LiDAR and Drones: Data Capture and Processing

Generate rich elevation maps, 3D models, and vegetation analyses

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PrecisionHawk offers specialized drones, sensors, flight services, data processing services, and training for LiDAR data.

In drone-based remote sensing, Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) sensors are unrivaled in their geospatial precision and fidelity. LiDAR point clouds can yield up to 500 points per square meter at a vertical elevation accuracy of 2–3 centimeters. Though the technology has been in use since the 1960s, drone pilots have recently enabled aerial LiDAR’s extraordinary leap in density thanks to the low-altitude flight nature of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). 

Why does point cloud density matter? The denser the data, the greater the flexibility data analysts have available to them when producing maps and models. It even makes it possible to generate high-fidelity maps of densely vegetated terrain.

This makes drone-based LiDAR ideal for a wide range of applications, including:

  • Topographic mapping/terrain modeling
  • 3D modeling of structures, such as buildings, bridges, and facades
  • Recording as-built information and assessing soil excavation on construction job sites
  • Surveying ground elevation changes along right of ways
  • Modeling water flow using bare earth topographic models that are hydro-condition, -flattened, and -enforced
  • Evaluating drainage in crop fields

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Fly it Yourself


Collect your own LiDAR data using drones: get a drone and LiDAR sensor from our portfolio of vetted drone hardware.

Hire Drone Pilots

Get LiDAR data, starting now. With the largest drone pilot network in the world, drone-based aerial intelligence is at your fingertips.

Hire Data Analysts


Avoid technical and time-intensive LiDAR data processing by hiring PrecisionHawk's data team to produce maps and models.

A Business Case for Drone-based LiDAR

New to LiDAR? Already using LiDAR data but haven’t tried drones? Here’s how to make the case for a drone-based LiDAR investment--we identify the four criteria of a strong business case and offer guidance on how to present it, including: 

  • Building your team
  • Developing and evaluating a drone solution
  • Gaining buy-in through effective communication
  • Managing change
  • Drafting the case 

Learn from our experience working with leaders in major industries, government, and Fortune 100 enterprises and present a winning drone-based LiDAR business case.


How LiDAR Works

LiDAR sensors emit lasers that bounce off objects and return to the sensor. The sensor then measures the time in which the pulse of light made its round trip from the sensor to a surface and then uses that measurement to calculate distance. (It does this hundreds-of-thousands of times per second.) This information is stored along with geolocation data. The end result is a rich set of elevation data that can be used to produce high-resolution maps and 3D models of natural and man-made objects.

Applications of Drone-based LiDAR

3D Building Model
Elevation Model
Terrain Map
Drainage Model
Campus Model
Earthworks Elevation

Talk to our team about your goals in deploying drone-based LiDAR.


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Selecting a LiDAR Sensor

Most LiDAR sensors offer extraordinary precision and resolution. But, some are superior to others. Choosing the right drone-based LiDAR sensor starts with considering your goals, in terms of precision and density, and the area of interest over which you’ll collect the data.

For example, if you need rough 3D models and maps for general planning and analysis, you might not need a top-of-the-line sensor. However, if you’re seeking engineering- or survey-grade data, you’ll want to consider LiDAR sensors that produce the densest possible point clouds.



Purpose-built for drone-based applications, RIEGL’s miniVUX-2UAV is a premium LiDAR sensor that offers up to 200,000 measurements/100 scans per second. Its aluminum housing is rugged, but lightweight, enabling deployment in a variety of environments without requiring significant payload capacity. Its Waveform-LiDAR technology enables echo digitization and online waveform processing, with multi-target resolution that penetrates even dense foliage. It’s also optimized for snowy and icy terrain.

  • 100 kHz / 200 kHz Laser PRR selectable
  • 200,000 measurements/sec
  • 100 scans/sec
  • 1.55 kg / 3.4 lbs
  • 360° field-of-view
  • Up to 5 target echoes per laser shot
  • IMU mountable


The “DL” in this LiDAR sensor’s name stands for “downward-looking,” as it’s optimized for mapping corridors. Use it for mapping highways, railways, powerlines, pipelines, and other rights of way. The miniVUX-1DL’s wedge prism scanner obtains a field of view of 46°, with a circular scan pattern that captures high point density and balanced point distribution. Its multiple-target resolution enables it to penetrate dense foliage.

  • 100,000 measurements/sec
  • 150 scans/sec
  • 2.4 kg / 5.3 lbs
  • 46°, +-23° off-nadir
  • Up to 5 target echoes per laser shot

Velodyne VLP-16 “PUCK”

For projects that don’t require high point densities, we offer the Velodyne VLP-16 PUCK. The Puck is extremely power-efficient and offers a surround-view. Owing to its size, the Puck can be deployed on smaller drone platforms than some of its larger LiDAR peers.

  • 100 m range
  • 905 nm
  • Large field-of-view
  • High power and temperature range

Choosing a Drone for LiDAR

Selecting a drone to fly LiDAR requires that you first consider the sensor you’d like to use. For example, if you plan on flying RIEGEL’s miniVUX series or Velodyne’s Puck, a mid-sized drone--such as DJI’s M600--will suffice. But, for bigger LiDAR units, like RIEGL’s VUX-240, you’ll need a heavy-lift platform.

The flight time you’ll require is also a factor--for long-ranging flights over corridors or large acreage, you’ll want to prioritize drones with significant battery life.

We’ve put together a portfolio of drones based on the wide range of LiDAR missions we’ve flown:


A big drone in a small package--the DJI M600’s modular frame makes it easy and quick to set up and deploy. Despite its major payload capacity and large frame, the drone’s actively cooled motors ensure reliable operation for extended flights. Given the paramount importance of geospatial accuracy when flying LiDAR drone flights, the M600’s A3 self-adaptive flight system adjusts flight parameters automatically based on different payloads, and can be upgraded with two additional GNSS and IMU units or a D-RTK GNSS for high geolocation accuracy. Its six battery bays give pilots the juice they need to keep major payloads aloft for long periods of time.


BFD 1400-SE8

As its name suggests, the BFD 1400-SE8 is built big for big payloads. With a wingspan of 1399 mm, the drone can fly up to 12kgs and still remain under 25kg. Its extraordinary weight ratio means it can fly greater payloads and more batteries, enabling it to stay aloft for longer than other drones of similar payload capacity. It’s also flight computer-agnostic. This means you can customize your flight controller, telemetry modem, off-board computer and other elements of your LiDAR flight operation. It’s also compatible with DJI’s flight control systems.

Ready-to-Fly LiDAR Drone Package

Looking for a turnkey package that'll get you collecting LiDAR data quickly? We’ve assembled a Ready-to-Fly LiDAR package, featuring DJI’s M600 drone with A3/RTK, the RIEGL miniVUX2UAV, and a base station.

Get in touch now and get ready to take off.

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Need Help Collecting and/or Processing Drone-based LiDAR Data?

We don’t need to tell you that flying and processing LiDAR on a drone is more involved than snapping a few landscape photos. Setting up a base station, assuring data quality while in the field, processing point clouds--the LiDAR data value chain is complex. When accuracy is critical, there’s little margin for error.

We’ll Fly & Process LiDAR for You

PrecisionHawk offers a staff of on-demand LiDAR drone pilots available for single-day data capture or months-long projects.

Back at HQ, an accredited team of LiDAR data scientists are available to process LiDAR data and produce a wide range of maps and models.

We’ll Train You to Fly LiDAR

If you’d like to fly LiDAR yourself, but need a little help getting off the ground, our expert pilot team offers 3- and 5-day training courses that teach you everything you need to know about collecting LiDAR data via drone. Classroom and field training includes hardware, flight planning, safety, airspace, and other flight operations issues.

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