NASA is developing a new laser-based device known as GEDI that is designed to map the Earth's forests from outer space. This particular tech isn't designed specifically for directional mapping or 3D modeling but rather to help better determine the levels of carbon within the Earth's forest systems.
According to Ralph Dubayah, the GEDI principal investigator at the University of Maryland, the "net balance between forest disturbance and growth" is one of the most poorly quantified aspects of the carbon cycle. Dubayah said GEDI's 3D mapping will help reveal the vertical structure of our forests offering up information you "really can't get with sufficient accuracy any other way."
GEDI, which is short for Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation, is equipped with lidar technology, which is essentially makes use of light and lasers for measurements. Using three separate lasers, GEDI sends out pulses towards Earth, and based on the amount of time it takes for them to bounce back, can determine various distances and heights across the planet. GEDI will send out as many as 16 billion pulses in a year, which will provide data precise enough to determine a tree canopy's height within a few feet. These measurements will allow scientists to get a much more accurate carbon reading.
The team plans to use the data for land use research as well comparative analysis against historical carbon data. It will be a few years before GEDI's lasers provide data, it is scheduled to launch sometime in 2018