July 23, 2014

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Winning the economic argument in an era of belt-tightening

Justin Toland

I've written in this column previously about how laser scanning is finding acceptance with public institutions (police forces, museums etc) in part because of its economic value (time savings, improved results, new revenue streams). Yet, the costs of scanning can also be seen as a barrier to entry, and, especially in the current climate of tightened public purse strings, persuading the guardians of our public funds to invest in major laser scanning projects could be seen as a big ask. 

04.10.12 Malta
 
Could Malta have acquired these overhead images without EU help?

Indeed, when push comes to shove, some public bodies are already cutting back on laser scanning programs, which are less contentious to axe than, say, spending on schools. In Canada for instance, five federally-funded lidar air pollution observation stations that formed part of the Canadian Operational Aerosol Lidar Network (CORALNet) have been shut down in the last few months, despite only opening as recently as 2010. The goal of CORALNet is to measure particulate matter (aka aerosols), tiny particles suspended in the air that are generated both by natural phenomena such as volcanoes and human activities such as burning fossil fuels. These particles can have an adverse impact on health and laser scanning provides an excellent means of tracking them. Despite this, Environment Canada, which funds CORALNet, has decided to the economics of comprehensively measuring air pollution with lidar don't stack up, at least for the time being. 

Here in Europe, in cases where the state is too poor to help, there is often the possibility to turn to the supra-state: the European Union. This is what one of the smallest and poorest EU Member States, Malta, has done in order to produce accurate and up-to-date 3D maps of its territory. With the support of the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), the Malta Environment and Planning Authority (MEPA) has commissioned the German firm Terraimaging to provide the first airborne lidar survey of the entire country (land and sea), generating digital terrain models and oblique images that can be used to update MEPA's existing digital aerial maps. A 3D bathymetric scan measuring sea depths within 1 nautical mile of the coastline will subsequently be merged with the 3D terrain scan to provide an integrated 3D model of Malta in its entirety by the time the project finishes in June 2013. (Terraimaging uses Optech ALTM lidar sensors for its surveys, together with frame cameras from Rollei and others and three-line scanners from the likes of Leica).

"The project will enable Malta to obtain valuable environmental information both for EU reporting obligations as well as to improve environmental policies and planning," project leader Dr. Elaine Sciberras told Gozo News. "Elevation information is crucial for the analysis of environmental questions, for modelling and for any planning," added Terraimaging's project leader Dr. Andrea Hoffman. 

Clearly there is a public need for the detailed information about our environment that laser scanning can provide, but whether there is the public money to support that need is another matter. In the case of the Maltese survey, some 85 percent of the cost of the (4.6 million euro) project is being borne by the ERDF. But if the crisis within the eurozone continues, budgets for projects of this kind could be seen as ripe for cutting, much as they have been in Canada. In which case, the industry may need to invest more time and money lobbying the politicians and public servants to prove that the economics of laser scanning do stack up in an age of austerity. 

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