Remote sensing to measure ranges

LIDAR transmits laser light to the target and analysing the reflected light that returns to the source. By scanning the light over large areas and distances, LIDAR can be used to obtain the surface features of solid objects, wind velocity, and atmospheric concentrations of gases.

There are several types of LIDAR. They include Doppler (coherent) LIDAR, direct detection LIDAR, and differential absorption LIDAR.

Doppler (coherent) LIDAR

Doppler LIDAR is used to measure the velocity of a target. When transmitted light reflects off a target moving towards or away from the source, the frequency of the reflected light is Doppler-shifted. The reflected light has a larger (“blue-shifted”) frequency if the target is moving towards the source, and smaller (“red-shifted”) frequency if the target is moving away from the source.

Direct detection LIDAR

Direct detection LIDAR is used to determine the distance to a target relative to the source by transmitting a series of laser pulses at recorded times. When the pulses strike the target, some are reflected and return to the source. Each returning pulse is detected and the optical travel time (“time-of-flight”) is calculated, inferring the distance to the target.

Differential absorption LIDAR

Differential absorption LIDAR is used to measure the chemical concentration of a target, typically a gas present in the atmosphere. 

The molecule of interest absorbs incident light within a characteristic wavelength range (“absorption spectrum”). Two different laser wavelengths are transmitted to the target: one wavelength is highly absorbed by the molecule of interest whilst the other wavelength is not. 

The ratio of the intensity of the two reflected wavelengths is then measured, and the amount of absorption by the molecule of interest is determined. The concentration of the molecule of interest in the target can then be calculated.


Wind velocity

Wind velocity can be measured using Doppler LIDAR. Laser light is transmitted and scanned across the atmosphere. Micron-sized particles carried by the wind then reflect the light back to the source. The Doppler shift of the reflected light is measured, and the velocity of the particles travelling in the wind is calculated.


Topography is the arrangement of surface features of an area or object. Direct detection LIDAR can be used to measure the distance to a surface at many points. This data is then reconstructed to generate a topographic map.

Gas plume measurement

A gas plume is a column of one gas moving through another. The gas plume typically rises above a heat source because thermal expansion makes warm gas less dense than the surrounding cooler gas. Differential absorption LIDAR is commonly used to identify the materials present in a gas plume and measure the chemical concentrations. Doppler LIDAR can also be used to measure the velocity of gas plumes. In this way, the dispersion of air pollution, burning smoke, or toxic gas can be modelled and their chemical constituents identified.

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