Montana State University researchers teamed up this summer with Blackmore Sensors and Analytics to measure the Lone Mountain Rock Glacier. “This colorful image is a screenshot of the 3D point cloud rendering,” explained Stephen Crouch with Blackmore Sensors and Analytics. “The colors correspond to height-altitude—a common false color scheme used in lidar data to help make the data more interpretable.”

The connection between Lone Mountain and self-driving cars

Blackmore Sensors measures rock glacier as it develops lidar tools

When you gaze up at Lone Mountain from the tram base station, the surrounding terrain appears rugged, craggy and solid as a rock. But in reality, the earth beneath your feet is moving.

The area between the top of the Powder Seeker Chairlift, the bottom of the A-Z Chutes and the base of the tram is what’s known as the Lone Mountain Rock Glacier.

It’s a mysterious geomorphic feature made up of rock and ice and it is the focus of ongoing study by Montana State University researchers using lidar technology that’s also applied to the construction of self-driving cars.

On Aug. 1, a Montana State University research team and staff from the Bozeman company Blackmore Sensors and Analytics, rode the tram to the top of the peak. There they set up a lidar optical scanner on the observation deck and started gathering measurement data about the rock glacier inthe basin below.
“The mechanics of these rock glaciers are pretty much unknown,” explained Stephen Crouch, Blackmore’s chief technology officer. “There’s rock on top. Below that, layers of ice and rock.

“The thickness of this internal ice remains a question for future research,” wrote Twila Moon, a Big Sky local and glacier researcher, in a 2012 web posting for the University of Washington.

“The base station for the Big Sky Resort’s ski tram is built on top of the toe of the active section of the rock glacier,” continued Moon. “Thanks in part to the early research on the rock glacier, engineers were aware of it when designing and constructing the ski tram. In building the structure, they had to drill down into the rock and ice to create the foundation. The structure actually moves along with the rock glacier. As a result, the resort has to plan for changes to their infrastructure, like lengthening the ski tram cable, due to the rock glacier motion.”

This motion has been the subject of research at MSU since the late ’60s, said Colin Shaw, an assistant research professor in geology.

That’s why, said Shaw, “We’vebeen interested in doing lidar for quite some time.”

Back in August, when Blackmore aimed its lidar scanner at the Lone Mountain Rock Glacier, it gathered “millions of data points on the glacier’s surface.”

Shaw said this created a 3D image of the rock glacier and built “a bridge between the virtual world and the real world. It’s reality capture.”

Shaw added, “The data will be compared to aerial lidar scans from 2005 to gauge how the glacier has moved since then. This will help us understand how the flow of ‘dirty ice’ in a rock glacier compares to flow of ‘clean ice’ in non-rock glaciers.”

Shaw praised Blackmore for making the expensive technology available to MSU researchers. Looking ahead, Shaw expects the lidar sensors to drop in price as they become widely used in self-driving cars and other applications.

“It’s able to sense the position of objects that an automatic driving system needs to avoid,” explained Shaw. “We’re using that same technology for the glacier.”

The lidar sends out a laser pulse, which bounces back and determines the distance between objects. The promising possibilities for this technology have attracted investors to Blackmore, one in a growing cluster of companies in Gallatin County using lasers and other tools spun out of MSU’s Optical Technology Center.

“Advances in new sensor technologies, like lidar, are going to make cars safer and, eventually, autonomous,” said BMW i Ventures partner Zach Barasz in a 2018 press release announcing an $18 million investment in Blackmore.

In addition to rock glaciers and self-driving cars, Shaw said lidar also could provide unprecedented imaging for the snowpack at Big Sky Resort and other ski areas.

“Every ski area could have one of these or more than one” because they can be used to accurately calculate snow depth by comparing scans of an area with snow to scans taken during the summer when the slopes are bare.

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