Is DJI Zenmuse L1 the Right Drone LiDAR for You?
L1 is the buzz word in the drone LiDAR space today. With an impressive specs sheet and attractive price, the Zenmuse L1 from DJI is capturing a lot of interest from drone LiDAR users especially first-time buyers, while at the same time causing a bit of an anxiety to other drone LiDAR providers in the market. In my previous post, I said the L1 should help to boost the adoption of drone LiDAR technology significantly and could be the catalyst of growth this industry has been long waiting for. That said, if you are considering purchasing your first or next drone LiDAR payload, should you get the Zenmuse L1? The decision might be easier to make than you thought.
If you already own a DJI M300 or are set on buying this aircraft, don't need to use drone LiDAR anytime soon, and don't really need the "survey-grade" performance (5cm vertical), then place L1 in your shopping cart. Though you might still want to wait until some actual data and user reviews are available, to be safe. Otherwise, just go ahead and get one of the other proven systems out there available now.
Let's dive in.
DJI is doing it again! Aggressive pricing has always been a key component in DJI's GTM strategy. When I say "Aggressive" I mean "Really Aggressive". When DJI enters a market, they don't just want to compete. They want to crush competitors. What makes DJI's low-pricing tactic truly effective is that the products are often really good. To customers, it's like "an offer can't refuse." To its competitors, it's simply too difficult to match.
So what is the total cost for acquiring a L1+M300 drone LiDAR solution package? To fully understand, we need to break a total package into: The Platform/Aircraft, The Payload, Pre-Processing Software, Post-Processing Software, and Support.
Platform/Aircraft (and accessories) - DJI M300 ($20,000-$25,000)
For now, the Zenmuse L1 is only compatible with the DJI Matrice 300 RTK platform. You are in luck if already own one. Otherwise, you need to buy a M300 set. It costs you somewhere around $20k to $25k to load up a package with necessary accessories.
The M300 is an impressive aircraft. I also think DJI is planning for something big with the new enterprise Matrice series. L1 relies on the M300 for some of its real-time features and therefore is locked to this platform. If you have to get an aircraft anyway and are allowed to buy a DJI drone, this is not a bad investment at all.
Payload - DJI L1 ($18,000-$20,000)
The Zenmuse L1 will go for $18k to $20k, with the built-in RGB Mapping Camera and Auxiliary Positioning Vision Sensor. Other than maybe getting yourself a new microSD card, there isn't another other cost here.
Pre-Processing Software - DJI Terra ($3,000/yr)
DJI Terra is required. Terra is an interesting product from DJI. It's now supposedly The single App/SW that covers the entire mission workflow, from Flight Planning to Data Analysis. You need Terra to processes the raw data from L1 and create the georeferenced/colorized point cloud (las/ply/pnts/pcd/s3mb). But it looks like Terra can now also do some basic point cloud processing like classifying ground points.
Post-Processing Software - DJI Terra + 3rd-party Point Cloud Software ($6,000-$20,000)
Most likely, you will need to use a 3rd-party software for real point cloud processing tasks. The Terra is probably not enough. Depending on which software you choose, this will add another $6k to $20k to your total bill.
Support - Unknown
Support should be a very important factor when making your LiDAR purchase decision. You are likely to need it and a reasonable price for good support is warranted. This topic requires a post on its own someday. But right here regarding L1, I have no idea.
So, tally it all up, you are looking at somewhere around $50,000 to $60,000 for a brand new total L1 Drone LiDAR Solution Package.
Design, Performance and Features
Zenmuse L1 is a beautifully designed payload. I have no argument there. It is highly integrated and weighs only about 900g. Impressive is all I can say.
L1 is built on the Livox Avia sensor. I know the topic on laser sensor performance for mapping applications can be touchy. It's still fair to say, in my opinion, that the Avia is a surprisingly capable laser for drone LiDAR mapping. There are probably 200-300, maybe more, drone LiDAR systems with Livox sensors out there flying, and the customers are generally quite happy with the results.
Here is the full Specs Sheet for L1. To me, the highlights are light weight (900g), long range (190m @10% reflectivity), and up to 3 returns, although the 3rd return has so far shown to be too noisy. Some in the industry have been picking on Avia's limited FOV (Field of View) of ~70-degree. But honestly, unless you really need to scan the sides, you do not need much larger FOV. Even for payloads using 360-degree laser sensors, you would need to trim off data from the larger scanning angles as the accuracy just drops too much. Besides, the L1 mounts via a 3-axis gimbal which opens up some interesting possibilities. In fact, the limited FOV allows the system to focus all the laser pulses straight down or at the target area of interest, therefore achieving very high effective density of points on the ground, or on the target.
To achieve the stated system accuracy (10cm Horizontal and 5cm Vertical @ 50m), L1 has inside an unknown IMU that supposedly delivers quite good performance (Yaw - 0.08°; Pitch/Roll - 0.025°). There is where I have to reserve my opinion until more is seen and known from real users. These numbers are lower than the IMUs used by L1's direct competitors. Rumor says that DJI had trouble sourcing high performance IMU from certain suppliers since DJI got on the US BIS "Entity List". Maybe DJI will develop or has already developed its own.
L1's RGB Mapping Camera is 20 MP. Its direct competitors mostly use the popular Sony A6000/5100 with a higher 24 MP resolution. So, L1 loses a point here.
About other features, real-time point cloud coloring is nice; 3-axis gimbal can be really interesting; IP44 is helpful, but just remember, you get no data shooting NIR laser in the rain.
DJI says it will start shipping Zenmuse L1 in April. But it may only be available through selected enterprise dealers at the launch. Some dealers still indicate July/August as the launch date. I guess we will find out soon. But if you need a drone LiDAR payload now or real soon for work, I don't think you should wait for the L1.
This is an easy minus for L1. It only works with the DJI Matrice 300! Unless you already have a M300 or plan to buy one, you need to find your drone LiDAR payload from another manufacturer. Options are out there, even in the same Cost/Performance segment.
So, let's sum it up. Is DJI Zenmuse L1 the right drone LiDAR payload for you and should you wait to buy it? My suggestion: if you already own a DJI M300 or plan on buying one, don't need to use drone LiDAR anytime soon, and don't really need the "survey-grade" performance (5cm vertical), then give L1 a try. Otherwise, go get one of the other proven systems available now.
If you have any comments or thoughts to share, I'd love to hear them. You are also welcome to contact me directly anytime to chat. Cheers!