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Lawrentian Recreates the Hidden Beauty of Caves through LiDAR Scanning

By Georges Casassovici '25

My enthusiasm for spelunking was almost instantaneous. I stumbled upon a video of a man entering a cave in Santa Cruz, Calif. called “Hell Hole” in 2020. Little did I know, only three months later, after a lot of convincing and preparation, I was able to explore it with my friends. Hell Hole, discovered almost 100 years ago, is far from a beginner-level cave. For that reason, I had to come back twice before I landed at the bottom, almost 100 feet underground. Through the claustrophobic, muddy, and dark cave, I was able to find myself enjoying a new hobby! On the topic of new hobbies, spelunking also exposed me to its sister sport, rock climbing, where I worked hard to get better over the summer. This supported my experience between the two sports since it involved the same technical training that I benefited from.

Starting in March 2022, I joined a spelunking club, which allowed me to have more accessibility to explore caves, as I was fairly limited by my parents since such a hobby may be unsafe. Through the group trips that I participated in, I started researching how to convert real-life caves into an online application. I had a vision of creating a repository full of caves that are available for the public to admire. Originally, I dabbled with photogrammetry, which is a picture and depth-derived way of scanning objects. However, as I researched more options, I found LiDAR scanners. LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) is a remote sensing method that uses lasers to measure the distance between the sensor and objects in the environment. It works by emitting a laser beam and measuring the time it takes for the beam to return to the sensor after it reflects off an object. I emailed Leica Geosystems and I convinced them to share with me one of their state-of-the-art LiDAR scanners, the BLK2GO. With its portable technology, I was able to scan the rock of a cave in Columbia, Calif. in cramped spaces.

LiDAR, being a fairly new technology, had many limitations, both in software and hardware. Some of the main issues that I found were that the technology was inadequate in remote, dark, and colorless spaces. Since there was no light in the space that I scanned, the lasers could not reflect off of the rock, creating errors. As a solution to this, I brought my own 80,000-lumen light into the cave, leading to another set of issues, including the cave being too bright and the luminosity feeling artificial. My LiDAR scanner, the BLK2GO, is portable, and uses geolocation to know where it is at all times. This is referred to as Simultaneous Localization And Mapping, or SLAM. However, in a cave, where there is no internet or geolocation, SLAM is unusable, forcing the device to use light reflection to see its change in location and rotation. This poses another major problem due to the constant fluctuation in accuracy. Effectively, all of these limitations make the final result of the LiDAR scan less dense, colorful, and detailed than I had hoped.

 I also ran into many road bumps with software. LiDAR scanners can record billions of points in one session, which transfers into a lot of data. For example, one of my latest point clouds, a type of 3d virtualization, had a final composed environment of 200 megabytes after meshing and texturizing. Viewing such big amounts of data is strenuous for even a high-end pc, making it a struggle for the public to view my data.

After optimizing and debugging the online application that I was building to display my cave scans, I found a solution to one of my biggest issues. By splitting my object into thousands of pieces, I was able to reduce the computing power needed to view my cave scans. Derived from a fabulous algorithm, nanite, only the pieces closest to the camera inside my app are visible, essentially making it much more efficient. Even though I have made tremendous progress on my project already, I am eager to release an end result that reflects my passion for spelunking, so that others can experience my emotions toward the sport!

For additional information, contact Lisa M. Gillard H'17, director of public relations, at lgillard@lawrenceville.org.