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Enhancing Minnesota's natural resource planning with LiDAR

a LiDAR map marking a curvy path

What do driverless cars have in common with wetland restorations? Both benefit from a technology called LiDAR. By sending out beams of light and then calculating the distance the light reflects back from, LiDAR systems generate detailed digital maps. These maps are used in a wide range of applications.

In spring 2019, LiDAR trainings took place in southern Minnesota through a project of the University of Minnesota Extension Southwest Regional Sustainable Development Partnership (Southwest RSDP). These trainings focused on using landscape-based LiDAR data for applications such as land use planning, hydrology, and natural resource management applications.

What exactly is LiDAR?

LiDAR stands for light detection and ranging, a technique that uses rapid pulses of light to gather information about surrounding shapes and surfaces. A LiDAR device sends out sweeps of laser light and tracks the time it takes the beams to be reflected back to the sensor. This results in highly detailed information about the distance between the sensor and the surface.

In the driverless car example, this information is gathered in real time and allows the vehicle to respond to a three-dimensional representation of the car’s surroundings. In the wetland restoration example, the data is available thanks to prior data-collection projects across Minnesota, and allows geographic information systems (GIS) technicians and others to work with remarkably accurate digital depictions of the landscape.

Joel Nelson, Geographic Information Science (GIS) Specialist with the University of Minnesota’s Department of Soil, Water and Climate, developed and taught a two-day LiDAR training recently offered in Morris. The training balanced informational lecture with hands-on exercises using real-world data and scenarios. At an advanced training on March 19, Nelson talked participants through the process and tools they would use to analyze terrain and match the digital model they see on their computer screen to the real world.

“LiDAR has changed nearly every aspect of the GIS world, and many of the disciplines GIS serves,” Nelson said.  “From floodplain mapping and natural resource planning to emergency management, public utilities work and land navigation, anything spatial can benefit from LiDAR-derived elevation information.”

Joel Larson standing in front of a projection screen showing a LiDAR map while teaching a class.
University of Minnesota GIS Specialist Joel Larson leads a LiDAR training workshop.

Training participants included land use specialists, GIS technicians and coordinators, consulting engineers, conservation technicians and water resource managers. They came to the training to build their skills for a variety of applications, including locating erosion hot spots, understanding water flow across the landscape, and targeting conservation projects.

Nelson notes that Minnesota is on the cusp of proposing a round of airborne data-collection to gather LiDAR data at even higher resolutions and greater detail. “This will give our state an incredible advantage to any discipline that relies on geography or topography,” Nelson said.

Upcoming training opportunities

Two-day trainings will also be held at Winona State University in Winona on May 13-14 and at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall on May 20-21. See z.umn.edu/41l9 for registration information. The 2019 LiDAR training series was supported by both Southwest and Southeast RSDP.

Anne Dybsetter, May 2019

Anne Dybsetter is the executive director of the Southwest Regional Sustainable Development Partnership (Southwest RSDP).

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