Subterranean Uses For LIDAR: Cave Surveys

LIDAR has gained much popularity as a means for self-driving cars to survey the space around them. At their most basic, LIDAR is a surveying method that uses lasers to paints the space around the sensors and assembles the distances measured from reflected light into a digital three-dimensional representation. That’s something that has quite a number of other applications, from surveying ancient ruins and rainforests from a bird’s eye view to developing 3D models of indoor spaces.

One fascinating use of LIDAR technology is to map out the routes inside caves, subterranean spaces that are seldom accessed by humans apart from those with specialized equipment and knowledge of how to safely traverse the underground terrain. [caver.adam] has been working on his Open LIDAR project for a few years using an SF30-B High Speed Rangefinder and laser device for a dual-system atop a gimbal with stepper motors for cave scanning.

Originally an entry in the 2016 Hackaday Prize, [Adam] has continued to work on the project. The result shown in the video below is a cheaper 3D LIDAR setup that works by rotating the laser distance module on 2 axes with a sensor centered at the center of rotation. It works for volumetric calculations, detects change over time, and identifies various water patterns and rocks on a surface map. Compared to notebooks, tape measures, and compasses, it’s certainly a step up in cave surveying technology.

Check out some other past underground surveying projects, such as Iowa City’s beer caves scanning projects and National Geographic’s 2014 expedition of the Titan Chamber in southern Guizhou Province in China.

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Hackaday Prize Entry: Cheap, Open LiDAR

[adam] is a caver, meaning that he likes to explore caves and map their inner structure. This is still commonly done using traditional tools, such as notebooks (the paper ones), tape measure, compasses, and inclinometers. [adam] wanted to upgrade his equipment, but found that industrial LiDAR 3D scanners are quite expensive. His Hackaday Prize entry, the Open LIDAR, is an affordable alternative to the expensive industrial 3D scanning solutions out there.

The 3D scan of a small cave near Louisville (source: [caver.adam's] Sketchfab repository)
The 3D scan of a small cave near Louisville from [caver.adam’s] Sketchfab repository
LiDAR — Light Detection And Ranging —  is the technology that senses the distance between a sensor and an object by reflectively measuring the time of flight of a light beam between the two. By acquiring a two-dimensional array of multiple distance readings, this can be used for 3D scanning. Looking at how the industrial LiDAR scanners capture the environment using fast spinning mirrors, [adam] realized that he could basically achieve the same by using a cheap laser range finder strapped to a pan and tilt gimbal.

The gimbal he designed for this task uses stepper motors to aim an SF30-B laser rangefinder. An Arduino controls the movement and lets the eye of the sensor scan an object or an entire environment. By sampling the distance readings returned by the sensor, a point cloud is created which then can be converted into a 3D model. [adam] plans to drive the stepper motors in microstepping mode to increase the resolution of his scanner. We’re looking forwards to see the first renderings of 3D cave maps captured with the Open LIDAR.

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