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LiDAR Scan-300x180

Specifically, the concepts of 3D Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) acquisition and data manipulation fall under these categories and raise the questions of cost and overall benefit. Unlike the many articles and presentations that focus on the scientific aspects of  LiDAR, my goal here is not to bore you with geek-speak but to shed light on the decision making processes involved with this expertise. By collecting relevant information and asking the correct qualifying questions, professionals will be presented an outline for success in our individual businesses. No matter your background private, public, profit, or non-profit, 3D data has its appropriate place in your organization.

Steps to Success

Over the years, I have been able to compile a few simple steps that all professionals can follow when considering the utilization of LiDAR. It’s easy, I promise. Start by asking yourself these questions:

  1. How much data collection does my project require?
  2. How quickly does the data need to be collected?
  3. Is there possibility for future site work or is there a temporal component?

If you answered any of these questions with the words “lots”, “a whole lot”, or “yes!” then proceed to step two. If you answered “I have no idea” or “we have all the time in the world,” it might be time to head back to the drawing board. Each of these questions offer qualifying insight into the possible methods needed to complete your work.

Big Data

To say LiDAR data collection and operation is “big in nature” would be an understatement. In itself, LiDAR has the ability to simultaneously collect millions of 3D locational points. These points inherently have geodetic values but also intensity, classifications, and realistic RGB representations. This complexity and vastness offers users a wide range of information at their fingertips. Through data mining, analysts and engineers are able to extract hundreds of individual feature types with thousands of explicit attributes.

“With radar we can transform an object from a point of light into a small world with its own characteristics,” explains Lance Benner, a principal investigator for Goldstone Radar Observations.

Furthermore, what is collected at the onset of the project might be completely different than the post-construction collection. This “big data” can often be collected at a much faster rate than traditional methods. In fact, due to range, mobility, and aerial applications LiDAR data can be collected in a matter of minutes! But this speed and deliverable come at a price! What’s your bottom line?

Critical Question

While step two is more technical, some would argue it contains the most important questions, “How accurate does my data need to be, and in what format?” Depending on project specifics your job might require sub-centimeter results or might be as tolerant as 100cm. Never guess on your project requirements. Following NSSDA guidelines organizations around the world are implementing individual standards specific to their specialty.

It’s imperative that you get this right from the beginning, because rework is usually out of the question. Many 3D mapping consultants either offer or claim to offer this wide range of services. Don’t be suckered into what someone might tell you or claim to know what you need. As the decision maker, it is our responsibility to know this question and hold our ground on its requirement. Don’t be swayed with your expectations. Lastly, determine what file formats the consultants can utilize and produce. Because each of us work in different systems, environments, and for various governed entities we need their product to jive.

Confidence to Trust

Step three is to “know” your 3D consultant. Before engaging the 3D expert, remind yourself that you are in charge and not to be intimidated. Frequently 3D consultants can come across confusing or even arrogant because of the complexity of the subject and its relatively innovative technology. This leaves most people with a level of inherent trust that is hard to swallow.

With this being said, always know who you are hiring! Make sure to ask for references and prior work experiences. This will offer you the confidence to trust your sub. Also request QA/QC reports throughout the process of data collection and extraction. Most agencies now have best practice guidelines and specific standards to use LiDAR data. They also require standardized reports and file formats. We are in a cutthroat world, maybes and false promises will not cut it. Have them prove to you beyond reproach, because inevitably at the end of the day our names are on the line, not theirs. Make them “hit the point.”


This feature originally appeared in our sister publication Informed Infrastructure.

About the Author:

Nikolas Smilovsky currently serves as the lead Specialist of GIS and Scanning at RDO Integrated Controls. Nikolas also stands as an Adjunct Faculty Professor at Arizona State University’s School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, instructing classes on GIS project management, field data collection and remote sensing.