What Is LiDAR?

Technology that beats cameras and radar.

A screenshot of Velodyne Lidar map- What is LiDAR
A screenshot of Velodyne Lidar map- What is LiDAR

LiDAR is an acronym for Light Detection and Ranging. It uses laser imaging to create accurate and real-time 3D maps of its surroundings.

Hughes Aircraft Company first deployed it in 1961. It was called the COLIDAR (coherent light detecting and ranging) developed for satellite tracking back in the day. Today, we can see the applications of LiDAR sensors everywhere, from phones to autonomous vehicles.

How does LiDAR work?

A LiDAR sensor emits pulsed laser waves, which are safe for the eyes. These pulses bounce from objects and return to the sensor. The sensor then calculates the distance between it and the object based on the time it took for the pulse to return. A typical LiDAR sensor sends out between 8 to 128 laser beams emitting at 360° every second to make an accurate and real-time picture of its surroundings.

It is also far more sophisticated than cameras and radar. Cameras require light to see what’s around them and have blind spots. Radar, on the other hand, fails to create an equally detailed layout of its surroundings. Cameras are also power and resource-intensive, and they heat a lot. Lidar sensors, on the other hand, can process more information efficiently.

Uses of LiDAR

We can see a wide range of applications for these sensors. Here are some of the top use-case scenarios for LiDAR technology

  • Land Mapping: National Ocean Services uses LiDAR to create accurate shoreline maps and digital elevation models.
  • Astronomy: NASA applied the technology to create an accurate map of Mars
  • Archaeology: Two archeologists, Dr. Chris Fisher and Dr. Steve Leisz, are creating a LiDAR scan of the entire planet, calling it The Earth Archive
  • Autonomous Cars: Companies like Velodyne are creating sensors that we can use on cars
  • Smartphones and cameras: The iPhone 12 Pro comes with a LiDAR sensor for better depth. There are also super cameras that use LiDAR to capture as much as 45 kilometers away.

If you like this simple explainer, check out our Short Bytes section. We take complex tech topics and break them into short, easy-to-understand articles.

Manik Berry

Manik Berry

With a Master’s degree in journalism, Manik writes about big tech and has a keen eye for political-tech news. In his free time, he’s browsing the Kindle store for new stuff read. Manik also adores his motorcycle and is looking for new routes on weekends. He likes tea and cat memes. You can reach him at [email protected]
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