Lidar uses ultraviolet, visible, or near infrared light to image objects. It can target a wide range of materials, including non-metallic objects, rocks, rain, chemical compounds, aerosols, clouds and even single molecules. A narrow laser-beam can map physical features with very high resolutions; for example, an aircraft can map terrain at 30-centimetre (12 in) resolution or better.
Lidar has been used extensively for atmospheric research and meteorology. Lidar instruments fitted to aircraft and satellites carry out surveying and mapping – a recent example being the U.S. Geological Survey Experimental Advanced Airborne Research Lidar. NASA has identified lidar as a key technology for enabling autonomous precision safe landing of future robotic and crewed lunar-landing vehicles.
Wavelengths vary to suit the target: from about 10 micrometers to the UV (approximately 250 nm). Typically light is reflected via backscattering. Different types of scattering are used for different lidar applications: most commonly Rayleigh scattering, Mie scattering, Raman scattering, and fluorescence. Based on different kinds of backscattering, the lidar can be accordingly called Rayleigh Lidar, Mie Lidar, Raman Lidar, Na/Fe/K Fluorescence Lidar, and so on. Suitable combinations of wavelengths can allow for remote mapping of atmospheric contents by identifying wavelength-dependent changes in the intensity of the returned signal.
In general there are two kinds of lidar detection schemes: "incoherent" or direct energy detection (which is principally an amplitude measurement) and coherent detection (which is best for Doppler, or phase sensitive measurements). Coherent systems generally use optical heterodyne detection, which, being more sensitive than direct detection, allows them to operate at a much lower power but at the expense of more complex transceiver requirements.
In both coherent and incoherent lidar, there are two types of pulse models: micropulse lidar systems and high energy systems. Micropulse systems have developed as a result of the ever-increasing amount of computer power available combined with advances in laser technology. They use considerably less energy in the laser, typically on the order of one microjoule, and are often "eye-safe," meaning they can be used without safety precautions. High-power systems are common in atmospheric research, where they are widely used for measuring many atmospheric parameters: the height, layering and densities of clouds, cloud particle properties (extinction coefficient, backscatter coefficient, depolarization), temperature, pressure, wind, humidity, trace gas concentration (ozone, methane, nitrous oxide, etc.).
There are several major components to a lidar system:
- Laser — 600–1000 nm lasers are most common for non-scientific applications. They are inexpensive, but since they can be focused and easily absorbed by the eye, the maximum power is limited by the need to make them eye-safe. Eye-safety is often a requirement for most applications. A common alternative, 1550 nm lasers, are eye-safe at much higher power levels since this wavelength is not focused by the eye, but the detector technology is less advanced and so these wavelengths are generally used at longer ranges and lower accuracies. They are also used for military applications as 1550 nm is not visible in night vision goggles, unlike the shorter 1000 nm infrared laser. Airborne topographic mapping lidars generally use 1064 nm diode pumped YAG lasers, while bathymetric systems generally use 532 nm frequency doubled diode pumped YAG lasers because 532 nm penetrates water with much less attenuation than does 1064 nm. Laser settings include the laser repetition rate (which controls the data collection speed). Pulse length is generally an attribute of the laser cavity length, the number of passes required through the gain material (YAG, YLF, etc.), and Q-switch speed. Better target resolution is achieved with shorter pulses, provided the lidar receiver detectors and electronics have sufficient bandwidth.
- Scanner and optics — How fast images can be developed is also affected by the speed at which they are scanned. There are several options to scan the azimuth and elevation, including dual oscillating plane mirrors, a combination with a polygon mirror, a dual axis scanner (see Laser scanning). Optic choices affect the angular resolution and range that can be detected. A hole mirror or a beam splitter are options to collect a return signal.
- Photodetector and receiver electronics — Two main photodetector technologies are used in lidars: solid state photodetectors, such as silicon avalanche photodiodes, or photomultipliers. The sensitivity of the receiver is another parameter that has to be balanced in a lidar design.
- Position and navigation systems — Lidar sensors that are mounted on mobile platforms such as airplanes or satellites require instrumentation to determine the absolute position and orientation of the sensor. Such devices generally include a Global Positioning System receiver and an Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU).
3D imaging can be achieved using both scanning and non-scanning systems. "3D gated viewing laser radar" is a non-scanning laser ranging system that applies a pulsed laser and a fast gated camera. Research has begun for virtual beam steering using DLP technology.
Imaging lidar can also be performed using arrays of high speed detectors and modulation sensitive detector arrays typically built on single chips using CMOS and hybrid CMOS/CCD fabrication techniques. In these devices each pixel performs some local processing such as demodulation or gating at high speed, down-converting the signals to video rate so that the array may be read like a camera. Using this technique many thousands of pixels / channels may be acquired simultaneously. High resolution 3D lidar cameras use homodyne detection with an electronic CCD or CMOS shutter.
A coherent imaging lidar uses synthetic array heterodyne detection to enable a staring single element receiver to act as though it were an imaging array.
In 2014 Lincoln Laboratory announced a new imaging chip with more than 16,384 pixels, each able to image a single photon, enabling them to capture a wide area in a single image. An earlier generation of the technology with one-quarter as many pixels was dispatched by the U.S. military after the January 2010 Haiti earthquake; a single pass by a business jet at 3,000 meters (10,000 ft.) over Port-au-Prince was able to capture instantaneous snapshots of 600-meter squares of the city at 30 centimetres (12 in)], displaying the precise height of rubble strewn in city streets. The new system is another 10x faster. The chip uses indium gallium arsenide (InGaAs), which operates in the infrared spectrum at a relatively long wavelength that allows for higher power and longer ranges. In many applications, such as self-driving cars, the new system will lower costs by not requiring a mechanical component to aim the chip. InGaAs uses less hazardous wavelengths than conventional silicon detectors, which operate at visual wavelengths.
- Airborne lidar
- Terrestrial lidar
- Autonomous Vehicles
- Biology and conservation
- Geology and soil science
- Law enforcement
- Physics and Astronomy
- Rock Mechanics
- Three-dimensional scanning with Structure from Motion (SFM) technology
- Wind Farm optimization
- Solar photovoltaic deployment optimization
- Video games
- Other uses