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Airborne Commercial Lidar – The Early Development Days

cover of book on Airborne Commercial Lidar - The History

Airborne Commercial Lidar – The History

I was doing some research on the early days of airborne commercial lidar and luckily remembered Todd Neff had done all that work for me. Todd’s book is “The Laser That’s Changing the World,” and it is a must read if you want to understand and appreciate how we got where we are today with commercial lidar and laser scanning.

Most of us seem to know the history of Ben Kacyra and his development of the tripod laser scanner, but my interest was in the development of a moving lidar system – mobile mapping. Not to diminish the work Ben and his team did in the late 1990’s, but the challenge of developing a lidar sensor that could collect data while it was moving involved a lot more physics.

How did all that technology develop?

For the complete perspective you really need to combine the development of the early lidar technology with the history of GPS which is told by Paul E. Ceruzzi in his book entitled “GPS” and for a much more detailed treatment, “GPS Declassified” by Richard Easton.

We didn’t really have what we think of as airborne or mobile lidar mapping until the GPS constellation became functional. There are also the issues with pitch, roll and yaw which required an inertial navigation system. I don’t have the details of this, but suffice to say that the needed INS information was supplied by the aircraft’s INS in the early days.

It was an interest in bathymetry that inspired the early development of airborne lidar. Dr. Allen Carswell, the Founder of Optech built a bathymetric lidar in 1969, but it would take until the mid 1980’s before a team at NASA Wallops would fly their Airborne Oceanographic Lidar (AOL) system to collect elevation data on ice sheets before we could really say we had an airborne lidar mapping system. They would use the INS of the plane to improve the accuracy of the data.

It would take until the mid-1990’s before there were sufficient GPS satellites to add that information into the solution.

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