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Underwater Mapping

By Rick Robinson

Bathymetric lidars — devices that employ powerful lasers to scan beneath the water’s surface — are used today primarily to map coastal waters. At nearly 600 pounds, the systems are large and heavy, requiring piloted aircraft to carry them.

A team at the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) has designed a new approach that could lead to smaller and more efficient bathymetric lidars. The new technology, developed under the Active Electro-Optical Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (AEO-ISR) project, would let modest-sized unmanned aerial vehicles carry bathymetric lidars.

And, unlike current systems, AEO-ISR technology is designed to gather and transmit data in real time, allowing it to produce high-resolution 3-D undersea imagery with greater speed and accuracy.

These advanced capabilities could support a range of military uses such as anti-mine and anti-submarine intelligence and nautical charting, as well as civilian mapping tasks. In addition, the new lidar could probe forested areas to detect objects under thick canopies.

“Lidar has completely revolutionized the way that ISR is done in the military, and also the way that precision mapping is done in the commercial world,” said Grady Tuell, a GTRI principal research scientist who is leading the work.

Tuell and his team have developed a new lightweight lidar, a prototype that has successfully demonstrated AEO-ISR techniques in the laboratory. The team has also completed a design for a deployable midsized bathymetric device that is less than half the size and weight of current systems and needs half the electric power.

To simulate the movement of an actual aircraft, the prototype must be “flown” over a laboratory pool. To do this, the researchers install the lidar onto a gantry above a large water tank in Georgia Tech’s Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering and then operate it in a manner that simulates flight.

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