UAV manufacturer and LiDAR specialist combine their skills to produce drones with sensing systems that promise to transform aerial mapping.
In 2012, Phoenix LiDAR CEO Grayson Omans had the idea of mounting a Velodyne LiDAR sensor on an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) and in doing so, he believes he transformed the aerial mapping industry.
“I first approached Velodyne LiDAR in 2012 with the wild idea of putting a LiDAR sensor on a drone,” says Grayson Omans, CEO and co-founder of Phoenix LiDAR. “At that time, these LiDAR sensors were pretty expensive, so it was a novel idea. I had high hopes for the result, but I never imagined that we’d both end up disrupting the aerial mapping industry.”
The partnership between Velodyne and Phoenix took to the skies only six years ago, but already it has led to some remarkable innovations. Together, the two companies launched the industry’s first commercial UAV LiDAR system, establishing today’s broad use of LiDAR-enabled UAVs.
Phoenix, which builds custom LiDAR systems by integrating various sensors, GNSS relative position receivers, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and more, went on to launch the industry’s first vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) fixed-wing UAV LiDAR system, the TerraHawk CW-20. For this innovation, Phoenix again chose a Velodyne LiDAR sensor. The TerraHawk allows surveyors to take advantage of the speed and stability of a fixed-wing UAV, while using VTOL to protect equipment in remote environments with no runway access.
“Our goal at Phoenix is to make drone LiDAR mapping easier and more affordable to any organisation,” Omans adds. “We do a lot of research before we integrate a component into our LiDAR systems, and Velodyne has consistently offered a great balance between high power and affordability.”
Surveying and aerial mapping
One cost-saving innovation includes Phoenix’s real-time 3D point cloud visualiser, which helps surveyors confirm data quality in real time to avoid errors, and to make flight adjustments while still in the field. Another “first” is their cloud LiDAR post-processing platform, LiDARMill, which significantly reduces the complexity and expense of post-processing by allowing users to upload raw mapping data and to download processed data files in the industry-standard LAS format.
These accomplishments have established UAV LiDAR as a key resource for the aerial mapping and surveying industry, with Phoenix and Velodyne delivering a host of industry firsts. Customers the world over are able to make use of Phoenix’s systems to easily and inexpensively collect detailed 3D topographic information for a wide range of commercial and research applications, like mapping power line corridors, monitoring infrastructure, conducting ground surveys beneath dense vegetation, and more.
Phoenix technology helps organisations like the Colorado DOT to inspect transport infrastructure and companies like CSX to detect shifts in rail systems. UAV service companies, like North Dakota-based SkySkopes, perform a variety of industrial drone inspections, adding LiDAR to their offerings last year.
“Phoenix enables professional drone service providers like SkySkopes to expand our offerings,” says Matt Dunlevy, CEO of SkySkopes. “Our clients have a lot of unique needs, and we can now combine our tools with our Phoenix system to increase the range and quality of our data products.”
Meanwhile, Velodyne LiDAR is matching the furious pace of innovation, introducing products designed for the UAV industry that are smaller, lighter and more powerful. These include the VLP-16 Puck, which delivers 16 laser channels and 100 meters of range in a small form factor, as well as the VLP-16 Puck LITE, which further reduces payload by weighing in at under 600 grammes. Furthermore, Velodyne recently announced a 50 percent cost reduction for its VLP-16 Puck that will make the company’s most popular LiDAR sensor even more accessible.
“Phoenix LiDAR’s innovative spirit was instrumental to Velodyne’s entry into the UAV LiDAR market,” says Mike Jellen, President of Velodyne LiDAR. “We have since gone on to produce products specific to this area to ensure our continued position in the market. Our close relationship with Phoenix LiDAR is a point of pride here at Velodyne. Together, we look forward to future innovation, as our two companies continue to transform the aerial mapping industry.”