Water Resources Engineering (WRE) connects engineering hydrology and hydraulics with global, economic, environmental, and societal issues. Our student Sam Patterson makes this connection here…

The Oregon State University publication “Mobile LIDAR technology expanding rapidly” was added to the campus online news site March 15, 2013. The article references a report released by Oregon State students and several professionals in the civil engineering industry about the potential and current obstacles for LIDAR technology. LIDAR is a 3D scanning system that uses timed light pulses to estimate the distance of a surface to the light source, these pulses are so quick they can be repeated upwards of one million times a second. This technology is capable of building a 3D model of a terrain by scanning from a moving car for an hour what would take a surveying team months to do. This can currently be applied to hydrology in that it allows a crew to set up the equipment a few times or drive past and then have a perfect 3d model to work with be it a watershed, stream or river, a possible site for a dam, or any number of systems requiring a knowledge of the hydraulic structure. While this technology is being refined and improving the article notes that the technology “faces constraints. Too few experts are trained to use it, too few educational programs exist to teach it, mountains of data are produced that can swamp the computer capabilities of even large agencies, and lack of a consistent data management protocol clogs the sharing of information between systems.” The article pushes for an improvement in the awareness of the technology and its capabilities, as well as more trained users that know how it operates. The application possibilities are enormous, the article suggests “such technology could be used repeatedly [to] give engineers a virtual picture of an unstable, slow-moving hillside. It could provide a detailed image of a forest, or a near-perfect recording of surrounding geology.” This enables civil and hydrological engineers to design more accurate structures that contour to the geometry of the surrounding environment. The articles main objective was to promote the idea that there is an immense opportunity in the applications of this technology, and that it should be an important goal of education departments to include its use and understanding of the underlying systems in the curriculum of its students. The report the article references goes far more in depth of the capabilities of the technology than the article itself. I would encourage anyone interested in the main points of the article to read the full report as it shows how certain obstacles of obtaining and making sense of the data have been dealt with, and goes on to report certain problems yet to be fully worked out. The article might have been more effective at getting the interest of the people capable of working out these problems if they had reported more specific challenges those individuals might be able to help fix.

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Figure 1 – Terrain model collected in roughly and hour by a moving LIDAR scanner

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Figure 2 – Model created from 5 stations of a LIDAR system

The technology has many large implications for the future of water resources engineering, including the civil and hydrologic engineering of structures more adapt and appropriate for their environment. The technologies involved in the correction and improvement of the images and models created from LIDAR data has been made public by their constituent designers and research teams. A FastCompany article (Roberts, 2011) references the work done with REDD LIDAR systems that enables users to map parts of ecological systems (forests, rivers, and slope geometry). Figure 2 is a view of a LIDAR mapped watershed. This is applicable to hydraulic engineering as those systems might be far more complex than a survey crew might be able to convey. The University of Washington released a similar paper (Andersen, 2003) on an fix for aerial LIDAR scanning techniques that allows the data to be better interpreted to show both the canopy and floor geometry of forested area by separating  the points that are measured at the ground and those that are more erratically measured above the smoother geometry to be interpreted as vegetation. 

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