Skip to main content

What is lidar technology, and what can it do?

While lidar has been around for years, it’s now more affordable and accessible than ever, so we’re seeing this technology show up on a variety of professional applications … and even in the smart home. Here’s what you should know about this technology, where it’s heading, and what products you can expect to see it in.

What is lidar technology?

Lidar stands for Light Detection and Ranging, a similar term to radar, or Radio Detection and Ranging. While radar uses radio waves and receivers, lidar uses light: A lidar system is typically composed of three important parts:

Laser: The laser sends out precisely generated light pulses. As you may remember from science class, light is bouncy — at least some wavelengths reflect off nearly every material. These light pulses are designed to reflect back when they encounter matter.

Scanner: The scanner is calibrated to detect the returning light pulses that the laser has produced, after they have been reflected off objects.

GPS receiver: The receiver calculates exactly how far the light traveled based on the position of the lidar instrument, allowing for very, very accurate mapping of a space and the position of objects.

In addition to these components, lidar can also be divided into two important application types, topographic and bathymetric:

Topographic: These lidar systems are designed to map land and open spaces, and typically use wavelengths near the infrared part of the light spectrum.

Bathymetric: These systems are designed to measure landscapes underwater, like riverbeds or the ocean floor, and they use a type of green light that easily passes through water (this is also why water has a greenish tint in nature).

Lidar was developed as a potent alternative to radar with a variety of applications. It can be useful in environments where radar doesn’t work as well, offer more precise measurements than radar can, and is generally more versatile.

What is lidar being used for today?

Map created from lidar sensors.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Lidar can be used both in the air on drones or other aircraft and on the ground on trucks or stationary platforms. If something on earth is being professionally measured, especially when it comes to distance, there’s a good chance that lidar will be involved. Specific uses include:

  • Scanning coastlines: Lidar is used to update maps of coastlines and similar landscapes with more accurate information. Lidar is useful for all kinds of mapping, but is particularly well-suited to measure the often-complex details of a coast, and track events like erosion, flooding, etc.
  • Vehicles: Lidar on vehicles can help map surrounding spaces, which is very useful for self-driving cars and related applications. Interestingly, Tesla is one of the few brands that does not use lidar for its autonomous cars (Elon Musk is apparently not a fan), but is testing out some lidar sensors for future applications. You can also find the technology on the vehicles NASA is designing to explore the moon and Mars.
  • Creating 3D models: Architects and construction firms use lidar to measure spaces and construct models that can be used for planning new projects or alterations. This can also be very useful in creating visual effects for movies, shows, and video games!
  • Surveying: Surveys help map out property lines and borders, so they need to be very accurate. Lidar is very helpful for this process as it excels in measuring distances.
  • iPhones: Did you know that your iPhone and iPad have lidar, too? It helps make things like the Measure app more accurate.

Wait, what does lidar have to do with smart homes?

Logitech Circle View smart security cam perched on shelf.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

While we’ve been talking about lidar as an outdoor technology, it’s important to note that smaller versions can be used indoors as well — which brings us to smart home applications.

Because lidar can measure distance so quickly, it’s useful for any devices that need to track the price measurements of a room, where furniture is, and even where people are and how people are moving through a space.

Lidar also has some advantages over a traditional camera or motion sensor, as it’s less prone to mistakes and can work in a wide variety of weather conditions, so it’s also a potential technology for smart security cams. It’s also limited when it comes to capturing and detecting faces, which makes it a possible privacy-friendly alternative to traditional cams.

What specific kind of smart home devices use lidar?

Samsung's robot vacuum using lidar.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Lidar is a fairly new entrant in the smart home world, so the number of in-house devices using LiDAR is still limited. However, a few current — and interesting — examples include:

Robot vacuums: While the popular Roombas don’t use lidar for mapping a room (yet), some robot vacuums do. One example is Samsung’s JetBot 90 AI+, uses lidar to sense the surrounding area up to 20 feet, detecting spaces and objects for better navigation. You can easily spot if it’s using a lidar sensor because of the circular protrusion that hides away the spinning sensor inside. More importantly, lidar technology is helping robot vacuums to become more efficient with cleaning.

Home sensors for the elderly: Back in 2019, IBM Research ran a pilot project that installed lidar systems in the homes of the elderly. The goal was to see how well lidar functioned as a warning system for the elderly to detect falls and problems walking without being too invasive. If this application works out, we could start seeing lidar in assisted living facilities as well as aging-in-place remodels.

Security systems: Lidar is already being used in professional and home-based security systems like Leica’s BLK247 model, which are helpful for monitoring crowded spaces, tracking complex landscapes, and even measuring social distancing. As LiDAR becomes even more affordable, we may see it appearing in more smart security systems.

Editors' Recommendations

Tyler Lacoma
If it can be streamed, voice-activated, made better with an app, or beaten by mashing buttons, Tyler's into it. When he's not…
How do robot lawn mowers work?
A robot lawn mower in a backyard while a family relaxes.

Although not quite as mainstream as robot vacuums, robot lawn mowers are becoming increasingly popular. These nifty devices make it easy to maintain a beautiful lawn without lifting a finger -- although you'll need to make a pretty hefty upfront investment, as robot lawn mowers don’t come cheap.

But how exactly do robot lawn mowers work? Here’s a closer look at these innovative devices so you know what you’re getting into before making a purchase.
The basics of robot lawn mowers
Robomow RS630 Image used with permission by copyright holder

Read more
Do smart plugs really help to cut down energy use?
Tradfri smart plug connected to a bathroom outlet.

Smart plugs are an easy way to bring automation into your home, as they allow you to turn just about any device into a smart gadget. Items like lamps, dehumidifiers, fans, and even refrigerators can all be powered remotely when connected to a smart plug -- making them some of the most versatile smart home products around. Many of them also support Alexa and Google Assistant for easy operation.

Beyond bringing smarts to “non-smart” items, smart plugs are also said to help save you energy.

Read more
Tackle dirt and dust with DEEBOT T10 OMNI’s state-of-the-art A.I. technology
ECOVACS DEEBOT T10 OMNI docked in station product image

This content was produced in partnership with ECOVACS.
At this point, there's almost nothing A.I. can't do, at least in the digital realm. But when it comes to the physical world, and more practical applications, there are a few limitations remaining before the merger between modern robotics and advanced intelligence can really take off. We're close, but not quite there yet, which is unfortunate because it could profoundly change our lives. Imagine an A.I. system cleaning your whole home for you, for example. The floors, the walls, the drapes, your counters, you name it. Who wouldn't want that? Cleaning is a necessary yet tedious task that just gets worse the more you neglect it. ECOVACS is putting us one step closer to that reality with its latest one-for-all cleaning system, the DEEBOT T10 OMNI.

DEEBOT T10 OMNI comes with an all-in-one station that auto-empties the dustbin between runs, auto-cleans, and auto hot-air dries the mop, and offers a host of additional features to keep your hands almost completely free. The intuitive voice controls -- enabled by A.I. -- means you can issue commands simply and conveniently, or you can use the app. You can even use the app in combination with the device's Starlight front-facing camera to remotely monitor your home in real time, almost like a roamable security camera. You can see if Fido is being a good boy, or if he's chasing the vacuum again. Most importantly, A.I. is applied to a number of the system's functions to genuinely improve its power and capabilities. The T10 Omni leverages A.I., for instance, to prevent the spread of granular particles while it's vacuuming, so it's not just haphazardly spreading around a mess. It's all very impressive, but to understand just how impressive we should really do a deeper dive into what the DEEBOT T10 OMNI has to offer.
Buy Now
Truly Optimized with A.I.

Read more