MATTEO LUCCIO / CONTRIBUTOR / PALE BLUE DOT LLC / WWW.PALEBLUEDOTLLC.COM
LiDAR has been around since the early 1960s. In recent years, it has emerged as a key geospatial remote sensing technology: aerial and ground-based scanners are used routinely for mapping and to produce 3D models of cities, LiDAR is an essential sensor for autonomous vehicles, and some units are now light enough to be carried by small UAVs. Most uses of LiDAR sensors require tight integration with the platform on which they are mounted. Therefore, some LiDAR manufacturers are partnering with UAV manufacturers to produce and sell complete solutions for specific end uses, such as precision agriculture, corridor mapping, or bridge inspection.
At the end of September, YellowScan, which designs,develops,and produces UAV mapping solutions for professional applications, and Quantum Systems, a spin-off of the Technical University of Munich, launched a turn-key LiDAR UAV solution. It combines the former’s Surveyor LiDAR sensor and the latter’s Tron vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) platform, which can fly up to 90 minutes and, therefore, cover large areas. According to the two companies, the UAV is designed for surveyors who need “a robust and easy-to-use LiDAR solution” with quick data processing. The Tron’s remote controller guides it automatically, but allows the operator to override the program in an emergency. The platform’s vibration dampening and secure housing protect the sensor.
“VTOL’s time is coming. There are only a few companies in the world that can master flight beyond line-of-sight and most small UAV companies are just assemblers, not developers. Quantum is a developer. So, in this sense, we think that they have a good solution.”
–ROBERTO CASINI, YELLOWSCAN
At the beginning of November, Velodyne LiDAR Inc., a manufacturer of 3D vision systems for autonomous vehicles, and BoE Systems, a geospatial systems integrator, launched a solution integrating the former’s VLP-16 Puck and Puck LITE 3D LiDAR sensors into the latter’s UAV fleet for geospatial data collection and analysis. The solution provides 360° imaging for industries that need quick, safe, and accurate aerial inspections, including transportation, utilities, telecommunications, infrastructure, construction, forestry, and agriculture. BoE Systems acquires the imaging data, processes it, and produces analyses and inspection reports. Its hardware and software integrations also provide digital maps that can be used to produce, among other things, flood models, drainage analyses, Building Information Modeling (BIM) files, and contour mapping.
YELLOWSCAN & QUANTUM SYSTEMS
“We have customers in anything that requires air-borne LiDAR—including archaeology, geology, filming, topography, corridor mapping, inspections, oil & gas. You name it,” says Roberto Casini, YellowScan’s Regional Sales Manager. “The LiDAR is a pretty generic horizontal platform. We have three (soon to be four) products that are specialized in terms of precision and accuracy, for different prices. Basically, all of them can be used in all of these segments.”
YellowScan integrated Quantum System’s Tron with its Surveyor sensor to address a key concern in the integration of LiDAR into UAV, which is weight. At only 1.6 kg, Casini says, “the Surveyor is the lightest in the market, as far as we know. We are currently demonstrating the integrated solution to several customers in Europe and around the world, and participating also in some tenders.”
YellowScan has a two-legged expansion strategy according to Casini. One leg is to work with top geomatics dealers. “We just signed with two Trimble dealers in Finland and in Sweden,” he says. “We are pursuing these Tier 1 dealers because we believe it is a better fit with dealers of technology that’s related to imaging, more generally speaking, and mobile scanning in particular, but also indoor scanning.” The other leg is to work with UAV manufacturers because you cannot develop a UAV LiDAR without a UAV. “We are pretty agnostic on this, in the sense that we do not sell any drones, but are certifying drones that are tested with our products.”
His company, Casini says, is currently using three laser head suppliers: the German IBEO for its Mapper II, which is its entry-level product; Velodyne’s VLP-16 for its Surveyor, its top-selling product; and Riegl for its high-end products.
“At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January, Velodyne announced its VLS-128 sensor, which has 128 channels and a range of up to 300 m, almost triple the range of its previous sensors. It is targeted mostly for the autonomous driving space, but it could be used on a drone, probably more of a high-end one, if a customer really wanted that level of performance.”
–FRANK BERTINI, VELODYNE
Casini also speaks highly of Quantum. “I would say that among VTOL manufacturers in the world, they are maybe one of the most industrialized. They are very professional people, with a young and aggressive team of engineers and now a new sales person with long experience in remote sensing. So, they are doing a very good job and we are fitting very well together.”
Quantum differentiated itself from similar companies by developing its own flight control unit and software, Casini says. “For several professional applications, this is sometimes a must, particularly when you are dealing with government contracts. Besides that, they have a very slick product. Among their competitors you can find more garage-type products, but they really have something industrialized and ready for mass production.”
YellowScan decided to work with Quantum in large part because of the latter’s ability to adapt payloads to their machine, says Casini. For example, he recalls, the Tron was originally conceived for photogrammetry, using cameras like the Alpha 6000 from Sony, but it was not well-balanced because the camera was very light. By integrating YellowScan’s Surveyor LiDAR and positioning it in the nose of the aircraft, Quantum was able to optimize the UAV’s attitude. “They demonstrated very good skill in this integration,” says Casini. “Of course, we are just a payload, so we don’t have any say on what the UAV should look like. The complete solution must be one of the coolest on the market today.”
VELODYNE LIDAR & BOE SYSTEMS
Frank Bertini, UAV & Robotics Business Manager at Velodyne LiDAR, Inc., notes, “Most of our partners are our customers,” including YellowScan. BoE approached Velodyne a couple of years ago about possibly integrating the latter’s LiDAR on their drones, primarily for agricultural work. “We don’t have a good presence in the Midwest and it is great to have people across the country, so BoE fills a nice niche for us: agriculture and the Midwest.”
Besides providing the sensor, Velodyne supports BoE with repairs and questions about the LiDAR sensor, such as where it is advantageous to use it over another technology, such as radar or photogrammetry. “We are just a hardware provider for them,” says Bertini. “They do most of the heavy lifting with the integration, getting all the sensors to communicate in the data fusion, and then working with the customers, to make sure that they are ultimately happy with the product.”
For Velodyne, its partnership with BoE is about geographic coverage. “Our LiDAR sensor is not a solution; it is just a component,” says Bertini. “We don’t interact with the end users because it would take them a long time to integrate the sensor—and that is if they even had the prerequisite skills and the will to do it. Our partnership with BoE allows us to connect with those customers with a full solution.”
Velodyne has similar partnerships with several companies, BoE being the newest partner. “In the United States we probably have about five of these drone integrator companies that will make these scanning mapping systems, which are pretty much all the same,” says Bertini. “It is not anything autonomous or any of the fancier applications that we get involved with. It is just passive scanning over the environment. We have partners in Asia and all over Europe, such as YellowScan in France,” as previously mentioned.
This partnership model, with an integrator solution provider that ultimately sells the solution to the end user, works well for Velodyne, Bertini explains. “Most people find us and do not really understand all the ins and outs of what it takes to get our sensor to do something useful. They might see a video or a spec sheet or hear some things from colleagues and think that you can just bolt the sensor to the bottom of a drone and you are up and running. It is a little more complicated than that.”
REDUCING OPERATING COSTS
One of BoE’s key uses for a UAV LiDAR system is corridor mapping for a utility company, monitoring the encroachment of trees onto power lines. To maintain their flight time, they bring along multiple battery packs, so that they can do quick swaps. Velodyne’s sensor will reduce BoE’s operating costs.
Velodyne recently halved the price of its VLP-16, from $8,000 to about $4,000. “The lower total cost makes the sensor much more accessible for a whole host of applications,” says Bertini. Additionally, he points out, Velodyne’s sensor is unique in that it emits 16 beams, each at a different angle, unlike most traditional LiDAR sensors that only have one scanning beam that hits the target perpendicularly. “With our sensor, at the top we have a +15 degree angle and then, on the bottom, a -15 degree channel. That allows you to almost see around objects. So, you get a lot more data points and at different incidence angles, which allows you to see a little bit more. Another advantage is that we can get dual returns, which allows you to see under the tree canopy, down to the forest floor or actually measure crop heights.”
COMPARING GEOGRAPHIC MARKETS
With regards to regulation, the U.S. and European markets are “kind of watching each other,” says Casini. U.S. manufacturers have the advantage of operating under a single set of regulations, he points out, while their European counterparts must contend with a host of different national rules. “The European Commission is attempting to harmonize the regulations, but there is a lot of friction between all the authorities as to which will have the last say.”
Germany, which was late to specifying regulations but has recently sped up its rule-making, has a commission charged with testing flight beyond line-of-sight and proposing regulations. Currently, to fly a UAV beyond line-of-sight in Germany “you must almost be an airplane pilot,” says Casini. It is hard to find pilots with such expertise. In other countries, the definition of beyond line-of-sight is looser. These discordant regulations have limited the adoption of UAVs and of LiDAR, he says, but the climate is improving.
“VTOLs such as Quantum’s have a big advantage, because they can take off from a 10 sq m surface and fly vertically, like multicopters, then become fixed-wing,” says Casini. “This gives them at least four times greater autonomy than any multicopter that you can imagine.” There are some applications, however, that require a very slow speed, lower than the 40 kph or 50 kph minimum speed of fixed-wing aircraft. “VTOL’s time is coming,” he says. There are only a few companies in the world that can master flight beyond line-of-sight and most small UAV companies are just assemblers, not developers, he points out. “Quantum is a developer. So, in this sense, we think that they have a good solution.”
“As soon as the technology for ying them beyond line-of-sight is mature and national regulations allow it, demand for UAVs will hit its next in ection point. VTOL UAVs combine the best of rotary aircraft—the ability to take off and land from a tiny patch and to hover—with the best of xed-wing aircraft—greater speed, which allows them to cover larger areas in the same amount of time.”
While in Europe UAV flights beyond line-of-sight are not yet allowed, Casini believes that they soon will be. Quantum is already able to fly beyond line-of-sight, he points out, and is in discussions with the German authorities to get permission to do so. To take advantage of this coming capability, YellowScan will soon integrate a light LiDAR sensor with Quantum’s Tron.
Where flight beyond visual line-of-sight is allowed, fixed wing UAVs make better use of LiDAR data, Bertini points out. “When you put our sensor on rotor craft, it almost spits out too much data,” he says. “You hit the same point 10 or 15 times over. Fixed wing, where you are going a little bit faster and covering more ground, is more efficient and gives you higher value.”
The nature of Quantum’s UAV, which flies at 50 kph and at an altitude of 100 m, is optimal for such applications as corridor mapping, which requires flying for 20 km to 30 km over pipelines or power lines, Casini points out. “We also see applications for large areas of forestry, for example in Finland where you have to scan something like 200 hectars per day or more and you need to be high because the trees are around 40 m to 50 m high.”
Its partnership with Quantum, Casini says, enables YellowScan to address the growing demand for flight beyond line-of-sight in Europe and in Asia, Africa, and South America, where regulations are a bit looser and the requirements are for mapping large areas.
At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in mid-January, Velodyne announced its VLS-128 sensor, which has 128 channels and a range of up to 300 m, almost triple the range of its previous sensors. “It is targeted mostly for the autonomous driving space, but it could be used on a drone, probably more of a high-end one, if a customer really wanted that level of performance,” says Bertini.
The company has also been working on a new product called Velarray, which “is just getting to the point where we can show it and start shipping it to customers,” says Bertini. “I think it is going to be more interesting to the UAV space due to its small form factor. It is not a rotating sensor but a forward-facing sensor. So, if you fly it on a drone and point downward, you will utilize 100 percent of the sensor. Right now, our sensor goes 360 degrees and most users are not using 180 degrees of that. So, they are not really getting the full performance.”
As soon as the technology for flying them beyond line-of-sight is mature and national regulations allow it, demand for UAVs will hit its next inflection point. VTOL UAVs combine the best of rotary aircraft—the ability to take off and land from a tiny patch and to hover—with the best of fixed-wing air-craft—greater speed, which allows them to cover larger areas in the same amount of time. By forging strategic partnerships, LiDAR manufacturers, UAV manufacturers, and system integrators are accelerating the development of the next generation of UAVs and positioning themselves to make the most of the new opportunities they offer.