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MacDonald AlistairThe European LiDAR Mapping Forum (ELMF), which takes place in Salzburg from 4-5 December 2012,  is all about innovation and step change in a market which benefits all sectors of the population. The Conference’s objectives are simply to spread the word about the latest advances in the laser scanning and mapping market, launching new technologies and improving techniques through hearing about real life projects and the lessons learned. 

Laser scanning whether operated in the air, or on the ground, provides a unique method of capturing very detailed map data extremely quickly, in great volume and safely. Developed originally from military techniques, recent advances have taken place in the commercial world in the development of new, smaller and faster laser sensor technologies. These combined with rapid development of software processing suites and improvements in complementary techniques such as hyperspectral and infrared sensors have combined to revolutionise the way maps can now be made. In a nutshell, mapping is now faster, cheaper and safer than ever before; it has opened up not only an ever widening range of applications but also a rapidly growing community of end users of the mapping data.

At the LiDAR Mapping Forum – a series of international specialist technical conferences held each year in the USA and Europe focused on laser scanning, 3D and mobile mapping technologies – step changes in the market are often first announced to an unsuspecting world. 

Take mobile mapping, this technique was first promoted at the International LiDAR Mapping Forum (ILMF) in 2010 as an effective way of gathering data in cities. Mapping professionals could capitalize on the reduced size and power consumption of laser scanners and install integrated sensors on vehicles, which, roaming through towns and cities, captured in high resolution the essential data used to construct the 3D images of streets and buildings with which we are now so familiar. 

It is not just productivity which is driving these significant market changes. There has been an exponential increase in safety  by the avoidance of field survey crew personnel painstakingly surveying highways and buildings while working in busy traffic. This has been complemented by the speed of mapping available by simply driving the vehicle down the street. And now the data can be used electronically by many departments within urban authorities to improve their productivity and effectiveness.   

Traditional sectors in the LIDAR community remain important and have benefited no less from recent technological advances. Whether capturing the profile and catenaries of power lines, safety surveys on railways, or establishing the nature and quantity of trees in forests, airborne LIDAR remains a cost-effective tool to gather key asset management data. The advances now enable high-resolution mapping of coastal zones where it is vital in this time of climate change to establish sea and river level boundaries in order to plan effective flood defenses.  These also assist  insurance companies to quantify and mitigate their risks of flood damage claims. Once the coastal zones are mapped and entered into a digital model, regular LIDAR re-surveys can monitor any significant changes and so ensure that these defenses remain fit for purpose.

Currently the software to process and visualize the captured data is catching up with the tremendous data gathering power of the laser scanners. Previously the sheer volume of the data has been a limiting factor in the time cost-effectiveness of LIDAR mapping. Now processing can be done “on the fly”, delivering high productivity gains with improved accuracy and enabling deliverables to be presented to the end user customer at the end of the data capture campaign. And with smaller, cheaper but still high resolution scanners now available, applications are widening to include mapping the inside of buildings, an added value from scanning the outside of historic buildings.

Increasingly, the expanding community of end users want access to the petabytes of LIDAR and associated data, either in raw point cloud format for use in their own processing suites, or as processed data for use in a number of cutting edge visualization packages. Visionary service providers have now established web-based access and processing services, which while addressing a community need, is having a two fold strategic effect on the market. Firstly, some service providers who traditionally also delivered a processed mapping product are now becoming more focussed on data acquisition thereby shifting data acquisition into a commodity status. Secondly, the opening up of access to raw data for “home processing” with commercial software packages has inherent dangers in that some users are not trained in the science.  They do not always understand the essential theory behind LIDAR, its shortcomings as well as its benefits and may be open to making unintentional errors in their evaluation of the data before them. Education of a new section of end users is a key challenge to the industry.

But, looking to the future, recent advances in image processing algorithms, in particular semi-global matching (SGM) techniques now enable fast transformation of combined aerial images and 2D image data into a 3D digital model.  These allow effective viewing of the features and assets mapped from nearly all possible angles.

Smaller, better, faster cheaper: there is almost a symbiotic relationship between laser scanning technologies and their software data processing systems. Faster processing on smaller but more powerful computers enables higher resolution laser scanners and sensor technologies to be miniaturized. This in turn is leading us towards the next major step change in the market: small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) capable of effectively capturing laser scanning, photographic and other sensor data whilst being operated remotely and with less support resources and costs than current platforms.

ELMF2012 is the largest conference yet in the series, and along with the 35 technical paper conference, the event hosts workshops and a significant exhibition of 50 of the world’s top system and service providers. It offers an unprecedented opportunity for everyone in the mapping and GIS sector, from student beginners to seasoned professionals, to meet with their industry peers and update themselves on the state of the market. ELMF2012 is taking place in Salzburg 4-5 December 2012

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