News Feature | December 15, 2021

Bright Ideas — NASA Launches Laser Comms, LiDAR Explores Caves & Assesses Forest Health

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By Abby Proch, former editor


Over the past two years, taking one’s temperature has progressively become a more common occurrence. With the increased interest in more accurately measuring body temperature, Rockley Photonics has developed a non-invasive biomarker sensing platform. Per a press release from Business Wire, the platform’s sensor detects water spectra, or light waves, in multiple layers below the skin, compares it to known water absorption signatures, and uses that data to measure core body temperature. The sensor can be used with a wearable device to provide continuous monitoring, even aiding in early disease detection.

December 7 marked NASA’s intent to double the speed of space-to-ground communications and expand internet connections as far as the Moon and even Mars, according to Popular Science. The Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCDR) launched early that day in pursuit of laser-based communications instead of the traditional radio waves. The new infrared laser approach is not only quicker but stands to offer increased reliability, given lasers are less susceptible to diffusion (although still affected by cloud cover). LCRD will undergo testing for two years before it begins relaying data to two ground stations in California and Hawaii.  

HyperLight has successfully demonstrated, with collaborators from Harvard University and Freedom Photonics, the integration of high-power lasers on a thin-film lithium niobate platform. According to a Business Wire press release, HyperLight pursued the novel material and method because of its affordability, small size, and ability to provide output greater than 100 mW. Traditional materials — silicon and indium phosphide — haven’t risen to the SWaP challenge. According to the release, the new platform material will help advance the development of high-performance chip-scale optical systems.

Using a handheld LiDAR scanner, scientists and students with James Madison University have for the first time geospatially mapped the oldest show cave in the U.S. According to GIM International, Grand Caverns, first open to the public more than 200 years ago, has proven difficult to image due to its lack of GNSS coverage and challenging terrain. With the handheld scanner, scientists captured a 3D point cloud of the cave system in a little more than 12 minutes, also without the need for a tripod. Scientists hope the results will help measure speleothem formations, assess the scope of human impact on the cave, and create 3D models, among other things.

Researchers with the University of Georgia have found yet another use for LiDAR: assessing the size and value of a trees within a forest. In article by @UGAResearcher, Professor Alicia Peduzzi, assistant professor in precision forestry, explains how their LiDAR-enabled UAV collects images from 260 different sections of the spectrum, producing images that indicate both forest age and health. Originally an expensive endeavor that was difficult to deploy, spatial imaging technology is now inching toward ubiquity, so long as the big data it produces can be interpreted and applied in a meaningful way. UGA’s LiDAR imagery captures tree quantity and size to benefit yield forecasts, but does not indicate individual tree quality, which researchers hope to pursue with other means.

In business news, backed by a $15.7 million U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency’s Joint Science and Technology Office (DTRA JSTO) contract, Teledyne Flir is developing a new threat mapping and visualization tool that will provide real-time data on chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear hazards on the battlefield. According to, the project will provide chemical and biological sensors as well as build up the Army’s AI and AR framework for autonomously mitigating CBRN hazards.