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The Next Frontier: unlocking new drone markets with mid-range laser rangefinders

Despite strong growth, driven by many new applications and innovations, there remains a gap in the laser rangefinder market. These crucial UAV depth perception and localization sensors are available in many configurations, but ultralight mid-range laser rangefinders remain an underdeveloped market segment.

The laser rangefinder market is projected to grow by more than 50% in the next five years, but sensor diversity is an issue. Current products, such as long-range laser rangefinders, are either too expensive or heavy, while short-range and hobby-grade laser rangefinders have inadequate specifications for customer needs.

Positive market disruption could create new products and unlock value, but where should innovators and customers in the laser rangefinder industry expect that disruption to happen?

Where is the Mid-Range Laser Rangefinder market?

Affordable and lightweight commercial-grade laser rangefinders in the 250- to 1000m range is the niche worth exploring. Nadia Nilsen, CEO of LightWare, a leading supplier of depth and distance sensors to the UAV market, recognizes this gap as a significant opportunity for growth and innovation. “The mid-range niche in the laser rangefinder market representing a substantial opportunity, especially for applications requiring depth perception measurement and localization data over moderate distances.”

With evolving customer expectations and applications, the mid-range market presents a significant opportunity for technology companies that anticipate trends and respond to laser rangefinding needs.

Identifying opportunities and meeting market demands are key drivers of successful sensor innovation. Nilsen emphasizes the importance of understanding market potential. “The current market lacks balance in mid-range laser rangefinders. Addressing this requires developing professional yet affordable products that combine specifications, size, and weight that resonate with the market.”

Understanding the laser rangefinder role

Laser rangefinders are mission-critical for many applications across very diverse environments and terrain, from dense urban zones to remote wilderness areas.

These sensors enhance surveillance, detection, and perimeter security by providing depth perception and assisting with real-time location data regarding intrusions. For law enforcement, they create valuable situational awareness.

Nilsen and LightWare have extensive experience working with UAV customers and understand how sensors enhance and impact flight missions. “The applications where a UAV gimbal sensor payload with laser rangefinder integration is needed are remarkably diverse. Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) is top of mind for many people when thinking about laser rangefinders and UAVs, but it’s one of many applications.”

“Laser rangefinders assist in creating real-time localization data, which is crucial in the search and rescue (SAR) role, where laser rangefinders are vital to a UAV’s gimbal sensor payload and mission success.”

The technology features that make laser rangefinders valuable in ISR and SAR operations also apply to wildlife conservation missions, when tracking vulnerable animal movements or intercepting poachers. In both the security and wildlife conservation role, stealth is crucial. This creates a demand to match laser rangefinder specifications to mission needs, making gimbal sensor payloads that work with compact UAVs.

“Animals can easily be spooked by a large UAV operating overhead. For the most effective animal observation and anti-poaching operations, you want a compact and stealthy drone with a gimbal sensor payload that works for the application – often at moderate distances, not extended ranges.” Whether it is ISR, SAR or wildlife and conservation, many of these commercial operations occur at relatively low altitudes and short distances, where most current laser rangefinders either exceed requirements or fall short.

“When you’re operating in that mid-range environment, between 250- and 1000m, a $20 000 gimbal sensor payload with a 3+ km laser rangefinder integration is completely out of proportion for the application,” Nilsen explains. “It’s not just the excess cost, but also the unnecessary weight that impacts drone flight dynamics and mission endurance.”

Future possibilities for mid-range laser rangefinders

Sensor technology development isn’t linear. Market trends shape product planning, but there are moments where customer needs and product solutions aren’t perfectly aligned, creating gaps – and opportunities to unlock value.  

Commercial-grade mid-range laser rangefinders for UAV gimbal integration are a market gap and product opportunity awaiting development. Some might sense the niche, but who will develop the market?

For Nadia Nilsen and the team at LightWare, mid-range laser rangefinders represent a compelling opportunity. ‘Security, law enforcement, conservation, search and rescue, and emergency response missions require agility, speed, connectivity, and coordination,’ Nilsen explains. ‘Mid-range laser rangefinders that are the right size, weight, specification, and price have the potential to catalyze the drone gimbal market, unlocking additional growth and directly contributing to saving lives.’

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