Self-driving vehicles have given LiDAR sensors a big boost in exposure since they’re one of the most recognizable aspects of autonomous car technology. But LiDAR is also employed in a wide variety of applications and industries – and in use cases that are constantly expanding.
In last week’s C3 Report, we looked at how Velodyne LiDAR has become the gold standard in autonomous vehicle sensing technology. In this follow up, we’ll cover how LiDAR is being leveraged in other industries – and how rotating, multi-laser (a.k.a. multi-channel) LiDAR offers the simplest and best solution for most applications.
Industries as diverse as agriculture, energy, robotics, the military, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), mapping and even virtual reality are employing LiDAR and have embraced Velodyne as the benchmark provider of the technology. Here are examples of how some of Velodyne’s most successful clients, partners and system integrators are employing the company’s groundbreaking LiDAR technology beyond autonomous cars.
According to PwC, today’s $2 billion UAV marketplace will soar to a $127 billion market by 2020, representing 6,000 percent growth through the end of the decade. LiDAR sensors will be an essential part of that boom.
Regulations are now in place allowing UAV surveying and overflight of agricultural areas in the U.S., Canada and the E.U., as well as other countries and regions. Velodyne offers a range of LiDAR sensors that address the remote sensing, mapping and guidance needs of the emerging UAV industry.
Three Velodyne units specially are often used by UAV companies and industry experts as the LiDAR “eyes in the sky” of their aerial rigs:
- HDL-32E: This high-definition 360º, high-definition LiDAR sensor gathers 695,000 points per second (1.39 million in dual-return mode) over 32 rotating laser “channels” and across a 100-meter range, and an expansive 41.33º vertical field of view and a 360º horizontal field of view. It’s slightly larger (by 25 percent) than a 12-ounce can and weighs 1 kg without cabling or an interface box. The HDL-32E is a device for larger-sized UAVs that can accommodate 2 kg or more of payload capacity.
- VLP-16 Puck: The more compact Velodyne Puck supports 16 channels and 300,000 points/second (600,000 in dual-return mode) in a palm-sized form factor and 830-gram uncabled weight. It also boasts a 100-meter range, with a 30º vertical field of view and a 360º horizontal field of view. With no visible rotating parts, the Puck is highly resilient to challenging environments (IP67 rated) and temperature ranges (-10º C to +60º C).
- VLP-16 Puck LITE: Sharing all the above specs except weight, the Puck LITE is tailormade for payload-sensitive UAV missions, weighing in at a modest 590 grams.
A just-released fourth option, the VLP-32 Ultra Puck, will have a similar physical form factor as the Puck, but extended performance across 32 laser channels.
Veteran UAV solution providers around the world have developed software, hardware and services around Velodyne sensors. Leading Palo Alto-based UAV integrator DJI, for example, outfits its industrial-grade airframe with a VLP-16 LiDAR Puck that can scan 10 acres of terrain per minute, enabling breakthrough performance improvements in terrain modeling and agriculture and landscaping applications.
According to Jeff Fagerman, owner of Somerville, Alabama-based LiDAR USA, a Velodyne HDL-32E enables him to survey 40-acre lots within 6 to 12 minutes. He estimates that to do the same job with land-based surveyor crews might take a week.
Even thick vegetation and mature tree canopies can be penetrated to show the pure terrain after less than an hour of post-flight data processing. “That’s the beauty of the Velodyne and the 41-degree field of view,” Fagerman says. “It makes a really big difference. When we scan that 40-acre plot, most of the points are on the tops of the trees. But there’s a preponderance of points on the ground. So we do a bare-earth classification algorithm, which rips off all the vegetation, leaving us with just the points on the ground,” he added.
Corridor mapping comprises nearly 38 percent of the LiDAR current market, and compact and lightweight Velodyne LiDAR units represent some of the most promising new technologies used in this increasingly mobile and dynamic field.
Self-driving and semi-autonomous cars, for instance, represent a substantial marketplace for continually updated high-resolution 3D mapping services. The Berlin-based mapping company HERE – owned by Audi, BMW and Daimler – has a fleet of more than 200 cars, each outfitted with Velodyne HDL-32Es. The fleet gathers 140 gigabytes of data per day using Velodyne’s LiDAR sensors.
The HERE fleet travels some 50,000 km of roads a week across the 30 countries it maps each year. After computer processing of the raw data in one of the company’s data centers, HERE offers detailed 3D maps of the roadways its fleet covers, with an absolute accuracy of five meters and a relative accuracy of 20 centimeters, out to a radius of 100 meters.
Velodyne’s LiDAR units are also compact and robust enough to be used for aerial mapping applications via UAV (see above) or helicopter. Jeff Fagerman of LiDAR USA has used Robinson R44 and MD 500 lightweight choppers mounted with a geodata acquisition rig, including a Velodyne HDL-32E.
Mapping a 24-kilometer levee, for instance, took just 30 minutes — flying at 30 to 80 km/hour. Two ground-based crews were only able to map 1.5 kilometers of the levee over two full days. The Velodyne-derived map could display vegetation or with tree cover and vegetation removed, and it boasted a height accuracy of a few centimeters.
Using LiDAR, high-resolution maps are also available for lower cost-of-entry applications than can be obtained from dedicated mapping companies. The Pittsburgh-based company Kaarta, for instance, sells a dedicated handheld LiDAR mapping device built around a Velodyne VLP-16 that requires no expensive professional GPS or inertial navigation systems. Kaarta provides award-winning LiDAR mapping solutions for architecture, engineering and construction applications, including multi-floor plans, pipelines, industrial plants and infrastructure.
Other recent Velodyne LiDAR-based mapping applications include Leica Geosystems/Microsoft VLP-16 backpack mapping, the Swedish company Satlab’s Segway-based HDL-32E mapping solution and the Dutch innovator Seabed’s VLP-16-based marine combination LiDAR and sonar scanner.
As these few examples reveal – and there are many more – an entire ecosystem of mapping integration partners and solutions providers have sprung up around Velodyne technology. For more information, see Velodyne’s System Integrators webpage.
Numerous other industries are already being impacted – or will soon be impacted – by the revolutionary new applications of inexpensive, straightforward, rapid, accurate, reliable, high-resolution 3D LiDAR. Here are just a few further examples among many:
- Caterpillar uses Velodyne as the remote sensing technology for its fleet of autonomous 240-ton mining trucks at an iron-ore mine in Australia. “The agreement with Velodyne’s LiDAR Division provides yet another valuable tool for Caterpillar as it works toward implementing machine technology that promotes safety on worksites while increasing the efficiency and profitability of the operation,” said Geoff Ginzel, Cat Electronics product manager for software technology and information products.
- The ARGOS Challenge is a robotics competition in the oil and gas industry to spur development of autonomous mobile devices for inspection, anomaly detection and emergency management. The 2015 winner was a French team of researchers who built a robot they called Viking around a Velodyne VLP-16 Puck. Velodyne LiDAR technology is made to withstand the extremely challenging environments in the oil and gas industry, says Velodyne’s former Director of North America sales and Product Management, Wolfgang Juchmann, now VP of Sales and Business Development for Velodyne partner AutonouStuff. “Sensors must be rated for their environment,” he says. “Our multibeam LiDAR sensors carry an IP67 rating. In addition, each of our LiDAR sensors undergoes rigorous environmental testing, and not only in the R&D test phase. Every sensor we ship is challenged during vibration testing (up to 3G) and heat and cold cycle testing between –10C and +60C, over an eight-hour period.”
- The live-action virtual reality company HypeVR has developed a 360º camera rig that uses a Velodyne HDL-32E to capture motion with six full degrees of freedom (84k, 90 fps, 360º point cloud at 700,000 points per second) to enable full integration with virtual reality headsets and complete immersion in the 3D environment being filmed. “The extra dimension of being able to lean into a live action scene really takes VR to the next level,” said Tonaci Tran, HypeVR co-founder. “To achieve these amazing results, we needed a robust solution to record 3D depth information. By combining our proprietary algorithm and multichannel real-time LiDAR technology, we’re able to generate ultra-high-resolution 3D depth information at any distance, which allows our 3D capture system to perform well in any environment. Although we are currently working with an ultra-high-end and robust VR 3D capture solution, we are also working on more compact and affordable systems so that other VR filmmaker’s can begin creating amazing six-degree live action VR content.”
Conclusion: Making the Impossible Possible
It’s no exaggeration to say that LiDAR is a transformative technology in the increasing number of industries it enters. Whether the LiDAR unit is mounted on a car, UAV, helicopter, commercial truck, boat, robot or virtual-reality camera, the 360º high-definition 3D “seeing” capability it enables makes possible technologies that might otherwise seem impossible. Autonomous and semi-autonomous cars and trucks become achievable along with rapid, precision mapping and surveying technologies, upending fields as diverse as forestry, manufacturing, archaeology and resource prospecting.
The type and quality of LiDAR sensors in the marketplace are as varied as the fields they’re revolutionizing. And while the race for second- or third-rate technology may be heating up, for best-in-class LiDAR there’s no competition with multi-laser, rotating, hybrid-solid-state sensor. Velodyne invented the category at its founding in 2007 and remains the dominant player in the field to this day.
To learn more about Velodyne LiDAR technology, visit Velodyne LiDAR’s website.
About Velodyne LiDAR
Founded in 1983 and based in Silicon Valley, Velodyne LiDAR, Inc. is a technology company known worldwide for its real-time LiDAR sensors. The company evolved after founder/inventor David Hall developed the HDL-64 Solid-State Hybrid LiDAR sensor in 2005. Since then, Velodyne LiDAR has emerged as the leading developer, manufacturer, and supplier of 3D real-time perception systems used in a variety of commercial applications including autonomous vehicles, vehicle safety systems, 3D mobile mapping, 3D aerial mapping, and security. Its compact, lightweight HDL-32E sensor is available for many applications including UAVs, while the VLP-16 LiDAR Puck is a 16-channel real-time LiDAR sensor that is both substantially smaller and dramatically less expensive than previous generation sensors. Finally, the VLP-32C Ultra Puck™ offers the long-range, high-resolution and surround view required for the world’s most advanced autonomous vehicles.