Frequently Asked Questions


What is LIDAR?

Light detection and ranging (LIDAR) is an active (i.e. energry is emitted) method for remotely sensing distant objects. Coordinates of the reflected object are determined by the angle of the emitted pulse and the range to the object. The range measurements are determined by one of two methods, (1) time-of-flight or (2) phase shift. Time-of-flight scanners precisely record the time it takes for an emitted laser pulse to reflect off the remote objects and return to the scanner, while phase shift scanners emit a sinusoidally modulated laser pulse, and calculate distance using a phase shift principle.

Are 3D laser scanning and LIDAR the same?

Many people use these terms to talk about the same thing. However, as defined above, LIDAR refers to the underlying technology – the measurement physics, while 3D laser scanning is the activity that makes use of LIDAR. A 3D laser scanner employs LIDAR technology to determine the range, or distance to a point. The scanner can also rotate in one or two planes while sensing the angles to the points. This information can then be used to determine the three dimensional coordinates of each captured point.

What is a mobile LIDAR Scanner (MLS)?

A mobile LIDAR scanner refers to a laser scanner that is attached to a mobile platform, such as an SUV or a boat. Generally the term MLS refers to terrestrial applications where airborne LIDAR is the term used for data collection that occurs above the earth. Technically both are mobile or kinematic, but the terminology has evolved over time to have these de facto uses.

What is a mobile mapping system (MMS)?

A mobile mapping system (see Guidelines Report page 34) is made up of a number of components that can include one or multiple scanners; camera(s); a computer and positioning sensors such as those that work with a global navigation satellite system, or GNSS; and an inertial measurement unit, or IMU. The cameras and the scanners are used to record the scene while the GNSS and IMU are determining the position and orientation of the data capture sensors. The latter determines the trajectory of the system. The trajectory is used to determine the three dimensional coordinates of each point collected by the scanner. Note that a mobile mapping system does not always include a laser scanner.

What is stop-and-go mobile scanning?

Stop-and-go refers to the use of a vehicle to move the scanner from position to position, making it mobile, but the vehicle does not move while the data is being collected. In stop and go there is no need for positioning sensors (such as the IMU or GNSS) as the location of the scanner can be determined from the use of ground control targets. This can lead to improved accuracy over true mobile scanning; however, will not usually be as efficient as true mobile scanning.

What accuracy is achievable from mobile LIDAR?
There are a number of factors that make up the error budget for a mobile LIDAR data collection, including GNSS availability, the quality of the IMU and the extent of ground control. There is a detailed discussion of this issue in the Guidelines Report in Chapter 10. Over time one can expect these values to improve as this technology matures.


What is LAS?
The LAS file format is a public file format for the interchange of 3-dimensional point cloud data between data users. It is currently supported by the ASPRS through a technical committee. LAS has become an industry de facto standard offering users a binary file format that is supported by both the sensor manufacturers and the software vendors. LAS supports the organization of point cloud data into a number of pre-defined data classes.
What is ASTM E57?
ASTM E57 refers to the 3D Imaging Systems committee of the ASTM International standards body. The E57.04 Data Interoperability subcommittee has developed a data exchange standard (E2807) that is commonly referred to as “E57”. This binary file format is meant to be used to exchange binary point, image and related data. Unlike LAS, E57 is not intended to be used as a working format. E57 is also supported by an open source software project which can be found at this website.
How is GPS (GNSS) used in mobile LIDAR?

In order for the scanned data to be georeferenced in real world coordinates the mobile LIDAR scanning system relies on GPS, or more correctly a Global Navigation Satellite System – GNSS. By accurately time stamping and synching the navigation data, the trajectory of the mobile platform can be recorded. Physically surveyed ground control points can then be used to further improve the accuracy of the position for each 3D point captured by the scanner.

What is an IMU?

An IMU is an inertial measurement unit. In between GNSS updates and/or when the GNSS receiver is not able to obtain high quality position information the mobile LIDAR system can make use of the IMU data to determine the change in position and attitude since the last acceptable fix. This can occur when the system is inside a tunnel or urban canyon. The IMU uses a combination of accelerometers and gyroscopes to determine the velocity and orientation of the platform. Typically, the IMU can only be relied on for relatively short periods of time due to the internal drift in the system.

What is spot size?

Spot size refers to the area of the laser light beam as it intersects a surface. Although laser light is tightly collimated the size of the spot increases with the distance from the scanner. In certain cases one portion of the spot may be reflected by an object while the remainder of the beam continues on its path until it is reflected or disappears. This is what results in multiple returns from a single laser beam.

What are multiple returns?

Multiple returns occur when a portion of the laser beam is reflected by an object while the remainder continues on its path (see spot size). This can be seen in the Guidelines Report in Appendix A.3. Some systems can record up to 5 returns from a single pulse. This phenomenon can be seen in the “penetrating” of vegetation. This is one of the key benefits of airborne LIDAR over photogrammetry for forest mapping since all it takes is a portion of the active laser pulse to be returned from the ground to develop the ground contours.

What is full waveform?

Full waveform is the ability of a LIDAR sensor to record the entire shape of the return LIDAR pulse. This can allow for more detailed analysis of the objects being scanned and some believe identification of material types from the unique waveform “signature”. This is further explained in Appendix A.3 in the Guidelines Report.

What factors influence accuracy of mobile LIDAR data?

There are a number of items that contribute to the error budget for mobile LIDAR. These include scanner errors, the GNSS positional accuracy, the quality of the IMU, lever arm offsets for each sensor, accuracy of the ground control and other factors including the expertise of the technicians. See Chapter 10 in the Guidelines Report for additional information.


What are the advantages of using LIDAR?

LIDAR is an active sensor technology that is capable of collecting 3D data for an extremely wide variety of uses. The advantages really depend on the type of measurement application that is being considered. As an active technology LIDAR has advantages over passive photographic data collection in that it does not have to rely on an external light source, such as sunlight. Mobile LIDAR systems can be used at night on highways when the traffic may be less of a concern. Perhaps the two most important, interrelated advantages of using mobile LIDAR are that you can rapidly collect very dense data without the need for survey crews to be in traffic.

What are the limitations of LIDAR?

The use of LIDAR technology requires an unobstructed line of sight between the sensor and the object of interest. This can present problems with traffic and steep embankments. The use of mobile LIDAR systems involves a number of sophisticated technologies in order to achieve survey grade accuracy. These systems can require a significant upfront investment in hardware, software and training. In general, the integration of 3D point cloud data with engineering workflows is not well supported by the leading software vendors. Finally, the shear size of the data files associated with LIDAR can be overwhelming without an accompanying data management plan.

Is mobile LIDAR expensive or cost-effective?

There are basically two grades of mobile LIDAR systems available– mapping and engineering. The purchase cost of these systems can vary by a factor of two to three, but as with any significant capital expenditure the real issue is return on investment. Collecting data is dramatically faster and safer with mobile LIDAR. Processing and managing point cloud data is more expensive than conventional survey data. As recommended in the Guidelines Report Chapter 6 each transportation agency will have to make a detailed analysis of their circumstances in order to determine how best to invest in this technology.

What can be done to maximize a return on investment of mobile LIDAR services?

As noted in the previous answer each transportation agency is going to have to assess their circumstances in order to understand the financial issues surrounding an investment in mobile LIDAR. In any case, the more groups within a transportation agency that can use the data – “collect once use many” – the greater the return on the costs of a data collection, as well as the data processing and long term data management. The marginal cost of collecting slightly more data than is required for a given project is very small compared to having the mobile system re-deployed to the project. It can also be wise to collect more data than is needed for a project and just process it as it is needed in the future.