We present the sensor concept and first performance and accuracy assessment results of a novel lightweight topo-bathymetric laser scanner designed for integration on Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), light aircraft, and helicopters. The instrument is particularly well suited for capturing river bathymetry in high spatial resolution as a consequence of (i) the low nominal flying altitude of 50–150 m above ground level resulting in a laser footprint diameter on the ground of typically 10–30 cm and (ii) the high pulse repetition rate of up to 200 kHz yielding a point density on the ground of approximately 20–50 points/m2
. The instrument features online waveform processing and additionally stores the full waveform within the entire range gate for waveform analysis in post-processing. The sensor was tested in a real-world environment by acquiring data from two freshwater ponds and a 500 m section of the pre-Alpine Pielach River (Lower Austria). The captured underwater points featured a maximum penetration of two times the Secchi depth. On dry land, the 3D point clouds exhibited (i) a measurement noise in the range of 1–3 mm; (ii) a fitting precision of redundantly captured flight strips of 1 cm; and (iii) an absolute accuracy of 2–3 cm compared to terrestrially surveyed checkerboard targets. A comparison of the refraction corrected LiDAR point cloud with independent underwater checkpoints exhibited a maximum deviation of 7.8 cm and revealed a systematic depth-dependent error when using a refraction coefficient of n
= 1.36 for time-of-flight correction. The bias is attributed to multi-path effects in the turbid water column (Secchi depth: 1.1 m) caused by forward scattering of the laser signal at suspended particles. Due to the high spatial resolution, good depth performance, and accuracy, the sensor shows a high potential for applications in hydrology, fluvial morphology, and hydraulic engineering, including flood simulation, sediment transport modeling, and habitat mapping.
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