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Q & A with LiDAR Specialist Stéfanie Van-Wierts on Microdrones’ Complete UAV LiDAR Solution


On February 13th through 15th in Denver, Colorado, Microdrones participated in the 2017 International LiDAR Mapping Forum (ILMF) and introduced a fully integrated drone-based laser scanning solution.

The new mdMapper +LiDAR package includes all the hardware and software components needed to capture and process extremely accurate point clouds for a variety of mapping applications.

We’ve had lots of calls and e-mails from customers wanting to learn more. To answer their questions, we decided to sit down with Stéfanie Van-Wierts, Microdrones’ LiDAR mdSolutions Development Lead. In the following interview, she provides the information customers most commonly seek regarding our upcoming LiDAR release.

Microdrones: Let’s kick this interview off with the #1 question we hear most frequently: when will Microdrones’ new LiDAR solution be available?

Van-Wierts: This solution is in the very final stages of development. The team has some testing and a few tiny adjustments to make and then the solution will be ready for the public. We’re shooting for Q3 of this year – so probably very soon!

Microdrones: That’s great news. Why did you decide to introduce the solution last week at the International LiDAR Mapping Forum?

Van-Wierts: We chose to unveil the mdMapper +LiDAR at ILMF because this is where the LiDAR industry experts gather and we were excited to gain their technical feedback on our solution. The response has been overwhelmingly positive so far. What sets us apart is clearly our all-in-one solution. We expected it to be enthusiastically received, but the reactions and eagerness have exceeded our expectations. We’re very pleased.

Microdrones: There’s definitely been a lot of excitement surrounding this new LiDAR solution. Can you tell us why? Are people just excited about LiDAR in general? Is it the fact that it is a Microdrones product?

Van-Wierts: People are excited about LiDAR in general, but the excitement about our particular solution goes beyond that — and even beyond our positive reputation. Yes, we’ve been building mapping drones for a decade and people trust our quality, but I think the real excitement comes from the fact that we’re offering a complete solution that is very well integrated.

We’ve been studying the laser scanning market for quite a while to determine where we could make the most impact. With so many vendors developing stand-alone aircraft, scanners, and software that require integration, Microdrones saw the need for a ready-to-fly solution. So that’s what we developed.

But we didn’t stop there, we also added direct georeferencing for extreme accuracy and efficiency and mdLiDAR software to simplify the user’s workflow.

Microdrones: Okay, so basically, industries are really excited to start using drones with LiDAR and you’ve made it simple for them to get started and achieve the best possible results?

Van-Wierts: Exactly. UAS-based LiDAR is the only practical solution for small-area applications because deployment of an airplane or helicopter is cost-prohibitive for airborne 3D mapping. And the Microdrones package is ready to use right out of the box.

Microdrones: So what is included in the mdMapper + LiDAR solution?

Van-Wierts: MdMapper + LiDAR includes:

  • A Microdrones md4-1000 quadcopter unmanned aerial vehicle
  • A SICK LD-MRS40001 laser scanner
  • An Applanix APX-15-L GNSS/IMU
  • mdLiDAR processing software

Microdrones: Before we have you delve into each of these components, I want to ask: can customers who already own an md4-1000 aircraft add LiDAR to their existing drone?

Van-Wierts: Absolutely. If a customer already has the drone, they don’t need to purchase the entire package.

Microdrones: Great! Then lets start with the drone. Why is a Microdrones md4-1000 a great choice as the basis for an aerial LiDAR solution?

Van-Wierts: The md4-1000 is an ideal airframe for LiDAR data collection because of its stability and payload capacity. Plus, it operates very well in challenging weather conditions.

The UAV is able to maintain steady flight even on windy days. The end result is extremely accurate point cloud data without the gaps that occur when the aircraft is blown off its planned flight lines. The powerful md4-1000 also boasts a high payload capacity that allows it to carry both the laser scanner and an optional RGB sensor. This is advantageous because it enables the system to simultaneously capture optical imagery that can be used to colorize the point cloud.

Microdrones: Okay, now tell us about the laser scanner itself.

Van-Wierts: The LD-MRS40001 is a lightweight laser scanner that delivers efficiency and accuracy. The scanner points downward collecting elevation points in an 85-degree field of view. This narrow perspective reduces the capture of unnecessary data points that can slow processing speeds.

The scanner can capture points at high density up to 150 points per square meter, generating an absolute point cloud accuracy of 5 centimeters.

Microdrones: And that accuracy must be intensified by the direct georeferencing capabilities of this system, right? I noticed it had the Applanix GNSS/IMU?

Van-Wierts: You’ve got it. Direct georeferencing (or DG) absolutely contributes to this accuracy. DG is a process that’s accomplished by the Applanix APX-15 onboard GNSS/Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU). This device already flies on several mdMapper models, capturing precise location and attitude data that is merged with the laser data during post-processing to improve the accuracy of point cloud.

Microdrones: Now tell us about software.

Van-Wierts: Okay. Microdrones solutions include easy-to-use mdCockpit software for both desktops and Android tablets. This software makes it simple to plan, monitor, adjust, and analyze flights – even from the field. The Microdrones team also created a new mdLiDAR application. This software seamlessly integrates all aspects of the mission into a single workflow that ends with the data being processed into a high-quality 3D point cloud generated in standard LAS format. This post-processing software is included with the package.

Microdrones: Is mdLiDAR compatible with other software?

Van-Wierts: Yes. From there, the point cloud is compatible with third-party packages for advanced visualization, calculation, and creation of 3D end products.

Microdrones: It sounds like you’ve put a lot of time and energy into making this solution easy to use?

Van-Wierts: We sure have! The automated software makes it so easy to plan and carry out a flight safely and successfully. And for first-time drone users, our UAVs are ideal because customers can usually learn to control our aircraft very quickly.

Microdrones: What kinds of customers are excited about this solution?

Van-Wierts: Surveyors and other professionals who require mapping-grade accuracy. Mapping ground elevation points, as well as vertical features, is an area of opportunity for serious mappers.

Microdrones: Which industries do you think will be quickest to embrace this new solution?

Van-Wierts: We think we’ll be seeing lots of customers who want to use it for forestry, mining, and energy utilities.

Foresters are increasingly turning to UAS-based LiDAR to rapidly capture accurate 3D information that is necessary for forest management planning, ecological studies, fire wood inventory, and carbon estimates. Drones are also extremely cost-effective for repeatedly capturing the data required – often daily – to calculate volumetric changes in open pit mining operations. And for energy utilities, drones can quickly map power line corridors to perform mandated vegetation monitoring. There are so many applications that can be improved with LiDAR.

Microdrones: All of this is very interesting, Stéfanie. Thanks so much for taking the time to give us some information on this new development!

Van-Wierts: You’re very welcome! Our team is excited to get our solutions into users’ hands!

Stéfanie Van-Wierts collects data for a surveying project. Photo credit: Gabriel Ladouceur, www.gablad.com.

About Stéfanie

Stéfanie Van-Wierts is Microdrones’ LiDAR mdSolutions Development Lead. In this position, she has played a lead role in researching and developing the mdMapper + LiDAR system.

Stéfanie works closely with sales, flight operations, hardware, software, and web research and development to evaluate industry needs, integrate remote sensing systems with Microdrones aircraft, and develop post-processing solutions. 

She has a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree in Geography from the University of Québec. Before joining the team at Microdrones, Stéfanie worked for 8 years with a research team on the development of a mobile terrestrial laser system for coastal geomorphology studies.

Have a question about LiDAR? E-mail info@Microdrones.com.