Opportunities for more affordable laser scanners

As we move into winter, we pass through the period of the year when traditionally, vendors launch their new products. We would like to focus on two laser scanning related technology releases by brands that are household names to both consumers and the professional community alike, and both of which are being marketed with the potential of providing more affordable access to technologies that would otherwise have been the preserve of specialist users.

Background: The democratization of imaging technologies

Recent years have seen advances in computing and imaging technologies in general; meaning that niche types imaging technologies such as laser scanners and cameras that perhaps as recently as 3-4 years ago were only utilized by a select professional community such as laser scanning and survey firms, are now accessible by a much wider user-base. If they choose, architects and kitchen designers can now use tripod laser scanning systems that are perhaps 20% of the cost of what they might have done previously. Site personnel on construction sites are also using 360-degree cameras that also cost far less than they once did. 

However, there are always compromises. Reducing manufacturing cost will directly impact system performance. It is now even more important to understand the objectives when using these new systems. What is truly fit for purpose, and what falls outside the specifications of what our business decisions need entirely?   

DJI’s new Zenmuse L1 UAV Lidar system

With a market share of approximately 70% of the global consumer and enterprise drone market, DJI will be as well known to the hobbyist and professional drone community alike. In a move that sees DJI further expand their solutions over and above being simply a manufactured of drone airframes, they chose this year’s digital edition of the Intergeo (the world’s largest survey equipment exhibition) to launch its first own-brand UAV lidar system. The Zenmuse L1 is a package that includes a Livox lidar sensor, 20MP camera and inertial navigation system (INS), which integrates with the existing RTK GPS on DJI’s Mavic 300 drone. Its accuracies are quoted as 10cm horizontal, 5cm vertical when flown at 50m AGL. 

DJI Zenmuse L1 in action

This system will certainly have its uses. The lidar sensor collects up to three returns, meaning that filtering routines can be applied to provide an estimate of ground detail through tree canopies. The system’s operational software also includes DJI’s Point Cloud LiveView module for observing a 3D view of the data collected while the drone is in flight. 

Lidar on the iPhone 12 Pro

The world’s most valuable publicly traded company, Apple, draws attention to anything that it releases. While the introduction of a lidar chip on the iPhone brings the opportunity to collect 3D depth data of a room for use in the developing range of augmented reality (AR) applications. Lidar is ‘active’ sensing technology though, meaning that its images are not dependent upon external illumination of a scene. Surveyors often use laser scanning systems to collect 3D data in the dark, and so the most immediate application of the this new sensor on the iPhone to most customers will be in being able to use this same depth information to make the autofocus of low-light camera images up to 6x faster.

The pro camera system on iPhone 12 Pro models

The effective range of the lidar sensor is generally understood to be up to 5m; a better understanding of the its capabilities is needed to before being able to assess how well it stacks up against other lower-cost laser scanning systems for collecting 3D information. Regardless, the potential that bringing 3D imaging capabilities to a device in so many people’s pockets has already brought the attention of app developers in the real estate and interior design space, such as SiteSpace and Occiptal.

Opportunities in forestry, mining, and engineering

At Sumac, we focus on the applicability of new technologies to the needs of the professional user.  We are also big fans of using cost-effective technologies if they are fit-for-purpose and that their use can be set in the context of reliable workflows to produce deliverables that fit business need.

Zenmuse L1

As customers of DJI’s Enterprise program we have been closely following the development of their lidar platform and will be interested to see results of projects completed with the Zenmuse L1 once systems are delivered to the market next year. As a service provider one question that we always ask ourselves is whether a new solution enables us to do what we cannot achieve already. For us, we already fly both lidar and photogrammetric missions. 

Aside from discussions of accuracy though, we place highest value on an efficient and reliable workflow. Case in point, we specifically selected TrueView lidar system due to the sophistication of its post-processing toolset (Applanix’s PosPac) and its integration with TrueView’s EVO software platform for delivering reliable survey and mapping data that our clients can depend upon. These solutions come into their own when surveying long linear features such as roadways, but the efficiency of the TrueView data processing workflow is such that we now deploy the TrueView across the majority projects, even when equipment costs are higher. At the time of writing, the extent of the workflow solution for the Zenmuse L1 is still unclear to us. 

A development on the Zenmuse L1 that does look particularly interesting though is its LiveView real-time data viewer. While raw data should not be relied upon for survey purposes, coupled with lidar’s ability to collect data under all light conditions these real-time 3D insights could be invaluable in emergency response situations.

iPhone 12 Pro

The lidar capabilities of the iPhone 12 Pro have been hailed by some commentators as ‘game changing’, and indeed being able to capture existing conditions using the same device that will be used for everything from communication through to making notes to cloud-based project management software, certainly does bring much potential. Currently, it does not look as though anyone is providing a quantification of measurement accuracy but being able to record the relative position and presence of construction elements also has value. This is the premise of why Sumac’s Photodocufy site documentation platform is used on engineering and construction projects, which mainly hosts 360-degree photography at present. We will be following the progress of app developers building viewers for data from the iPhone and it may be that there is value in hosting data from these technologies too if the data can be collected, managed and presented within a consistent project workflow. 

Concluding remarks

It is certainly exciting to see sensors that were once used on only specialist projects now trickling down to technology platforms accessible to a far larger range of users. This potentially lowers barriers to investment for everyone. However, in the context of measurement technologies such as lidar, for professional applications we need to be transparent about the extent that resulting deliverables are fit-for-purpose for the projects that that they serve. For us, this means keeping a focus on both customer requirements and new trends simultaneously and make choices about implementing new systems once we are confident that customer needs will be met.