Lidar can be used in surprising ways

Lidar can be used in surprising ways

Lidar, a way of using laser light to measure how far away objects are, has come a long way since it was first put to work on airplanes in the 1960s. Today, it can be seen mounted on drones, robots, driverless cars, and more. Since 2016, Leica Geosystems has been thinking of ways to apply the technology to a variety of industries, from forensics to building design to film. (Leica Geosystems was acquired by the Swiss industrial company Hexagon in 2005 and is independent of Leica Microsystems and Leica Camera.)

To do this, Leica Geosystems shrank the often clumsy 3D scanning lidar technology down to a container the size of a soda can. A line of products called BLK is designed specifically for the task of “reality capture” and is being used in a number of ongoing projects, including mapping ancient water systems hidden beneath Naples that were used to naturally cool the city, explorations of Egyptian tombs and modeling the mysterious contours of Scotland’s underground passageways, as Wired UK recently covered.

The star of these research activities is the BLK 360, which, like a 360-degree camera, rotates on a tripod to capture images of its surroundings. Instead of taking photos, he is measuring everything with a laser. The device can be set up and moved around to create multiple scans that can eventually be compiled to build a 3D model of an environment. “That same kind of [lidar] The sensor that is in the autonomous 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 robot scanner, and a scanner that can be transported and worked on the go. For the team led by the Rhode Island School of Design studying the waterways of Naples, they are using the 360 ​​and wearable devices to scan as much of the city as possible. Uncovering the particular designs that ancient cities used to create conduits for water as a natural cooling infrastructure can provide insight into how modern cities around the world could mitigate the urban heat island effect.

From movies to forensics, here's how laser lidar systems help us visualize the world
Leica Geosystems

Once all the scans leave the devices, they exist as a 3D point cloud: groups of data points in space. This format is frequently used in the engineering industry and can also be used to generate visualizations, such as in the Scotland Underground project. “You can see it’s pixelated. All those little pixels are measurements, individual measurements. That is something like a cloud of points”, explains Fontana. “What you can do with this is convert it and turn it into a 3D surface. This is where 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 archaeology, as it is capable of obtaining more precise dimensions of a space than imaging alone with scans that take less than a minute and can be triggered remotely from a smartphone. But Leica Geosystems has found a variety 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 builds an entire set for an expensive action movie. Particular structures and platforms are needed for a specific scene. After the scene is captured, the set is torn down to make room for another set to be erected. If in the editing process it is decided that the footage that was taken is not good enough, then the team would have to rebuild the entire structure and bring people back, an expensive process.

However, another option now is for the film crew to do a scan of every set they build. And if they miss something or need to make a last-minute addition, they can use 3D scanning to virtually edit the scene on the computer. “They can fix things in CGI much easier than having to rebuild [the physical set]says Fontana. “And if it’s too big a survey to do on the computer, they can reconstruct it very precisely because they have the 3D data.”

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

Film aside, forensic analysis is an important part of Leica Geosystems’ business. Instead of just photographing the crime scene, what they do now is scan a scene, and this is done for a couple of different reasons. “Let’s say it’s a [car] accident scene If they take a couple of scans, you can capture the whole scene in 2 minutes in 3D. And then you can move the cars out of the way of traffic,” Fontana says. “That 3D data can be used in court. On the scan, you can even see skid marks. You can see that this person was braking and there were these skid marks, and you can calculate the weight of the car, compared to the length of the skid mark, to see how fast it was going.”

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

As lidar continues to expand into tried-and-true applications, the growing variety of use cases is expected to inspire innovators to think of ever newer approaches to this ancient technology.

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