Mobile light detection and ranging (LiDAR) sensors used in car navigation and robotics, such as the Velodyne’s VLP-16 and HDL-32E, allow for sensing the surroundings of the platform with high temporal resolution to detect obstacles, tracking objects and support path planning. This study investigates the feasibility of using LiDAR sensors for tracking taxiing or landing aircraft close to the ground to improve airport safety. A prototype system was developed and installed at an airfield to capture point clouds to monitor aircraft operations. One of the challenges of accurate object tracking using the Velodyne sensors is the relatively small vertical field of view (30°, 41.3°) and angular resolution (1.33°, 2°), resulting in a small number of points of the tracked object. The point density decreases with the object–sensor distance, and is already sparse at a moderate range of 30–40 m. The paper introduces our model-based tracking algorithms, including volume minimization and cube trajectories, to address the optimal estimation of object motion and tracking based on sparse point clouds. Using a network of sensors, multiple tests were conducted at an airport to assess the performance of the demonstration system and the algorithms developed. The investigation was focused on monitoring small aircraft moving on runways and taxiways, and the results indicate less than 0.7 m/s and 17 cm velocity and positioning accuracy achieved, respectively. Overall, based on our findings, this technology is promising not only for aircraft monitoring but for airport applications.
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