time to re-examine the subject. The geospatial information and remote-sensing industry has been evolving, developing and expanding faster than any technology I can name. Users have a plethora of choices for all manner of GPS, geodesy, photogrammetry and, of course, LiDARgrammetry.
But the biggest news is that aerial LiDAR is being forced to share center stage with terrestrial LiDAR. Interest in terrestrial LiDAR has exploded with its mobile mapping applications. Naturally, LiDAR providers have combined mobile mapping with aerial surveying to provide some pretty sophisticated imaging. Individually, they present great deliverables, but together they are shaking up things.
When the 11th International LiDAR Mapping Forum was announced earlier this year, it seemed like a great idea to head off to New Orleans and see firsthand what was happening. The conference was amazing and featured all sorts of attention-getting technologies to play with if you could get to them.
With almost 600 attendees from 33 countries, the 57 exhibitors were challenged. I have never been on an exhibition floor where just about every exhibitor had a line of delegates waiting, but the wait was worth it. Some providers had 3-D imaging requiring clunky glasses to get the full effect. And Optech had a remarkable setup. If you stood in a specific spot in front of the company's large-screen LED monitor, it was like looking through a window into a 3-D LiDAR world.
My favorite exhibit was of a highway interchange using a combination of aerial and terrestrial LiDAR. I was able to switch back and forth from aerial view to ground perspective. It blew me away to be able to see the underside of an overpass. I cannot wait to see my Garmin in five years; this LiDAR imaging even allows you to read the highway signs clearly!
Something else that caught my attention was that among all the people at the conference, there were hardly any utility folks in attendance. Perhaps that should not be a surprise given the present management philosophy. Utilities are cutting costs at every corner. Training budgets have been slashed, but maybe management is correct: Why spend good money on keeping the technical staff educated when all technical issues are decided by the purchasing department based on the lowest price?
Well, maybe I am being somewhat facetious, but there is a serious problem here. We live in a complex world with technology that is reshaping our industry every day. It is hard to stay on top of advancing technologies without continuing education. LiDAR-based technologies are probably one of the more challenging applications hitting the industry. Unfortunately, all LiDAR is not created equal and neither are LiDAR providers, but to the uninformed they appear to be.
This point was brought home when the housing industry collapsed, which hit the land surveyors hard. Many land surveyors saw a lucrative field opening up just in time: LiDAR surveying. The North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC) alert recommending LiDAR surveying of 450,000 miles (724,205 km) of transmission lines was not missed. Companies with very little experience with LiDAR surveying offered utilities countless low-ball proposals. When these tenders hit the utilities evaluating technical proposals solely on price (no pesky engineers involved), the problems began.
Contracts were awarded, data was collected and third-party data crunchers, in foreign countries, were given the LiDAR data to produce the deliverables. The deliverables were received and sent to engineering. Oops. For the first time, reality met low-priced results. The results and models were pretty unintelligible. The engineers notified the purchasing agent, who in turn called the LiDAR provider. About this time, the handwriting was on the wall. The cost savings were gone, the budget was severely impacted and the NERC requirements still had to be met.
I talked with my friend Jim Dow, CEO of Aerotec, about this phenomenon. He has seen it a number of times. He told me Aerotec has been working with several utilities to salvage as much of the data as possible, but it has been difficult.
Dow says, “It is the perfect example that low cost may be the most expensive choice and that doesn't even begin to approach the longer-term security issues.”
LiDAR-based technologies will let us see the world in a totally new way. We are no longer confined to the flat 2-D paper surface. The technology is available to allow us three-dimensionality with the ability to manipulate the view. As a consulting engineer, I have sat in my Albuquerque office and experienced the virtual reality of a substation in southern New Mexico. There was no reason to drive four hours each way to the station to verify electrical clearances. I could do that and so much more from the 3-D LiDAR model generated from a couple of hours' worth of laser scanning the station.
Advanced technologies are making the difference, but technology cannot do it alone. LiDAR is here to stay, and if we expect to use it effectively, we need to understand what it can do and how it works.