If you ever surfed through the settings of your phone or the on-board computer in your vehicle, you probably noticed the LiDAR feature. But what is a LiDAR scanner and what apps use this feature? And the most interesting question – what LiDAR software can be useful for you?
What is LiDAR?
LiDAR is short for “Light Detection and Ranging.” It is a sensor that emits infrared lights which bounce off surfaces and provide data to build 3D maps, while measuring distance by timing the travel of the light pulses. Though this technology reached the mobile tech space in recent years, it has been around for a while. Like many other advanced technologies, it was originally developed by the US military as early as the 1960s.
LiDAR technology is used mostly for surveying, for example, in professional applications it is used to make high-resolution maps of geography, geology, seismology, geodesy, archaeology, forestry, etc. Sometimes it is called laser scanning and 3D scanning, with terrestrial, airborne and mobile applications. And, of course it can also be used in everyday life with your own smartphone.
The Four LiDAR Types
Depending on the way they work and collect data, LiDARs can be divided into four types:
1. Airborne LiDAR – laser scanning system that is fixed to an aircraft (either large like a plane or small like a drone) and its light pulses are emitted from the aircraft to the ground measuring distances and dimensions of the landscape. Airborne LiDARs can be further subdivided into topographic LiDARs, which are used for monitoring and mapping topography of a region, and bathymetric LiDARs, used for measuring the depth of bodies of water. This type of LiDAR is typically used for applications like topographic mapping of forests, scanning the ocean bed and the atmosphere.
2. Terrestrial LiDAR – a system that works from the ground level and scans objects in several directions with high precision and density while capturing data from all around. Collected data points are then used to identify vehicles, conduct highway and rail surveys or create 3D city models.
3. Static LiDAR collects data points for LiDAR processing software collected from a static location. This type of LiDAR is the only one that doesn’t move in the process of scanning, however, it is portable and can be moved to another location after completing a scan. It is used in applications such as mining, surveying and archaeology.
4. Mobile LiDAR systems are fixed on moving vehicles (cars, trains and boats) and it allows for acquisition of millions of 3D design points per minute. This type is often used for 3D mapping and autonomous driving solutions, as it collects a denser database of coordinates (a data density of up to 150 points per square foot), which can create more detailed 3D images and maps. It can also be a source of data for LiDAR 360 software.
LiDAR Data Format
Lidar data is initially collected as a “point cloud” of individual points reflected from everything on the scanned surface. The most common LiDAR data format is the standard LAS format, however LiDAR data can also be stored in text files or in other proprietary formats (such as LAZ, ASCII, ESRI ASCII GRID and, Geotiff). Solutions based on existing data types (typically numeric X/Y/Z or 2D point + numeric Z, along with other attributes) like in early vector data storage have been used successfully as well.
LiDAR Software Processing Solutions – How to Choose the One That Fits Your Needs?
LiDAR data and LiDAR scanner software have a wide range of applications aimed at creating accurate 3D digital images or maps and identifying natural or man-made features that can be used both by professionals and ordinary users. LiDAR software processing solutions can be used for planning road and railroad routes, urban planning, forest conservation, archaeological studies and even planning the furnishing of your home.
To choose the best LiDAR software for LiDAR data processing you have to define what exactly you want to do, which type of LiDAR system is used, the amount of data you will be processing, and how you want to view LiDAR data (LiDAR system design). With the fantastic richness of the raw data being captured by LiDAR systems, efficient and thorough LiDAR software data processing is crucial to deliver clean, reliable results for professional applications.
The best LiDAR software, both open source LiDAR software and the solutions provided by a custom software development company, should have the following features:
- Data cleansing options – clean datasets allow you to achieve high resolution and quality outputs that are much easier to interpret and analyze.
- Data filters – pre-developed filters allow you to clean, analyze and visualize your data faster and more productively.
- Repeatable workflows – the feature of repeatable workflows reduces the time you spend processing data, which is usually huge in volume.
- Filter development toolkit – the feature that allows you to develop your own filters for your specific project needs.
- Ability to process data from large scanning areas – smart and scalable solutions must be able to process billions of points in the point cloud loaded dynamically.
- Export in different formats – ability to provide data in a variety of formats and enables compatibility with CAD, GIS and specialist contouring and LiDAR classification software and promotes flexibility and collaboration between teams in a project.
LiDAR Mapping Software for Professional Applications
There is a wide range of LiDAR data processing software for professional use in the market, both open source LiDAR software and custom solutions. According to GIS Geography, the top five LiDAR tools and apps currently are:
1. QGIS 3 – LiDAR software for 3D point cloud viewing. This software uses LAS and LAZ, so you don’t have to transform data to an intermediate format. QGIS 3 can handle the raw point cloud format. It symbolizes point clouds based on class, height and RGB attributes. The disadvantage of the app is that it doesn’t have much for LiDAR analysis just yet.
2. Whitebox GAT (Geospatial Analysis Tools) – LiDAR software for analysis and point cloud manipulation. The app uses a LAS file, which is dropped into the map. It has an intuitive display with a range of display options including elevation (z), intensity, class, scan angle and GPS time. Advantages: creation of Bare-Earth DEM or canopy models; conversion LAS to ASCII, shapefile or multipoint; LiDAR histogram, summaries. Disadvantages include no 3D viewing capabilities yet.
3. Fugro Viewer – LiDAR software forease of use and 3D viewing. With this app you can display contours or TIN shaded relief; view point cloud data by elevation, and classification; build two-dimensional profiles and measure distances, and create side-by-side viewports in 3D and 2D.
4. Plas.io – LiDAR software for viewing LiDAR data in a browser. This solution uses LAS or LAZ formats. While visualizing LiDAR data, the app can exaggerate vertical heights (z-values); choose an attribute to display such as height, classification, or RGB, and implement the ASPRS LAS format.
5. SAGA GIS (System for Automated Geoscientific Analyses) – this system can import point cloud data into the application. You can also update its color ramp, and change the value you want to display your LiDAR data. Disadvantages of the system tools are that a LAS file cannot be natively transformed into a 3D view. Instead, it has to be converted into a grid format.
LiDAR Software for Mobile Phones
In addition to advanced solutions used for creation of high-precision 3D maps and images, there are mobile apps that can be downloaded to mobile phones and used in everyday life. Mobile market leaders such as Apple, Samsung, LG and Huawei introduced a LiDAR feature in their smartphones some time ago, and there is a wide range of apps that utilize this feature. Here are a few types of LiDAR technology powered apps:
– Measuring Apps – can help you to measure objects and surfaces if you have no measuring tape at hand. Some of the 3D scanning apps, for example, Polycam for iOS devices, also have this feature as an extra tool. The measurements made by such apps are not precise as the discrepancy can be up to one inch or two centimeters.
– 3D Scanners – LiDAR technology allows you to create 3D images of large objects with significant precision, from room interiors to whole streets if needed. Such apps can also be used for 3D printing. For example, Qlone’s 3D scanning app (available for both iOS and Android) allows the user to scan an image, edit it and export the digital file; and Capture 3D scanner app (compatible with iOS devices equipped with a TrueDepth camera) is suitable for creating and sharing 3D scans without any accessories.
LiDAR technology can be used in numerous applications, providing holistic solutions in the field of imaging. It can help create amazing 3D data products or just fill in the gaps in road maps and web maps, or it can create high precision 3D and aerial maps and apps.