Drone Lidar Mapping: What You Should Know

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A term that you may have heard before is LIDAR, but you might not know what it is. You may also know that some drones contain LIDAR systems or that LIDAR is often integrated into drones. 

LIDAR is a remote sensing method used to examine the Earth’s surface − the Earth’s topography. We want to look at what LIDAR is, how it works, what it is used for, what some alternatives are, and more.

What is LIDAR? 

Drone + LiDAR

1. Definition 

LIDAR stands for “Light Detection and Ranging.” LIDAR is a remote sensing method that scientists and other professionals use to examine Earth’s surface features or topography. 

LIDAR utilizes light energy to create three-dimensional maps of the Earth’s topography or surface. 

This is a new method of examining the Earth’s surface, which is often used with drones. UAVs or unmanned aerial vehicles are the perfect platforms to mount a LIDAR system.

In case you do not know, while LIDAR’s 1st use was during the sixties when people came up with mounting laser scanners to planes, it failed to gain the popularity it merited until in the eighties after the presentation of GPS. At that time, LIDAR turned into a well-known way of calculating precise geospatial estimations. These days, its prevalence has proved to be in various fields that we will be discussing later in the post.

2. LIDAR System Types

In View of Its Functionality

You can classify LIDAR systems into two kinds depending on their usefulness: Terrestrial & Airborne

Airborne LIDAR

True to its name, Airborne LIDAR gets set up on a UAV or helicopter’s top. After being discharged towards the ground, the light advances in the direction of the sensor. Airborne LIDARs are additionally divided into bathymetric & geological. 

  • Topographic 

Its utilization is mostly in tracking & mapping an area’s topography. That is why topographic LIDAR boasts its applications in appraisal survey, seaside engineering, landscape ecology, metropolitan arranging, geomorphology, and so on.

  • Bathymetric

People make use of this LIDAR in estimating water bodies’ depth. Here, the infrared light gets thrown back from the water & land surface to the plane; in the meantime, the extra green laser goes over the water column. 

For your information, bathymetric data is essential in harbors, close to banks & shores, and close to coastlines. The data likewise help discover the position of objects on the bottom of a sea/ ocean.

Terrestrial LIDAR

As you may know, either moving vehicles or tripods have these LIDARs mounted on them. Data points gathered by terrestrial LIDAR are useful for the profoundly precise info identification. You can find this type’s application in surveying & making 3D Modeling. It can be further divided into a Static LIDAR and Mobile one. 

  • Static

It is lighter and smaller when compared to the mobile LIDAR. This kind works to gather a fixed area’s cloud points and its utilization is common in prehistoric studies & mining. 

  • Mobile

Generally, this LIDAR system is useful for road observation & infrastructure analysis. Oftentimes, it incorporates GPS, camera, & sensors.

In View of Other Classifications


It is an abbreviation of Differential Absorption LIDAR sensing of O3. People tend to use DIAL for gauging the lower atmosphere’s O3.


It is short for High Spectral Resolution Lidar. The NASA Langley airborne HSRL does a fantastic job of characterizing the atmosphere’s aero-solutions & clouds. The HSRL researcher group dissects aero-solution composition, size, movement, & distribution – from a non-ground-based platform. 

On the one hand, the HSRL instrument is famous as a cutting-edge innovation that is like radar. On the other hand, when it comes to LIDAR, laser light takes the place of radio waves.

For your information, the HSRL procedure leverages the LIDAR return signal’s spectral distribution for aero-solution & subatomic signals and accordingly calculates aero-solution extinction & backscatter on their own.

Wind LiDAR

It manages to quantify wind speed & course with high precision. As you know, traditionally, people have had a hard time collecting wind information because of different estimation points driving toward errors. Utilizing this LIDAR works to gauge wind speed, heading, and turbulence.


Raman LIDAR helps profile aero-solution & water in the form of a gas generated from heating water or ice.

Spaceborne LiDAR

Interesting enough, LIDAR is not only capable enough for the earth. NASA and other leading space agencies are making use of this system for discovery & monitoring.

3. LIDAR Pros and Cons

LIDAR has become considerably more remarkable & versatile; however, it is as yet not the flawless answer for all the applications. Below we point out a few of the significant benefits & drawbacks to utilizing this system.


In the first place, we should delve into its perks.

  • Speed

After making them go out, the sensor gets laser pulses back in nanoseconds, which should make it feasible to scan big regions in a genuinely brief timeframe and attain a large quantity of info.

  • Precision 

Most importantly, LIDAR innovation delivers staggeringly precise, reliable results. Even with the short wavelength, less sizable objects are recognizable and that wavelength works to generate precise 3D models. So, it is practicable to define the objects and figure out if they are a human being or a tree.

  • Automated functionality

This system comprises fundamentally automated procedures. You cannot deny the significant role of veteran pilots in operating the gear, but its efficiency is higher as compared to other surveying techniques that ask for more active personal involvement. 

  • Ability to collect from multiple locations 

Thanks to LIDAR innovation, you can handily get the mapping for thick timberlands, high mountains, and other difficult-to-reach areas.

  • Reasonable cost

Thinking about the speed & big region highly possibly get scanned along with the considerably precise results, LIDAR is altogether affordable in comparison with other land surveying & planning approaches. It is indeed a reasonably-priced method for delivering complex topographical surveys.

Drawbacks of using LIDAR 

While in general, a lot of exceptionally exact data, cost, & speed make this technology the proper choice, having an idea of its cons when you plan to utilize LIDAR is significant as well. 

  • Top-of-the-line LIDAR sensors may be for those who are high on cash

Are you attempting to run a LIDAR shop? It tends to need substantial investment into the workforce & LIDAR sensor.

  • Needs experience for its operation

Past surveying experience is necessary to make check efforts, set up base stations as well as reach benchmarks. Being complex is one of this system’s qualities (you know) and it needs an in-depth comprehension of the sensor. 


How Does LIDAR Work?

GIS product made after proccesing aerial pictures. It shows excavation site with steep rock walls that was mapped from a drone
GIS product made after proccesing aerial pictures. It shows excavation site with steep rock walls that was mapped from a drone

LIDAR might sound like something complex, but it’s actually quite simple. You could technically compare LIDAR to SONAR, as they are somewhat related. However, where sonar uses sound to pinpoint the location and distance of objects in the water or air, LIDAR uses light to accomplish the same thing. 

Now, whereas SONAR can be used in the air and in the water, LIDAR generally only works for the air, as the light beams or pulses used to create 3D maps cannot penetrate far through water. 

LIDAR systems consist of various components, including a laser that shoots a beam of light, a scanner to determine how long it takes for that beam of light to reflect off of a surface and to return to the drone, plane, or helicopter, and a GPS unit to provide coordinates from the readings produced by the laser and scanner.

In essence, a LIDAR system works by shooting a beam of light or a laser towards the Earth. The scanner then measures how long it takes for that beam of light to hit the Earth and then reflect back to the scanner. This determines the distance between the LIDAR system and the Earth, measuring the area’s elevation where the light beam was fired at. Using a GPS unit, a LIDAR system can create accurate three-dimensional maps of the Earth’s topography. 

LIDAR vs. Photogrammetry 

One thing to note is that LIDAR is relatively new, and before LIDAR arrived, the most-used method for examining and mapping the topography of the Earth was photogrammetry. Photogrammetry is the process of taking pictures or videos to explore the topography of the Earth. 

As you can imagine, creating a topographical map can be quite tricky using just photos, as humans have to perform precise analysis and calculations to turn those photos into reliable maps. 

LIDAR would be like using a laser-based measuring tool for construction to get exact measurements. Photogrammetry is like that lazy contractor who doesn’t measure and just tries to eye out the distances with the naked eye. 

LIDAR is a much more accurate and reliable way to examine and map the topography of the Earth. It can even provide information about how dense vegetation is and what the ground under the vegetation is like, something that photos produced via photogrammetry just cannot do. 

Drone LIDAR Mapping Indonesia Monument, Garuda Wisnu Kencana

What is LIDAR Most Often Used for?

LIDAR’s utilities & applications are various and numerous. And believe it or not, their full potential would before long be outside of the realm of your imagination since it works to unravel later on. 

Essentially, this technology is one of the varieties of advancements that together structure the fundamental building block of today’s automation. It is changing the world in various manners, say, the applications in smart urban communities, 3D scanning, 3D printing, modeling, aside from sensor applications. How about we take a deep dive into a couple of this detection system’s key application areas?

1. Archeology

In terms of uncovering old archeological destinations, the LIDAR system is ending up playing a significant role particularly thanks to the phenomenal detailing provided by this technique. The technology, generally speaking, saves the archeologists’ time & exertion as well as enables them to make models that were practically difficult to make previously. In case you miss it, two archeologists made excellent 3D pictures of a forgotten Mayan city by leveraging LiDAR which allows for an extraordinarily accurate and deep understanding of that lost city. 

2. Surveying

This is one of LIDAR’s most broadly known applications. The use of LIDAR surveying tends to become widespread in the areas of construction, checking out an area’s topography, & metropolitan planning. 

You may appreciate that LIDAR surveying gathers information super quickly and along these lines, is better than traditional types of surveying. LIDAR-based spatial models boast an unimportant extent of mistake edge, which thus saves a lot of cash & makes reaching an ultimate decision easier. 

When it comes to this surveying, DEM (Digital Elevation Model), resulting from point data converted, can probably have any texture contingent upon the data’s density & the application. Following the surface creation, a detailed examination should be possible, as needed. 

Energy Surveying

LIDAR is used by the energy industry to monitor changes in ground elevation, mainly to ensure that substations, towers, wind turbines, and other energy-related installations are on stable ground. 

Insurance Surveying

LIDAR can be used by the insurance industry to assess things like flood, fire, and storm damage. 

Government Surveying

Governments can use LIDAR to examine various topographical aspects, with water flow being one of them.

Agricultural Surveying

LIDAR can be used in agriculture to determine where the best locations are in terms of drainage, to monitor drought stress, and to determine where crops grow the best and fastest, among other things. 

Construction Surveying

LIDAR can also be used in construction to allow for detailed site planning, particularly in building foundations. 

LIDAR can also be used in construction to allow for detailed site planning
LIDAR can also be used in construction to allow for detailed site planning

3. Climate Change Moderation

Impressively enough, LIDAR’s ultra-high resolution (UHR) & exact imagery works to capture & place emphasis on even the minutiae. That is why this technology is progressively being trusted by geologists & researchers. It does an excellent job of monitoring deforestation & farming patterns – even more effectively compared to any other technique. 

Furthermore, the information acquired identifies with great accuracy what was left unnoticed in past assessments, hence making it notably more dependable. 

Much to your amazement, NASA has built up a Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation instrument made using LIDAR (GEDI) for the modular space station ISS that gives a novel 3D look at woodlands on Earth & plays a part in offering the carbon cycle-related data not accessible in the past. GEDI gives imperative data associated with the trees’ influence on the carbon measure in the environment. Utilizing the information, the researchers are presently ready to sort out the specific degree of carbon that timberlands store & the number of trees that ought to be grown for serving as a counterbalance for the greenhouse gases’ effects.

4. LIDAR in Self-Driving Cars

Autonomous vehicles will be highly likely to make far-reaching changes in the automobile field. And it is worth mentioning that self-driving cars will be unfathomable if LIDAR is not in the picture. 

LIDAR ought to be referred to as an autonomous car’s focal point because it is capable of checking the environmental factors of the vehicle, ascertaining distance, recognizing blocks ahead, using a laser to enlighten objects, and afterward making a HI-RES digital picture. 

Additionally, this detection technology is useful for staying away from collisions as it can estimate the distance between a vehicle & any other vehicle ahead or at the front part of it. For that functionality, people mount a LIDAR on the roof or the bumper. The ACC (or Adaptive Cruise Control) driver-assistance system in a self-driving vehicle receives the data that LIDAR sensors send out and utilizes them to determine when to speed up, reduce the speed, or apply the brakes.

5. LIDAR for AR

As you may know, AR stands for Augmented Reality, an innovation thanks to which, you can see virtual content very much like it would have had the real existence. Even better, LIDAR upgrades the AR system’s clarity & ultimate output. 

LIDAR scanners provide top-notch 3D mapping, enabling other augmented reality systems to stack information on the HI-RES map’s top. The AR experience is more fantastic owing to LIDAR’s point cloud utilization. 

What is cool is, there has been continuous research on the use of Doppler wind LIDAR that would let you, in a real sense, have a visible view of how the wind is moving. The method expectedly helps with catastrophe readiness, weather forecasting, atmospheric info visualizations, & inflight wellbeing.

6. LIDAR Systems for Drones

LIDAR-Equipped Drones in Action

Let’s look at instances of LIDAR & UAVs in real life: 

Archaic Exploration 

Previous surveying methods for huge historical locations required a long time to wrap up. Meanwhile, thanks to the advanced LIDAR innovation, there can be a 3D mapping for the whole urban areas genuinely quickly. The drone-based solution enables destinations viewed as lost ones to get discovered again each day. 

Terrain Modeling

While planning on the most feasible way of getting ready for moving dirt for your business, you should know how to reduce the quantity to the square yard. The yard is what people base on to pay for dirt movers and costs will increase in amount if counts are mistaken. 

No worry any more! Drones with LIDAR systems equipped enable considerable savings over ground survey procedures. Through utilizing a technique for identifying trees, leaves, and other distant articles, LIDAR is capable of deciding their position, speed, as well as other attributes by dissecting pulsed laser light thrown back from an article’s surface. That provides ground operators with a terrific topographic terrain 3D model.

Farming & Landscaping 

As far as huge-scale farms are concerned, landscape 3D mapping has begun to be essential to running a powerful water supply system. For instance, on sizable rice cultivated areas, necessarily, farmworkers construct levees, which specifies the accurate understanding of the terrain as compulsory for levee systems to work. 

Drone's geo-scanning, 3D mapping
Drone’s geo-scanning, 3D mapping

With the help of a LIDAR-outfitted drone with the ability to gather information once and only once, persons in charge can progress over a huge field rapidly. As you may know, traditional techniques were slow and therefore inefficient; it would have to do with awaiting the fields to adequately dry up, which enables trucks to maneuver the terrain.

Forest Management

As you can see, the creation of basic items such as paper asks for the proficient administration of beneficial woodlands and whatnot. Still, it is likely challenging to keep these immense zones under protection because of their substantially large size. Conventional strategies for evaluating a forest inventory are tedious & wasteful, now and again depending on rough calculations for enormous regions. 

Thanks to the utilization of a LIDAR-outfitted UAV, measuring tree density, coverage, where individual trees are located, and how tall they are is no longer a challenge to foresters. 

That way eliminates the approximations & failures of techniques used earlier, with the additional advantage of LIDAR systems having the option to direct such measurements even if human eyes fail to do so (understandably, they do not function depending on natural light).

Mishap Cases

LIDAR technique picturing objects by utilizing ultraviolet (UV), near-infrared (IR) light; there is no need for external light to achieve successful mapping. For instance, when checking a highway collision involving vehicles around late evening time, a UAV outfitted with LIDAR can, with ease, be sent, making one pass across the accident site. 

As a drone-based way of dealing with accident scenes, precise data with clear minute parts will be returned immediately and then would be able to get acknowledged as proof in court. That is not all; on the ground, teams in charge can start the way toward tidying up rapidly, which accordingly saves a huge amount of money by imposing fewer restrictions on commuters & saving on staff handling mishaps. 

Mine Inspections

Believe it or not, LIDAR-outfitted UAVs are not only designed for outside tasks; it has demonstrated to likewise be helpful for mine inspections. In this regard, the LIDAR serves as a collision identification device to direct SLAM (short for simultaneous localization and mapping), giving firms assessment information and allowing the UAV to work semi or completely autonomously

Owing to this sort of work, miners have the choice to examine a mine following an arranged detonation to ensure the stability of mine construction before they send in any persons.

The Bottom Line

LIDAR is a beneficial type of technology, which is why it is becoming more popular and prevalent in various fields and industries. There is more than one industry or type of work where LIDAR is used. 

If you work in any of the industries discussed above, or you need to use a LIDAR system for topographical mapping, a great way to do it is by mounting a relatively inexpensive LIDAR system to a drone. Yes, this is something that you, as a civilian, can do. 

Below we have listed a few good LIDAR systems that are drone compatible, accurate, functional, and quite affordable. Some may be full kits, while others are singular components.


LIDAR is an extremely useful system designed to create accurate and precise three-dimensional topographical maps of the Earth. It’s something that can be mounted to a simple little drone, making it an impressive piece of technology. Check out the best drones for aerial mapping here.

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