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What Is the Difference Between LIDAR and Radar?

Radars emit radio waves that, once reflected back from a target, indicate the object's range and speed.
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  • Written By: G. Wiesen
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Image By: Dave Taylor
  • Last Modified Date: 26 July 2014
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While LIDAR and radar both use similar technologies and approaches to tracking position and movement of objects, there are differences in how each technology works and the types of applications for which each can best be used. Both technologies use energy reflected from objects to determine various aspects of those objects, but the types of energy used in each one is different. The types of objects that can be accurately located and measured through LIDAR and radar are also different in size and nature.

Both LIDAR and radar use the same basic concept in locating objects and determining different properties of such objects. In both LIDAR and radar, an energy transmission is sent out from a source as a signal. When the signal hits an object, that object then reflects some of the energy from the original signal. This reflected energy is then received at the source location and used to determine the distance, size, and other attributes of the object.

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While both LIDAR and radar technology use the same technique, radar was the first form of this technology and is still used for certain applications. Radar, which stands for “radio detection and ranging,” sends out energy pulses of fairly large wavelengths using radio waves. When these radio waves are reflected, the received signal can then be used to determine different aspects of the reflecting object. Size can typically be determined fairly well, as well as the position of the object, and the Doppler shift of the reflected radio waves can be used to determine the speed and direction in which the object is moving.

LIDAR, which stands for "light detection and ranging," is an alternate form of the technology used in radar to determine the position and orientation of an object or objects. LIDAR uses energy with smaller wavelengths such as ultraviolet energy for the source signal. These smaller wavelength signals can be reflected back by smaller objects than can usually be detected through radar, so LIDAR can be used to detect very small objects such as dust particles or various aspects of different weather and atmospheric phenomena. This makes LIDAR a better choice for studying weather patterns using fairly small technology, which is especially useful for studying distant atmospheres through satellites orbiting around other planets.

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