Airborne lasers shooting at the streets of New York. I know: Putting those phrases together in a sentence makes it sound like a plot for an Austin Powers movie, but take a chill pill--it's for your safety and convenience, New York.
From April 14th to April 30th this year,  an aircraft patrolled Manhattan at a height of 3,500 feet, sinisterly tracking back and forth in the sky and firing laser beams at the city. Fricking laser beams! From space! But alas, there were no spacecraft or even sharks involved--just a specially equipped Shrike Commander aircraft, but that's not so much fun to play with in a let's-scare-New-York kinda style.
The effort is intended to create the highest-resolution, and most up-to-date 3-D profile of New York city ever made. Seriously--you may be impressed by the old Queens Museum 1960s Panorama model  (shown in the right-hand image above), but that baby was hand-crafted from surveys and aerial photos and took such a while to create it was probably out of date before the final piece was fashioned. Add in the fact that New York's emergency services, including FEMA tend to work off area contour maps that are decades old (like the 1980s vintage flood plain maps used to work out at-risk areas for flooding) and remembering the ferocious redevelopment rates that urban areas like New York tend to exhibit, and you've got a burning need for accurate 3-D imagery of the city and its environs.
Enter this one million dollars! Oohohohhhahaha! $450,000 piece of Mayor Bloomberg's PlaNYC environmental package, to craft Lidar  maps. Lidar is the laser equivalent of radar--combined with sophisticated computing, it results in pinpoint accurate maps of streets, open areas, and buildings to a level of detail that lets you work out if roofs are flat or pitched and tiled, or whether there are wetland areas left in any of the city's green spaces. This kind of data is not only useful for emergency services, but it will help enforce zoning regulations, and can even be used to calculate how much roof space is available for installing solar power units.
And, oddly enough, though this enterprise sounds all very up-to-the-minute and high tech, it's going to become a task like painting the Golden Gate bridge--when you get to the end, it's almost time to start over at the beginning again. Because once you've got this sort of image data, the city will find so many uses for it, and need ever-fresher information, that nocturnal Lidar flights may become a semi-regular feature.
Need you worry about lasers probing into your bedroom window, though? Or be concerned that peeping at the plane in the sky will damage your sight? Nope, on both counts. The lasers play rapidly over the scene below, and as such shouldn't affect vision. And though the aircraft will have needed to make numerous passes over the city at different angles so that tall buildings wouldn't obscure the scene behind them, the kind of image recognition and targeting tech needed to fashion a laser-accurate picture of the inside of your bedroom really only resides with the military (and these folk have far more accurate, and longer stand-off, imaging systems like synthetic aperture radar  imaging for these tasks anyway.)
In fact, you may expect to encounter Lidar more frequently in your daily lives sooner than you may imagine. As 3-D rapid prototyping comes increasingly to the desktop, there's a simultaneous need for 3-D image scanning, which Lidar is great at. And as gaming systems and computer interfaces work off gesture-recognition, Lidar may even worm its way into the computer vision world too. Oh, and if you mashed up this data with Google's street-level imagery of the buildings, what you'd end up with is super-realistic New York environments for gaming companies to build into their software--imagine Grand Theft Auto played out in a super-real version of your neighborhood.
Image: New York Times  
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