Earlier this year, at one of Tesla’s events, the company’s famous founder, Elon Musk proclaimed that, “LiDAR is a fool’s errand,” and “Anyone relying on LiDAR is doomed. Doomed.”

We’re all big fans of Elon at my company and we’ve even named one of our conference rooms Falcon 9, after the reusable SpaceX rocket that impressed the world by landing vertically following separation. So, when Elon speaks, we listen. But over the course of the past year, we’ve had the chance to learn more about using LiDAR for indoor applications than almost any other company on the planet, and we respectfully disagree.

Musk was referring to the automotive industry’s use of LiDAR for advanced driver assistance systems in autonomous vehicles. However, rather than dramatically ringing the death knell for LiDAR, his comments merely underscore the fact that LiDAR has an awareness issue, no pun intended. 

Generally speaking, few people seem to fully appreciate what the technology is capable of, or how it’s being used today, and much less so the advantages that LiDAR delivers for opening up a world of possibilities. But before exploring these, a brief introduction to LiDAR will be helpful to the uninitiated.

What on earth is LiDAR?

LiDAR, which stands for light detection and ranging, is a technology that uses safe, invisible laser beam pulses to detect objects both in motion and at rest. Each pulse travels through its environment, bouncing off objects and returning to sensors that create a digital “3D point cloud” of the environment. (Imagine an old dot matrix print out, but in 3D, and you’ll get the picture.) 

Then perception software, which is where much of the AI magic lives, interprets this point cloud so you can literally see objects in 3D and determine precise distance, height, volume, speed, direction and even reflectivity of objects within its field of view. LiDAR sensors come in various shapes and sizes, with some projecting multiple beams sweeping a 360° circle while others shining multiple vibrating beams in a pixel density rich cone. The rapid advances in both LiDAR sensors and perception software has been incredibly exciting to witness and yet the race has only just begun.

Advancing beyond its current zone of autonomous vehicles and other more traditional applications in the agriculture and geology sectors, we see LiDAR quickly moving to serve a variety of applications in the broadly defined smart world.  

For instance, LiDAR’s very short wavelength allows researchers to detect air pollutants such as carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and methane and perform important density mapping in this age of climate change.  

Additionally, engineers as well as interior designers are using LiDAR to precisely measure and reconstruct the building spaces they’re working on. The Notre Dame cathedral was so precisely mapped using LiDAR that despite the calamity of this spring’s fire, architects and civil engineers are very confident they can accurately reconstruct Notre Dame’s roof and spire, thanks to LiDAR.