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29 April 2024

Researchers Develop Innovative Airborne Single-photon LiDAR System For High-Resolution 3D Imaging

By Bobby Carlton

The functionality of the new airborne single-photon LiDAR system relies on directing laser pulses towards the ground, where they bounce off objects and are detected by highly sensitive single-photon avalanche diode (SPAD) arrays.

Researchers have developed a light and compact single-photon aircraft LiDAR system that can capture high-quality 3D images. This technology paves the way to the development of new applications such as environmental monitoring and 3D terrain mapping.

LiDAR, short for Light Detection and Ranging, is a technology transforming the way we perceive and interact with our surroundings. For this recent development, picture a compact and lightweight system, equipped with a low-power laser, capable of capturing high-resolution 3D images from the air using a single-photon airborne LiDAR system.

The researchers utilized advanced techniques to precisely determine the time it takes for laser pulses to travel from one point to another. This technology is ideal for airborne applications, such as 3D mapping, which can be performed in challenging environments.

According to Feihu Xu, a researcher from China’s Science and Technology University, the system should be reduced in size and energy consumption when using single-photon lidars on satellites and drones.

“Using single-photon lidar technology on resource-limited drones or satellites requires shrinking the entire system and reducing its energy consumption,” said Xu.

The researcher team integrated the latest technological innovations into the system, which boasts the lowest power and smallest optical aperture of any airborne LiDAR system, and were able to achieve high-quality imaging resolution and detection range.

What Exactly is LiDAR?

LiDAR, is a remote sensing technique that utilizes light from a pulsed laser to measure the distance to the Earth. This method can be used to create 3D models of various objects, such as buildings and terrain.

The method works by using a laser that is fired toward an object or the ground, which then bounces off the surface and returns to the sensor. This method can provide a precise distance to an object. In addition, it can create detailed 3D models of the area by precisely measuring the direction and angle of the laser beams.

In various fields, such as geology, archaeology, and remote sensing, the use of light detection and ranging, or LiDAR, has been widely used. It can be used to create digital elevation models and monitor environmental changes. It can also be used to create realistic landscapes for video games and movies.

Single-Photon LiDAR

Single-photon LiDAR, in particular, utilizes advanced detection techniques to achieve unparalleled accuracy, making it especially suitable for airborne applications. By shrinking the entire system and reducing energy consumption, researchers have made significant strides in making single-photon LiDAR practical for air and space missions.

A study published in Optica revealed how the system was able to achieve an imaging resolution of more than the diffraction limit with the help of a new 3D deconvolution algorithm and sub-pixel scanning. In addition, it demonstrates how the system works when flying in daylight using a small plane

Xu noted that the system could be useful in a wide range of applications, such as disaster response and environmental monitoring. It could be used to guide rescue missions and monitor forest landscapes.

The researchers utilized a single-photon aircraft lidar system to guide laser pulses toward the ground. It then uses avalanche diode arrays to detect the reflected laser pulses. These arrays, which are designed to enhance sensitivity, are ideal for detecting single photons. To minimize the system’s size, the researchers used small telescopes with a 47-millimeter optical aperture.

The researchers then calculated the light’s travel time based on the photons’ return. This method enabled them to perform 3D terrain mapping using computational imaging techniques.

Xu explains, “For example, our system could be deployed on drones or small satellites to monitor changes in forest landscapes, such as deforestation or other impacts on forest health. It could also be used after earthquakes to generate 3D terrain maps that could help assess the extent of damage and guide rescue teams, potentially saving lives.”

Single Photon Lidar

The system’s effectiveness is mainly attributed to the scanning mirrors, which continuously fine-tune their scanning. They also captured sub-pixel details about the ground targets. Through a computational algorithm, they were able to reconstruct high-quality 3D images despite the solar noise and weak signals.

The researchers carried out airborne and ground tests to check the system’s capabilities. They were able to achieve a lidar resolution of 15 centimeters with the default settings. They then used 3D deconvolution and sub-pixel scanning to increase the resolution to 6 centimeters.

For their experiments, the researchers conducted daytime flights aboard a small plane in Yiwu City in China’s Zhejiang Province. Through the tests, they were able obtain detailed images of various objects and landforms.

How Other Industries are Using LiDAR

The applications of this technology are vast and promising. From environmental monitoring to 3D terrain mapping and object identification, single-photon LiDAR opens doors to a myriad of possibilities. For instance, it could be deployed on drones or small satellites to monitor changes in forest landscapes, track deforestation, or assess post-disaster scenarios like earthquakes, potentially aiding in rescue efforts and saving lives.

  1. Autonomous Vehicles: LiDAR plays a crucial role in enabling the perception capabilities of autonomous vehicles by providing detailed 3D maps of the surroundings.
  2. Surveying and Mapping: LiDAR is extensively used in surveying and mapping applications for terrain modeling, urban planning, forestry management, and creating high-resolution digital elevation models (DEMs).
  3. Agriculture: In agriculture, LiDAR is employed for crop monitoring, yield estimation, soil analysis, and precision agriculture practices.
  4. Environmental Monitoring: LiDAR is utilized for monitoring and assessing environmental changes, such as deforestation, habitat mapping, coastal erosion, and flood modeling.
  5. Construction and Civil Engineering: LiDAR is used for building information modeling (BIM), construction site monitoring, infrastructure inspection, and detecting structural deformations.
  6. Forestry: LiDAR helps in forest inventory management, tree species classification, and assessing forest health.
  7. Urban Planning: LiDAR aids in urban planning activities like city modeling, transportation planning, and infrastructure development.
  8. Archaeology and Cultural Heritage Preservation: LiDAR is used for archaeological site mapping, cultural heritage documentation, and preserving historical sites.
  9. Meteorology and Climate Studies: LiDAR assists in atmospheric research, including measuring wind patterns, studying atmospheric composition, and monitoring pollution levels.
  10. Mining and Quarrying: LiDAR is employed for mine planning, volumetric calculations, slope stability analysis, and safety inspections in mining and quarrying operations.
  11. Emergency Response and Disaster Management: LiDAR helps in disaster risk assessment, emergency response planning, and post-disaster damage assessment.
  12. Utilities and Infrastructure: LiDAR is used for inspecting power lines, pipelines, and other utility infrastructure for maintenance and planning purposes.

FS Studio LiDAR Case Study

For one example of how industries are using LiDAR, FS Studio team used LiDAR to create a digital twin of the client’s warehouse. The 3D virtual replica of the forklift was then combined with the 3D model of the warehouse.  Next, we created an intuitive UX interface allowing employees to navigate through the XR training with ease and understand how to start, restart, and complete training.

LiDAR captures actual environments in such great detail that they can be recreated in virtual reality and used as realistic training environments.

Third Wave LiDAR

Next Steps for the Xu and the Science and Technology University  Research Team

The journey doesn’t end here. Xu and the rest of the research team will continue to push boundaries, aiming to enhance the system’s performance and integration. The ultimate goal? Installing it on spaceborne platforms like small satellites, unlocking new frontiers in remote sensing and Earth observation.

“A key part of the new system is the special scanning mirrors that perform continuous fine scanning, capturing sub-pixel information of the ground targets,” said Xu. “Also, a new photon-efficient computational algorithm extracts this sub-pixel information from a small number of raw photon detections, enabling the reconstruction of super-resolution 3D images despite the challenges posed by weak signals and strong solar noise.”

As industries across the globe lean on LiDAR technology to tackle complex challenges, the future looks brighter than ever. Xu summarizes their work saying, with innovations like single-photon LiDAR leading the way, we’re not just seeing the world – we’re redefining it.

If you’d like to learn more about LiDAR technology and how your organization can use it to create digital elevation models, monitoring environmental changes, urban planning, autonomous vehicles, and even in the entertainment industry for creating realistic landscapes and more. Reach out to Bobby Carlton at bobby.carlton@fsstudio.com or use his Calendly Link to set up a free consultation call.