Applying LiDAR to county transportation systems

A handful of county highway department employees in the Rochester area gathered recently at the Olmsted County Public Works Service Center for a presentation and live demonstration by University of Minnesota Research Fellow Brian Davis about his team’s work involving light detection and ranging – or LiDAR.

“LiDAR is like radar, but with light,” Davis said. “It gives you information about what’s around the sensor.”

Event attendees gather around a sedan outfitted with a spinning LiDAR sensor. (Photo by Micheal Foley, MnDOT)
Event attendees gather around a sedan outfitted with a spinning LiDAR sensor. (Photo by Micheal Foley, MnDOT)

Davis and his fellow researchers have outfitted a sedan with special LiDAR equipment and other technology that is capable of capturing a 360-degree, 3-D view of a scene in real time.

“We use the car as a test bed,” Davis said. “We have a lot of different types of sensors on the car that we use for the different projects that we’re working on. Right now we have a LiDAR sensor on top. Sometimes we have a high-accuracy GPS receiver in there. We have a cellular modem. We have a handful of inertial sensors. So it’s a lot of different stuff that we use to cater to the application.”

For his presentation, Davis showed the attendees some of the data his team had already collected.

Davis presents data that shows the LiDAR-equipped sedan moving along a roadway. (Photo by Micheal Foley, MnDOT)
Davis presents data that shows the LiDAR-equipped sedan moving along a roadway. (Photo by Micheal Foley, MnDOT)

“We showed a handful of pre-collected data at a handful of intersections around Rochester and Minneapolis,” Davis said. “What it shows is the point cloud collected by the sensor – just the raw point cloud with no post-processing done. In that information you can see people moving through it, cars moving through it, buses and light rail trains.”

Event attendees move around the sedan to see how the LiDAR sensor views them. (Photo by Micheal Foley, MnDOT)
Event attendees move around the sedan to see how the LiDAR sensor views them. (Photo by Micheal Foley, MnDOT)

After the presentation, Davis led the group to the parking lot for a close-up look at the technology and how it collects data and displays that data in real time. Le Sueur County GIS manager Justin Lutterman was among those who could envision possible applications for LiDAR.

“It’ll be interesting to see where this can go,” Lutterman said. “I’m sure the private industry will take off with this and emergency management, or the sheriffs and ambulances, would appreciate this kind of technology on their vehicles for a situation they might have to recreate. Roads and traffic designers  would be able to monitor their resources, pavements, traffic counts and things like that.”

Over the coming months, researchers will gather more data to develop a workshop for county personnel interested in learning more about LiDAR and how it can be applied in their transportation systems.

“The next steps for this project are to collect some data with the car at intersections. Then we can use that information to fine tune our algorithms,” Davis said. “What the algorithms are going to do is take that raw data and give us useful information, like the number of cars, or the time a car passes through an intersection. That all feeds into the workshop we’re developing. The workshop is going to be for county GIS workers, traffic engineers and county engineers who are interested in learning about these technologies.”

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