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Lasers Bring Precision to Aerial Mapping
By Brad Frischkorn

When mapping and surveying earth terrain needs to be perfect, there's nothing like laser-like precision. Drone technology is also making it a lot easier.

At Riegl Japan, an affiliate of Austrian RIEGL Laser Measurement Systems, salespeople have a keen focus on expanding sales. Well-known for its lineup of terrestrial surveying devices, the company showcased its flagship VUX-1 Lightweight Airborne Laser Scanner at the Japan Drone 2016 expo held in Chiba Prefecture last March.

The VUX-1 is one of the most advanced machines of its kind, offering unparalleled topographical mapping capability. But its newer, lighter weight now also allows for transport by drone, a task formerly only fit for a helicopter or fixed-wing aircraft.

"To be sure, continuous miniaturization over the years has helped the equipment to become more than twice as easy to transport," says Riegl Japan representative Koichi Sasaki. "But when it comes to mapping, the texture of the earth is what everyone wants to see. Only a good airborne laser scanner can provide this detail; standard photographic mapping stops at the trees."

At just 3.5kg, the VUX-1 can be installed on a heavy-duty multi-copter, where it provides 10mm survey-grade accuracy at up to 200 scans per second, and a measurement rate of up to 500,000 times per second with a 330° field of view (FOV). The entire data set of a mission can be stored onto an internal 240GB solid state hard drive (SSD), or provided as real-time line scan data via LAN-TCP/IP interface.

Riegl VUX-1 laser scanner

The company touts its machine as ideal for agriculture, forestry, archeology and cultural heritage documentation, as well as power line, railway, pipeline mapping and urban environment surveying.

Mr. Sasaki displayed the results of the VUX-1's work, a color-enhanced scan showing the fine gradations of land texture beneath a forest.

Topographical land laser scan

In many overseas countries, industrial needs for powerful airborne scanners are constant, but big differences in land surface areas often make the job better suited for conventional aircraft, which can cover a lot of ground quickly. Riegl offers its own mapping software to process the images taken, but a plethora of custom software applications also exist.

"Here in Japan where the land is narrower and mountainous, customers want to be able to fit surveying equipment into a drone-sized package for relatively short missions. "That also means the scanner has to be fitted to a specially designed drone; you can't just bolt it to the bottom of a multi-copter and take off.".

The VUX-1 is for professional surveyors, including large land developers. At a price of several tens of millions of yen per copy, the company has managed to sell only a few of the devices over the last few years, notes Mr. Sasaki. Rental is not currently an option.

Still, he believes the future of the market is bright. "As drones become more powerful and onboard equipment continues to shrink and lighten, the applications for laser scanners will only expand," he says. "In the end, quality speaks volumes in Japan."

Riegl VUX-1 laser scanner

"When it comes to (terrestrial) mapping, the texture of the earth is what everyone wants to see. Only a good airborne laser scanner can provide this detail." -- Koichi Sasaki

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