Lidar can be used in surprising ways

Lidar can be used in surprising ways

Lidar, a way of using laser light to measure the distance of objects, has come a long way since it was first used on airplanes in the 1960s. Today it’s on drones, robots, self-driving cars, and more. Since 2016, Leica Geosystems has been considering ways to use the technology across a range of industries, from forensics to building design to film. (Leica Geosystems was acquired by Swiss industrial company Hexagon in 2005 and is separate from Leica Microsystems and Leica Camera).

To do this, Leica Geosystems has condensed the often clunky, 3D-scanning lidar technology into a container the size of a soft drink can. A line of products called BLK was developed specifically for the task of “reality capture” and is used in a number of ongoing projects, including mapping ancient water systems hidden beneath Naples and used to cool the city naturally, exploring Egyptian tombs, and modelling of the mysterious contours of Scotland’s underground passageways, as Wired UK recently reported.

The star of these research activities is the BLK 360, which pans like a 360-degree camera on a tripod to record its surroundings. Instead of taking photos, everything is measured with lasers. The device can be positioned and moved to create multiple scans that can be compiled at the end to create a 3D model of an environment. “Same kind of [lidar] Sensor that is in the self-driving car is used in the BLK 360,” says Andy Fontana, reality capture specialist at Leica Geosystems. “But instead of having a narrow field of view, it has a wide field of view. So it goes in all directions.”

[Related: Stanford researchers want to give digital cameras better depth perception]

In addition to the 360, Leica Geosystems also offers a Flying Sky Scanner, a scanner for robots, and a scanner that can be carried and used on the go. The Rhode Island School of Design-led team studying Naples’ waterways uses both the 360 ​​and To-Go devices to scan as much of the city as possible. Finding out the particular designs of ancient cities that were used to create water pipes as natural cooling infrastructure can provide insights into how modern cities around the world might mitigate the urban heat island effect.

From film to forensics: This is how lidar laser systems help us to visualize the world
Leica Geosystems

Once all scans come from the devices, they exist as 3D point clouds – clusters of data points in space. This format is commonly used in engineering and can also be used to create visualizations, as in the Scottish Basement project. “You can see it’s pixelated. All those little pixels are measurements, individual measurements. So this is a kind of point cloud,” explains Fontana. “What you can do with it is transform it and actually turn it into a 3D surface. Here you can use this in many other applications.”

[Related: A decked out laser truck is helping scientists understand urban heat islands]

Lidar has become an increasingly popular tool in archeology because it can obtain more accurate dimensions of a room than images alone, with scans taking less than a minute – and can be controlled remotely from a smartphone. But Leica Geosystems has found a number of useful applications for this type of 3D data.

One of the industries interested in this technology is film. Imagine this scenario: A large studio is building a complete movie set for an expensive action movie. Special structures and platforms are required for a specific scene. After the scene is shot, the set is demolished to make room for the construction of another set. If the editing process decides that the footage captured is actually not good enough, the crew would have to rebuild the entire structure and bring people back – a costly process.

However, another option now is for the film crew to scan each set they build. And if you do miss something or need to add something at short notice, you can edit the scene virtually on the computer with the 3D scan. “You can fix things in CGI a lot easier than having to rebuild them [the physical set]’ Fontana says. “And if it’s too big to do on the computer, they can recreate it very accurately because they have the 3D data.”

[Related: These laser scans show how fires have changed Yosemite’s forests]

Besides film, forensics is an important part of Leica Geosystems’ business. Instead of just photographing a crime scene, they’re now scanning a crime scene, and for a variety of reasons. “Let’s say it’s a [car] accident scene. If they do a few scans, you can capture the entire scene in 3D in 2 minutes. And then you can pull the cars out of circulation,” says Fontana. “This 3D data can be used in court. Skid marks can even be seen in the scan. They can see that this person braked and there were these skid marks and they can calculate the weight of the car versus the length of the skid mark to see how fast they were going.”

In more graphic situations, like a murder or a shootout, this 3D data can be used to “create cones that show statistical confidence in where that bullet came from based on how it hit the wall,” he says.

Hopefully, as lidar continues to expand in proven applications, the growing variety of use cases will inspire innovators to think of new approaches to this legacy technology.

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