What is LIDAR?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Niki Foster
  • Last Modified Date: 10 August 2019
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Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) is a technology that utilizes lasers to determine the distance to an object or surface. It is used in a variety of industries, including atmospheric physics, geology, forestry, oceanography, and law enforcement. LIDAR is similar to radar, but it incorporates laser pulses rather than radio waves. Both systems determine distance by measuring the time delay between transmission and reflection of a pulse.

For many applications, LIDAR is a better choice than radar, because it has a greater ability to reflect images, making more objects visible. When using data collection systems that involve aiming wavelengths at a target and waiting for a reflection, it is usually only possible to collect information for objects the same size as the wavelength or longer. LIDAR uses waves ten to one hundred thousand times shorter than radar waves, meaning that it is able to collect much more data. A basic LIDAR system includes a transmitting laser and receiver, and LIDAR used in mobile environments like aircraft and satellites also incorporates positioning technology.


Because of the density of the beams, combined with the short wavelength, LIDAR is frequently employed in studies of the atmosphere, as it is able to pick up information about atmospheric particles, clouds, rain, smoke, and other things that radar is incapable of registering. LIDAR is also capable of measuring wind speed and the density of various components of our atmosphere, such as oxygen and nitrogen.

LIDAR can also be used for creating three dimensional topographical maps and surveys of geographical regions. LIDAR has been used in this way to create maps of Mars, to track glaciers, and to visualize the Grand Canyon. LIDAR can also be used to analyze the ocean floor and to determine canopy heights and biomass measurements. It also has applications in seismology and has been used in studies of uplift, fault lines, and other geological features.


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