Lidar is quickly becoming a ubiquitous tool in our industry. With each year, sensors are getting more powerful and easier to use. Still, we talk to clients regularly who are highly skilled photogrammetrists who think adding lidar to their services is as easy as buying one and taking some manufacturer training. In fact, learning to set up, acquire data, and post-process with lidar has a learning curve for everyone. We’ve compiled this list of things to know that are, perhaps, a little different from what you may hear from anyone else.
So, we present... our Top 4 Things to Know When Buying Your First Lidar
You know to budget for the sensor, hardware, and software. Did you also budget to hire a skilled lidar operator... one that already knows your specific sensor? You have a choice to make: you either invest in hiring experienced lidar staff, or invest in upskilling your existing team. Hiring a lidar specialist can help you reduce the risk of improper setup, planning and post-processing, which means you’ll get cleaner data. If you choose to invest in your existing team, that’s a perfectly fine strategy, but accept that this may mean that you need to spend time and money when mistakes are made. Your team will be learning by doing. There’s nothing wrong with that, but you need to prepare and plan for it.
Are you an iPhone person or an Android person? When you’re ready to upgrade, will you switch brands? Both phone brands offer essentially the same thing. Yes, there are some differences, and each shine for certain nuanced uses, but overall... they’re both great products. We tend to stick to one brand over the other because we get used to it. We know the operating system, how things are organized, and the shortcuts. The idiosyncrasies of each brand become part of why we love it.
The same goes for lidar. Each manufacturer has its own approach to the technology. Riegl, Optech, Leica, Phoenix... They all have unique strengths and challenges that need to be learned. They have different acquisition methods and different workflows. So which brand is best for your business? The answer lies in your business. Ask yourself:
All of these questions should inform your choice of lidar. Maximizing your investment in a lidar means considering the full picture of your business and your network. Once you commit to a brand, nothing is stopping you from investing in other brands, but there is value in brand loyalty. The more experienced you are with one brand, the stronger your network of support will be with that brand, and the more influence you may have with the manufacturer in terms of product direction and support. Brand loyalty amplifies your experience and your voice.
The industry trend is towards more and more powerful sensors. With that being said, advances in technology can come at a cost. It’s true that with the latest generation of lidar, you’ll be getting more point density. We are seeing fascinating advances in lidar technology from each of the manufacturers. Improvements such as faster mirrors, modifying field of view, laser pulse rates, receiver sensitivity, adding additional lasers, increasing actual laser power, sensor calibrations, noise filter modifications, range gate elimination, improved software and more. Any one of these technology enhancements may end up having a positive or negative effect on any one of the other items. When you start using your sensor, you will learn through trial and error to find your “sweet spot” in the sensor settings for each different project requirement in a given landscape. No manufacturer is going to just hand you a guide with the perfect settings for your projects. It will be up to you to discover the sweet spot of the system, and this can take several test flights over completely different landscapes. You’ll need to find your best settings for scanning over water, mountains, farm fields, urban areas, powerlines, concrete, and desert.
We discussed a real-world example of this in a recent chat with Mark Schubert of Aerial Surveys International. Mark shared how the his flying has changed over the years as lidar have changed. In the early days with less powerful lasers, flying canyons meant flying lower and going up and down with the canyon terrain. It required careful planning and highly skilled piloting. Today, with more advanced lidar, he can fly higher and straighter through the canyons to get the data. It’s faster and easier. But, he shared that sometimes he finds with the newer lidar he’s picking up more atmospheric noise. While point density is higher, some of those points might get lost in filtering out that noise. It’s something he had to learn about his sensors over certain terrain - and he has learned to plan for the points required by clients by anticipating the potential for lost points.
Finally, we say you should plan for your power by understanding the needs of the majority of your clients. As lidar technology advances, you’ll be able to achieve higher point density. But how much point density is enough to meet the needs of your clients? Do you need the latest and greatest? For some, the answer is yes. For others, no. What is it for you?
We’ve got a 1957 Cessna 310A for sale on AERIALSURVEY.com. After 65 years, this is still a fine survey plane, and will be for many years to come. Yet, it will sell for far less than a used lidar. If you bought a lidar today, how long do you think you’ll keep it? Three years? Five years? Ten? This equipment is an expensive depreciating asset for your business, and you should be considering your plan for it from the beginning. Before you buy, ask yourself:
Deciding how long a sensor will meet your needs and knowing how you will eventually sell it might influence your choice of brand and model. Check out our blog article that dives into this topic even further.
We hope these 4 points will help you as you consider lidar for your aerial survey business. Helping our clients navigate the remote sensing marketplace is a big part of our business. We are brand agnostic. Feel free to chat with us about your lidar options. We are happy to help you make the decision that is best for your business.
We send a special thanks to Mark Schubert for his insightful contributions to this article.