LiDAR Drones, the Technology, and Drone Sensors

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LiDAR (short for Light Detection and Ranging) is a smart remote sensing technology. UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) LiDAR scans the environment from above using a pulsed laser beam. It measures the reflection time of a signal from the object back to a detector. There’s a lot more to it than this but that’s the basics of how it works. We’ll look into the practical applications further down the page.

LiDAR can help to enhance results when combined with photogrammetry techniques. Photogrammetry and LiDAR are both powerful technologies with similarities and differences.

Photogrammetry Defined

Photogrammetry is passive technology and the science of making measurements from actual photos. It transforms 2D images into 3D cartometric models. It’s a similar principle to how human eyes determine the perception of depth. It’s how we measure and view different objects in 3-dimensions.

Photogrammetry does have its disadvantages. It’s not good for mapping elevations unless the ground is clear from every angle. For example, it’s not ideal for mapping below a tree canopy or other major obstructions. This is where UAV LiDAR has an edge over photogrammetry.

Both LiDAR and photogrammetry technologies have their advantages and disadvantages. That’s not to say one is better than the other one—they’re just different, though similar. They can also be complementary.

A Game Changer in Mapping & Geospatial Data

Today, we can attach LiDAR systems to drones and that’s a huge deal. They have 360-degree visibility rotating around a dedicated axis. Many of the modern devices are capable of extremely high data rates. You can expect somewhere in the neighborhood of one million distance points/sec. Drone LiDAR accuracy is also impressive. It can be within 1-2 cm when attached to drones equipped with GPS, digital cameras, and capable computers.

Practical Applications for UAV LiDAR

Even drones found on Amazon can exploit LiDAR technology. The way businesses survey is now more cost-effective, quicker, and superior to anything previous. Capturing complex data and imagery has never been so easy.

Here are five typical applications for UAV LiDAR, though there will be others:

  1. Agriculture & Forestry
  2. Civil Engineering & Surveying
  3. Infrastructure Surveys
  4. Mining & Natural Resources
  5. Structural Inspection

Drones are helpful for the ongoing mapping and monitoring of forestry & agricultural operations. Civil engineers and surveyors can benefit too. They’ll rely on UAV LiDAR as they plan to build the towns and cities of our future. Drone LiDAR can quickly collect data for infrastructure surveys. Best of all is that they can do this with zero disruption to people and services.

Laser scanning is such a practical way to help improve mine and quarry safety as well. In turn, it can help to boost the efficiency of these type of operations. The built-in signal processing of high-end LiDAR sensors is vital for safe structural inspections. The large field of view (FOV) and multi-segment measurements produces crucial distance data and creates effectual obstacle detection.

The practical application list goes on.

The Costs of a LiDAR Setup

LiDAR surveys cost money but it’s not a one-off cost. Here’s a breakdown of a typical LiDAR setup:

  • The unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) or drone
  • The hardware; UAV LiDAR sensor sets
  • UAV platform to protect the sensor against collisions
  • Processing software (free with some sensor manufacturers)
  • Post-processing software

Drone LiDAR should be your choice over photogrammetry for surveying narrower structures. This might include things like telecommunications towers and power lines as two examples. UAV LiDAR should also be the choice for mapping areas under tree canopies.

Not all Drones Are Equal or Capable

There’s no shortage of LiDAR Sensors designed specifically for drones. This guide looks at some of the best drones for LiDAR sensors at the time of writing. These are short straightforward reviews so use the web links if you want more details on a particular model.

Not all drones are equal and they’re certainly not all capable of LiDAR mapping and photogrammetry. Most important of all is that the drone must have GPS and Autopilot capabilities. Keep this in mind if you decide to explore other drone options outside this guide.


Drones for 3D Mapping and Photogrammetry

This isn’t a drone review, but it’s useful to list a few capable UAVs for 3D mapping and photogrammetry. The seven crafts below are all equipped with the necessary equipment and features.

The DJI Mavic Pro Quadcopter Drone

Useful 3D mapping and photogrammetry features of the Mavic Pro include:

  • Global Positioning System (GPS)
  • Waypoint navigation
  • Integrated 4k stabilized gimbal & camera
  • Latest IMU, flight control stabilization
  • FlightAutonomy obstacle avoidance technology
  • 3 miles (7 km) transmission range
  • 27 minutes maximum flight time

Read more about the DJI Mavic Pro here.

The DJI Matrice 100 Quadcopter (For Developers)

Useful 3D mapping and photogrammetry features of the DJI Matrice 100 include:

  • Autonomous flight control system
  • Enhanced GPS
  • DJI Lightbridge
  • Dedicated remote controller
  • Expansion bays allow you to add additional components
  • 1 miles (5 km) transmission range
  • 40 minutes maximum flight time

Read more about DJI Matrice 100 here

The DJI Phantom 4 Pro Quadcopter

Useful 3D mapping and photogrammetry features of the DJI Phantom 4 Pro include:

  • Tried and tested consumer quadcopter for 3D imaging
  • 4k camera
  • Waypoint navigation
  • Dual navigation systems
  • Works with Site Scan software & Drone Deploy
  • Five-directions of obstacle detection and collision avoidance sensors
  • 3 miles (7 km) transmission range
  • 30 minutes maximum flight time

Read more about the DJI Phantom 4 Pro here

The DJI Phantom 3 Quadcopter

Useful 3D mapping and photogrammetry features of the DJI Phantom 3 include:

  • 7K HD Video Camera
  • GPS assisted flight features
  • Waypoint modes
  • Automatic Flight Assistant
  • Dedicated controller
  • Can use the Altizure app for photogrammetry
  • 6mi (1 km) transmission range
  • 25 minutes maximum flight time

Read more about DJI Phantom 3 here

The DJI Inspire 1 Quadcopter

Useful 3D mapping and photogrammetry features of the DJI Inspire 1 include:

  • Intelligent GLONASS + GPS system
  • Professional 4k camera w/ 3-axis stabilization gimbal
  • Waypoint navigation
  • Course Lock
  • Worry-free autopilot
  • DJI Lightbridge technology
  • Ready-to-fly aerial system
  • Unobstructed 360° shooting
  • 2mi (2 km) transmission range
  • 25 minutes maximum flight time

Read more about DJI Inspire 1 here

The DJI Spreading Wings S1000 Octocopter

Useful 3D mapping and photogrammetry features of the DJI Spreading Wings S1000 include:

  • Customizable for cameras and sensors
  • Safe and stable hexacopter
  • Portable and easy to prepare/use
  • Waypoint navigation (needs the Datalink)
  • DJI Lightbridge
  • Zenmuse Z15-5D 3-axis gimbal
  • Transmission range depends on the transmitter used
  • 15-18 minutes maximum flight time

Read more about DJI Spreading Wings S1000 Octocopter here

UAV LiDAR Sensors for Consumer Drones

The LiDAR sector is growing fast as demand increases. That means the software and hardware technology is forever changing. To keep this page as timeless as possible there are no detailed reports on individual UAV LiDAR sensors. Below are the names of 12 popular LiDAR sensors For UAVs. Visit the maker’s websites to get the latest updated information on any of the products that interest you.

The 12 major LiDAR Sensors for UAVs—at the time of writing—are (in no particular order):

  1. Geodetics – 2 Drone Lidar Sensor
  2. HDL-32E Lidar Sensor
  3. Leica ALS80 Airborne Lidar Sensor
  4. LeddarTech – Vu8 Lidar Sensor
  5. LeddarOne Lidar Sensor
  6. LiDAR’s Puck LITE™
  7. LidarPod
  8. Puck Hi-Res Lidar Sensor
  9. PUCK™ VLP-16 lidar
  10. YellowScan – 3 UAV Lidar Sensors
  11. Velodyne – 4
  12. Routescene – UAV

Pix4Dmapper Mesh (DJI Special Edition)

Once you’ve captured those all-important images they need converting into 3D models. This is where a special type of software comes in. The drones mentioned on this page are all from the popular DJI family so let’s look at the Pix4Dmapper Mesh software. The company developed a special edition of its conversion software especially for DJI drones and it couldn’t be simpler.

Pix4Dmapper Mesh automatically converts the captured footage into 3D models. You can get a smartphone preview of the map or 3D model about one hour after landing. It’s then just a case of editing and/or optimizing the data at your leisure using the appropriate desktop software program.

Software choices and updates are always changing. Be sure to check for the latest versions of whatever software program you turn to at the time.

That’s it, thank you for reading this guide. We hope you found it useful

Summing Up

This incredibly useful technology continues to evolve.

We expect to see another major development over the next few years with something called Focal Plane Array (FPA) LiDAR. You may come across it by its other names, solid-state LiDAR or flash LiDAR. It’s all the same thing. It also sounds quite complicated but it’s not. It’s going to be as straightforward as taking a digital photo.

We’ll no doubt be writing more about (FPA) LiDAR in the future so watch this space.