As the drone LiDAR market continues to grow and evolve, more surveying, mapping, and geospatial companies are looking to add this technology to their business. This decision generates a number of questions in selecting the right LiDAR tool for the trade. Here to answer some of those questions and unpack the benefits and misconceptions relating to LiDAR data capture is Matt Rosenbalm, who was a guest of Randall Warnas on Unmanned Underground. Listen to the podcast in the player below or read more about their discussion in the summary provided.
Currently, if you’re in the market for LiDAR data collection, you probably have a number of questions about selecting the right system, UAV platform, software, training, and more. Matt Rosenbalm, a director of sales from mdGroup and specialist in drone equipment and software, started his career in the surveying business more than10 years ago and has spent the past six years in the UAS industry, where he’s accumulated a wealth of drone surveying information and experience. He’s qualified to answer drone LiDAR and software questions and explore some of the applications for this technology.
The Growth of LiDAR Technology
Matt started his UAS career with Trimble in geospatial sales and distribution. There, he quickly attained his Remote Pilot Certificate under the FAA 's Small UAS Rule (Part 107) and helped create a partnership with Microdrones, becoming one of the first Microdrones dealers in the U.S.
Getting hands-on experience is what propelled Matt in the business. “I quickly adapted to it and really started learning about photogrammetry, selling products, and flying a whole bunch,” Matt explained. “I was trying to learn as much as I could about the industry, do as many Microdrones demos as possible, and really learn about the system.”
The team at Microdrones took notice and soon brought Matt on board to provide commercial UAV surveying and mapping solutions for customers from Texas to North Carolina, while also developing a new drone surveying equipment distribution network.
At this time, the Microdrones team had successfully launched the mdMapper package of photogrammetric drones, which combined the aircraft, sensors, and software – everything needed for aerial mapping. They were now turning their attention towards a fully integrated LiDAR solution.
“When I started with Microdrones in October 2017, we released our first LiDAR system about a month later,” Matt said. “After that became more attainable, the sky was the limit. We really spent the last five years educating people on how this technology works. They know this is the direction the industry is going and there is a lot of interest, but they want to verify the accuracy. As more and more users see how well this technology works, adoption will grow exponentially.”
Matt has found the best way to show the value drone LiDAR can create for a business is to demonstrate how much more efficient the technology can improve their day-to-day workflow. Especially in the surveying and mapping industries where Microdrones is widely recognized for its LiDAR technology leadership. However, there are still many questions and misconceptions about LiDAR data capture.
According to Matt, “The accuracy is the biggest question mark people always ask about. Most of the time people are looking for the best accuracy. Still, in all reality, you might not necessarily need to be accurate within one-centimeter if you're looking to build one-foot contours on a topographic map.”
Matt also explained that there are several other variables that come into play with aerial LiDAR including the IMU, GPS, and the scanner itself, which can all compound the degree of error. “The LiDAR scanner might be accurate to within 10 millimeters, but the GPS is only accurate within three centimeters. Then you have the IMU to know where that LIDAR is in 3D space at all times. So, probably the biggest misconception is the accuracy and trying to find the sensor that works best for what you're trying to achieve.”
Matt Rosenbalm, mdGroup
The biggest difference I think you'll see is the processing with photogrammetry. If you're out flying an RGB camera, you could spend hours letting your computer crunch the data to stitch those photographs together and give you a point cloud, whereas with LIDAR you can produce a point cloud 10 minutes after you land and start to manipulate that data almost instantly.
Drone LiDAR or Photogrammetry
When it comes to choosing the right drone surveying equipment, users also have questions about the process to capture LiDAR data compared to photogrammetric data captured with an RGB camera. Using the integrated systems from Microdrones, the mdCockpit application makes it easy to plan, monitor, change, and control your flights all from an Android tablet. Planning a photogrammetric mission with the mdMapper1000DG or a LiDAR mission with the mdLiDAR1000LR is relatively the same process. The processing and visualization of the data are where some of the differences occur.
“The biggest difference I think you'll see is the processing with photogrammetry,” Matt explained. “If you're out flying an RGB camera, you could spend hours letting your computer crunch the data to stitch those photographs together and give you a point cloud, whereas with LiDAR, you can produce a point cloud 10 minutes after you land and start to manipulate that data almost instantly.”
The Efficiency of LiDAR
Traditionally, only larger surveying companies and engineering firms had the capital to get started with drone LiDAR technology. However, as economies of scale and new technology continue to lower the entry-level costs, more smaller firms are able to enter the market and use the technology for a variety of applications besides surveying and mapping. These include digital twin creation and maintenance, corridor mapping, mining (volume calculation), construction site monitoring, contour mapping, highway construction, precision agriculture, and more.
Matt explained that topographic surveys are still one of the biggest applications for drone LiDAR. Small to medium-sized surveying and mapping companies used to spend hours, days, or weeks cutting line through a survey project to collect topographic data. Another option was to outsource the project if it was big enough to fly with manned aerial LiDAR. Now, with drone LiDAR, they can do the job much more efficiently.
“The drone LiDAR gives them the opportunity to penetrate through the vegetation and spit out millions and millions of points to get shots on the ground,” Matt said. “You can build a more accurate representation of the terrain under that canopy. So, that's one of the biggest use cases, if not the biggest, we focus on and what our customers focus on.”
Corridor mapping is another application where Matt has seen growth due to drone LiDAR. Typically, manned aircraft such as helicopters or airplanes would fly miles of power line with a LiDAR scanner or a large megapixel RGB camera - which wasn’t cost-effective for smaller corridors.
The drone LiDAR is much more affordable for mapping smaller powerline corridors and road construction projects Matt explained. “It’s because you're going to pay for the aircraft, the pilot, the fuel, and all that costs of manned flight. So, if you can put a drone up in the sky and fly those two miles in half a day it's much more affordable. That's where you start to see people utilizing UAVs, especially on the corridor mapping sides with LIDAR.”
Staying Connected with Drone LiDAR and Software
Drone LiDAR technology continues to adapt, develop, and progress throughout the industry. For Matt, his UAS and geospatial career also continues to evolve. At the beginning of 2022, mdGroup, the parent company of Microdrones, acquired GeoCue Group, Inc. (GeoCue), a pioneer in aerial LiDAR mapping technology and data processing software. GeoCue joins Microdrones as another portfolio company of mdGroup focused on the aerial surveying industry.
This enables Matt to focus more on the software side of the business for drone-enabled data collection and processing tools. He revealed “I've had a lot of success, especially down here in the Southeast, selling to your mom-and-pop survey firms. Anything from 10 to 30 people all the way up to your larger firms as well. So, I really lean on my experience and my knowledge of the surveying and mapping industry and working with all those types of firms.”
The Microdrones distributor network, which Matt helped establish, continues to flourish through a number of local dealers such as NEI, Allterra Central, Sitech South, Cansel, Kuker-Ranken, Duncan Parnell, and Seiler.
“I have great contacts, like Miles Kelly out in Duncan Parnell and William Poche down in NEI. They’re just great people. Also, David Laflamme at Cansel up in Canada. He's a PLS. Really smart guy. There's Chris Maulden at Allterra Central. There are a lot of people that possess the knowledge and experience needed to excel in this industry. And, I think those are the type of people that are really special because they've seen how things are done traditionally and how things can be done now by implementing UAS technology.”
If you’d like to learn more about adding drone LiDAR technology to your workflow, schedule a time to speak with one of our helpful representatives.