Could the Chinese balloon have been doing 3d laser scanning services? 

In February of 2023, pilots reported an unidentified object in US airspace.  The balloon crossed into US airspace over Alaska. It then proceeded to pass over Canada and then into X us states, including Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina. As it left the US to head out over the Atlantic Ocean, the US military shot it down. 

We are told that it is was a spy balloon. But what if the balloon was also carrying 3D laser scanning equipment? It clearly was carrying a very heavy payload – a structure the size of a city bus. There certainly would have been room for a lidar 3d laser scanner sensor aboard. 

it’s been done before

It wouldn’t be the first time that people have used balloons to carry a lidar scanner. The USGS has used 3d laser scanning balloons to survey the San Andreas Fault.  The balloon served the purpose of lofting the heavy 3D laser scanning service equipment into the air high above the geologic features that they wanted to be captured. It also allowed them to two the balloon by walking along the ground, controlling its exact path. Granted, this is more like using a balloon like a kite, where it is tethered to the ground. 

But balloons have also been used with lidar at higher altitudes and not tethered. It is interesting to consider how the Chinese government managed to launch a balloon in China that circumnavigated the globe to find its way directly over America’s heartland, overflying many US nuclear missile sites. You would think that once a balloon has been released, they would have little control over it’s path as it is carried by the high winds up in the atmosphere. Perhaps they took advantage of the weather patterns of the earth, or perhaps they were able to steer the balloon similar to how human hot air balloon pilots would, ascending and descending to catch favorable wind currents. 

Mapping the clouds

There are many instances of high-altitude LIDAR laser scanning services used to survey clouds from above. The 3d laser scanner would be pointed down, collecting point clouds of clouds. The weather man’s forecast does not come easy and is backed by a lot of science that most of us couldn’t understand. We know weather balloons are a tool that is used routinely to survey pressure, cloud cover, winds and temperature. it is not a big stretch to consider whether a lidar scanner could be included in a weather survey. 

Balloons vs drones and planes

3d laser scanning services are quite frequently performed by aircraft of many different types. These can be manned airplanes and helicopters that have been fitted with a lidar sensor, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s) which are more commonly referred to as drones. Balloons have a couple obvious advantages over airplanes, helicopters and drones.  For one, a balloon can be launched without requiring any electricity or engines of any kind, you just “set it and forget it” and the atmosphere carries it on its flight path. They are quiet and can be launched from anywhere. They can stay aloft much longer and for great distances. But as a 3d laser scanning tool, there is one big disadvantage. They can’t be controlled as easily. When performing 3d laser scanning services using drones and aerial vehicles, it is usually critical that a precise flight path be followed. Mapping and GIS applications usually have an image processing requirement that the images have a certain percentage of overlap. Drones and aircraft can fly a grid pattern assuring complete coverage of the area to be mapped. 

We can continue to speculate why a Chinese balloon flew over the USA. But chances are it was not a scenic flyover or a kids science experiment. We think the Chinese understand something our customers also understand, that 3D laser scanning services solve problems!



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