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What Are the Different Uses of LIDAR Processing?

By Marty Paule
Updated Feb 21, 2024
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LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) technology and processing is used in a wide range of research and practical applications. With its ability to measure dimensions, distances, textures, and many other aspects of targeted subjects, LIDAR processing has become an increasingly important tool in geology, geography, surveying, agriculture, and forestry. Atmospheric sciences, archaeology, seismology, and geomatics also depend on data gathered using LIDAR processing for research, while physics and astronomy benefit from LIDAR's ability to create highly precise maps.

With its early adoption by atmospheric scientists, LIDAR processing marked one of the first uses of laser technology. LIDAR technology continues to be a critically important tool in studying the composition of the atmosphere and clouds. With increasing concern over greenhouse gases and other aerosol substances in the atmosphere, LIDAR processing enables scientists to precisely determine how much carbon dioxide, ozone, and other substances are present in the atmosphere. For example, a Doppler LIDAR system was used in the 2008 Summer Olympics for the measurement of wind fields during yachting events.

In the earth sciences, LIDAR processing allows the detection of obscured topographic details, such as land elevations below dense vegetation. Repeated LIDAR surveys of specific locations have led to a greater understanding of the geological and chemical forces that result in changes on the Earth's surface. High-resolution maps generated via stationery and airborne LIDAR systems offer hydrologists new insights into subterranean water movement.

Aircraft-based LIDAR systems used in conjunction with Global Positioning System (GPS) are used to defect faults in the Earth's crust and measure the upthrusts caused by tectonic activity. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) operates a satellite-based system called ICESat that monitors the growth and shrinkage of glaciers. NASA also operates the Airborne Topographic Mapper that is used to both monitor glacier activity and coastal topography changes. The latter function has become increasingly important in disaster assessment. These same technologies are employed in soil studies that take advantage of LIDAR's ability to provide highly detailed models of the terrain being studied.

Referencing a group of reflectors placed on the moon's surface, LIDAR is used to track its position with unprecedented accuracy. The reflectors also offer research physicists a means for carrying out experiments in general relativity. Atmospheric physicists use LIDAR instruments to measure the concentration of substances such as oxygen, sodium, and nitrogen in the middle and upper atmosphere. Mars has been extensively mapped and the presence of snow on its surface has been confirmed with LIDAR mapping.

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