Charting the course of drone and Lidar technology
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Charting the course of drone and Lidar technology

A recap of the YellowScan LiDAR Convention

GIM International was recently invited to attend the fifth edition of the two-day YellowScan LiDAR Convention. It took place on 18 and 19 April 2024 in the Mediterranean spring sunshine at the beautiful Domaine des Moures venue located near Montpellier, France. As in previous years, the event was aimed at discussing the latest developments in the geospatial industry, connecting with industry peers and gaining insight into customer needs, all in the context of UAV and mobile Lidar mapping.

The event featured an extensive two-day programme of presentations – mostly about projects carried out with YellowScan’s Lidar equipment, but also from companies that offer uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs or ‘drones’) in which the equipment has been implemented. In addition, there were several demos of the technology in action. One of them had initially been scheduled to be held on the day before the event, during a meeting for YellowScan operating partners – but it had been postponed due to strong winds in the coastal region. Fortunately, the weather conditions were a lot better during both days of the convention itself.

CEO Tristan Allouis kicked off the proceedings, welcoming the speakers, sponsors and guests. This was followed by an icebreaker by Morgane Selve, head of marketing & communication, which created a relaxed and positive mood and even led to some hilarity. Then, Allouis returned to the stage together with Laure Fournier, commercial director, to reflect on YellowScan’s journey and paint a picture of where the company stands in 2024. What started as a project in 2012 has grown into an established, self-financed pioneer of UAV-Lidar mapping, with over 70 employees on four continents. R&D is the beating heart of the company, they explained, and “technical support is the pillar of the company’s mindset”. This mindset has resulted in a range of high-end Lidar solutions. To illustrate what this entails, Allouis guided the attentive audience through the underlying technology.

The participants also received an update on the latest developments surrounding the French company’s Lidar solutions. After discussing the added value of the optional camera module – specifically true colour imagery – attention turned to the upgraded Explorer, which was developed in collaboration with major players such as Airbus. The Surveyor Ultra, equipped with a Hesai scanner, can also be mounted on a car. Software is an important enhancement to the hardware; in addition to CloudStation, which provides a complete solution to create and manipulate point-cloud data, the CloudStation Ultimate version is now available as well.

Various demos showcased the latest Lidar mapping technology. (Image courtesy: YellowScan)

Innovation

Allouis was clearly proud of the new flagship model, the YellowScan Navigator, which covers Lidar applications on land, at sea and in the air. It has been entirely developed in-house and serves as a solution for environments where traditional technologies are impractical or costly. He emphasized that the Navigator sets the direction for YellowScan’s future endeavours. The company’s ambition is to become the global leader in the Lidar-for-drone market. Motivated by societal challenges, the strategy involves continuous investment in research and development to maintain a competitive edge.

Tristan Allouis, who began his career working with bathymetric Lidar data, has always strived to develop his own system. Mastering hardware design has enabled YellowScan to create advanced processing algorithms, pushing the system’s performance beyond existing boundaries. The Navigator is equipped with a green laser for measuring underwater topography. Given that water absorbs certain light wavelengths more than others, blueish-green light typically penetrates the most. While this may be familiar territory for experts in hydrography and related fields, it marks a significant leap forward for YellowScan, opening up new horizons by extending the mapping of the physical environment with Lidar to include underwater terrain.

When YellowScan started its development work for the Navigator, it wasn’t entirely clear how and when the product would eventually find its way into the commercial market. The story began five years ago within the company’s Research & Development department, under the name ‘Alligator’. After a long period of continuous research and rigorous testing, with a whole year being dedicated to an impressive series of tests and fine-tuning, the product finally emerged in its final version in December 2023. All those years of hard work appear to have paid off, since during coffee breaks, lunch and other networking opportunities at the event, several attendees spoke enthusiastically about the Navigator, often commenting that it “fills a gap”. 

Tristan Allouis zoomed in on his company's journey and milestones so far. (Image courtesy: YellowScan)

Applications

The two days of presentations and technical sessions at the YellowScan LiDAR Convention took attendees on a journey to many different places around the world. Moreover, the multitude of applications for UAV-based (and sometimes vehicle-based) Lidar deployment became evident. Examples of real-life applications included mapping shallow coastal waters in Japan, geophysical investigations at archaeological sites in Romania, acquiring imagery for damage assessment after the Great Vermont Floods of 2023, alpine powerline inspections in Austria, tropical forest phenology in French Guiana, and emergency response mapping after a glacier dam outburst flood in Alaska. The variety of projects showcased at the Domaine des Moures venue underlined that mounting high-end laser scanners under a drone does indeed open up possibilities for an ever-increasing number of tasks.

Collaboration

YellowScan is recognized for its numerous collaborative partnerships, as highlighted by the diverse backgrounds of participants at the event. One noteworthy partnership is with Quantum Systems, a German specialist in multi-sensor technology-equipped drones, resulting in the Qube 640. This UAV-based Lidar scanner was specially designed for the drone specialist’s Trinity Pro eVTOL fixed-wing drone. According to Robert Leake of Quantum Systems, whose company is striving to unlock untapped potential in the surveying world, this marks the ultimate solution for large-scale Lidar mapping. The company also performed a demo flight, including the processing of the data.

YellowScan’s partnership with Trimble Applanix demonstrates its focus on meticulously curating and deploying top-notch components for unrivalled precision in direct georeferencing. In one of the sessions, Applanix showcased Trimble RTX real-time mapping, Lidar SLAM technology, and seamless sensor integration with YellowScan systems. YellowScan first integrated Applanix’s custom GNSS-inertial solutions into its Lidar platforms in 2016. In 2024, real-time RTX mapping and Lidar SLAM technology streamline post-processing without internet access or cloud reliance, allowing near real-time field processing. Applanix’s POSPac UAV ensures the utmost accuracy in direct georeferencing of drone mapping sensors using GNSS and inertial technology.

The UAV demos captured the participants' attention. (Image courtesy: YellowScan)

Another significant presence at the Domaine des Moures venue was SBG Systems, whose inertial navigation system called Quanta Micro powers YellowScan’s new Surveyor Ultra and Explorer Lidar mapping solutions. Furthermore, YellowScan has integrated SBG Systems’ Qinertia PPK software into its proprietary CloudStation software to further enhance its offering.

Emlid, which was also present as a partner organization, showcased its GNSS solutions providing enhanced workflow capabilities to surveying and mapping professionals. The Reach RS3 in YellowScan’s Lidar system acts as a base station during drone flights, recording RINEX data. This, combined with the drone’s trajectory, is used in Applanix POSPac to generate corrected flight trajectory files (SBET), processed with scanner data in CloudStation for geotagged point clouds.

Looking ahead

Another highlight of the event was the panel discussion featuring several UAV manufacturers. Roberto Casini, who oversees YellowScan’s drone programme, explained he is on a mission to integrate YellowScan systems with drones from various manufacturers. Casini noted a significant market shift, citing beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) as one example of the current challenges. Robert Leake of Quantum Systems commented that regulators are slowly making progress towards getting things done to align with the technological possibilities of BVLOS.

The emergence of artificial intelligence (AI) is another significant change affecting the industry, according to Thomas Eder, head of Nokia’s Embedded Wireless Solutions organization. Nokia is making strides in the mapping and surveying sector, including with its drone-in-a-box solution. The automated drone solution, connected over 4G/LTE and 5G, includes drones with dual gimbal cameras, docking stations and edge data processing. Eder highlighted that numerous commercial players are already developing robust AI-based object detection solutions. Nokia leverages its own AI expertise to help mapping and surveying companies solve connectivity issues, such as with predictive AI to avoid signal interruptions.

The panel discussion touched on various aspects of where UAV mapping is heading. (Image courtesy: YellowScan)

It is crucial to improve how drones capture data as well as to streamline workflows. Therefore, to emphasize the importance of data captured with drones, Leake proposed that the ‘A’ in AI should stand for ‘aerial’ in addition to ‘artificial’ intelligence. Martin Held from Hero, an Austrian company specializing in drone consulting, operation and reselling, played the devil’s advocate and emphasized the role of people in drone control. While acknowledging the technical advancements and AI’s potential in automatic drone piloting, Held highlighted legal hurdles, indicating there is still a long way to go.

Surveying with the Navigator

There was some degree of scepticism during the event. “This is not going to work in our dark and muddy waters, but we have never seen so much interest in a new product as with the YellowScan Navigator,” stated Martin Andersson of Scandinavian Drones at the start of his presentation on harbour surveying with the new UAV-based bathymetric Lidar solution. Despite initial reservations, the company organized a demo event in a harbour town in the south of Sweden. Bathymetric Lidar was new to most customers; almost no one was familiar with it. The comparison with multibeam was one of the main objectives of the demo, which was carried out with the Hexadrone Tundra 2 Endurance version as drone platform due its strong wind resistance. For mission planning, UgCS was used with the Emlid Reach RS2 as base station. The demo survey took place in winter to take advantage of the relatively clear water at that time of the year.

According to Andersson, the attendees were pleasantly surprised by the results of the demo, leading to positive reactions. “We are drawing a line in the sand,” he said, referring to the Navigator’s ability to make bathymetric Lidar accessible for a large group of users. “It has enormous potential, but we still have a lot to learn. It is the start of an exciting adventure,” he concluded.

YellowScan is involved in numerous collaborative partnerships, including with drone specialists. (Image courtesy: YellowScan)

Blueprint

The YellowScan LiDAR Convention offered valuable insights into the trends shaping the future for companies in the geospatial industry. With discussions spanning various topics, from the benefits of Lidar technology to market forecasts for the upcoming years, attendees gained a comprehensive understanding of what lies ahead. With its focus on keeping things stimulating, the convention could serve as a blueprint for other events. It’s crucial to engage people’s minds, ensuring every attendee leaves with a wealth of fresh ideas and insights! YellowScan will likely organize a similar event again in two years’ time. With its biennial frequency, it has become a benchmark for the combination of drones and Lidar. It will be interesting to see which new developments will be presented in 2026.

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