Exploring the Depths: Capricorn Caves’ 3D Mapping Odyssey using LiDAR Technology

Innovations Natural Resource Management

By Jillian Neyland, Education Officer, Capricorn Caves

Until only recently, the only map we had of the Capricorn Caves was a hand drawn one.  This beautiful map helped countless staff and visitors explore and learn about the cave system. But as technology has improved over the decades, so too has our ability to map this amazing natural resource in finer detail. 

The hand drawn map of Capricorn Caves created in 1968 by Semple and Olsen.
The hand drawn map of the now Capricorn Caves created in 1968 by Semple and Olsen.

In 1968, the previous land owner Mr Olsen and his friend, cave enthusiast Mr Semple, surveyed and mapped the cave with basic equipment such as a compass, and a homemade theodolite constructed from a spirit level and a school protractor. 

Over 50 years later, Capricorn Caves Natural Resource Manager, Lydia, is completing Phase 2 of our new mapping project. Her aim is to use LiDAR technology to map all the major caverns and trails in the Capricorn Caves.

The high resolution data collected will allow our engineers and builders to plan and construct replacement infrastructure like bridges and boardwalks. It will also be used to improve tourism experiences and to assist with any scientific research undertaken in the cave habitat. 

Lydia setting up the tripod and LiDAR unit to make a scan of Fern Cave. 

What is LiDAR? 

Our Education Officer, Jillian, accompanied Lydia into the cave to learn more about this cool science technology. LiDAR stands for Light Detection and Ranging. It is a remote sensing method that uses a pulsed laser to determine and record the distances between thousands of points in a space. It also records photographic images which are linked to these points.

The Leica LiDAR unit and computer accessories Lydia is using for this mapping project are on loan from the nearby Central Queensland University. Luckily, the equipment is relatively easy to move around using a protective hard case. It is also quick to set up. The sensing unit is fixed to a tripod.

Once in position and activated, it takes approximately six minutes for the LiDAR unit to complete a scan of the surrounding space, in this case, a section of cave. Lydia does multiple scans in a cavern from different points to capture all the nooks and crannies, and build a layered, more accurate map. 

Back at ‘the office’ downloading the data 

What do we do with LiDAR data? 

The data collected is downloaded using Leica Cyclone Register 360 software onto a hi-spec Dell Laptop. This software translates the point cloud into a 3D image which you can navigate through using a mouse, just like a computer game.

Many people have seen similar imagery on websites advertising Real Estate or Prize Homes. Using the mouse, you can jump from circle to circle. These circles are where the LiDAR unit was positioned when completing a 360 degree scan. 

One useful application of the LiDAR data being collected at Capricorn Caves is for improving the infrastructure. Engineers working remotely can choose two points in the virtual 3D cave image to determine the distance between them. Angles can also be measured.

Our recently installed new Swinging Bridge, a tourist favourite, was designed with the help of data collected in the first phase of the Cave Mapping Project completed in 2021. 

The scanning unit also records information like temperature. Jillian and her children stood still for 6 minutes to get in this cool scan image! 

A 3D mesh model of the cave was created using Leica Cyclone 3DR software. Currently, the point cloud consists of 18 billion individual captured points (a lot of data!). To create the meshed model Lydia significantly reduced the number of points and created a low-resolution model to derive surface area and volume of the cave. 

There are countless applications for the data being collected, much of which can benefit ecology researchers. Here are just some of the interesting research questions that could be explored using the LiDAR data being collected at Capricorn Caves. 

  • Determine how the volume or surface area of caves influences bat colony populations. 
  • Map the potential flight paths for cave dwelling bats. 
  • Predict water flow during past or future flood events. 
  • Measure the erosion of cave surfaces over time. 
  • Monitor the spread or growth of rock loving organisms such as algae, moss, fungi, cyanobacteria, cave ferns and even measure the length of fig tree roots. 
  • Gain a better understanding of the turnover and flow of gases such as CO2 & O2 within the caves. 
  • Correlate data on humidity and temperature and understand how cave volume or surface area impacts these variable factors. 
  • Produce 3D models of the cave for educational purposes. 
  • Create virtual cave tours for people who have limited mobility. 
  • Find lost tourists (just kidding!)  

For students who are interested in this type of work, you could investigate doing tertiary studies in ecology, geology, surveying or civil engineering. Many industries such as construction, mining, robotics and defense have adopted LiDAR technology to improve their operations, services, research or products.

LiDAR technology can also be fitted to drones and used in industries such as agriculture, forestry and even archeology. You may even have a robotic vacuum in your house that uses LiDAR technology to make sure it doesn’t fall down the stairs!  

We hope to share with you in the future some of the results of this mapping project.  

  • star rating  The cave was amazing, the tour was worth every cent. This tour is suitable for everyone who can walk, and it offers access for those with mobility issues. There is... read more

    July 5, 2023

    star rating  It was just an amazing experience to have a guided tour through the cave system and learn about the formation and history of the caves. The cathedral part of the... read more

    July 5, 2023

    star rating  Terrific tour. Excellent guide (Hudson) really informative and friendly. Explorer experience was easy to manage. Highly recommended. Must book ahead. We saw a lot of people arriving with no booking... read more

    July 5, 2023
  • star rating  Very interesting tour I was a bit nervous as had to crawl in a tunnel but it was short and 2 swing bridges - but that’s me a whimp but... read more

    Naomi G
    July 4, 2023

    star rating  Visited Capricorn Caves & did the Cathedral Tour it was value for money, if you like learning about and observing some natural beauty. Some stairs/ramps but not tiring.... read more

    Mark T
    July 2, 2023

    star rating  Very informative. Our guide was friendly and knowledgeable. Listened to Alleluia in the Cathedralamazing experience. Daughter and I enjoyed this experience. We learned a lot about the ecosystem in the... read more

    Soana B
    July 1, 2023
  • star rating  Great informative tour, with a fantastic coffee and cake to finish. There is a little gift shop to pick up your souvenirs.

    June 28, 2023

    star rating  Fantastic, definitely worth doing if in the area. Interesting history on these caves. Guided tour was good

    June 26, 2023

    star rating  A truly exhilarating experience. My husband and I stayed the night at a cabin at Capricorn Caves and were so impressed with the hygiene and cleanliness of the cabin. The... read more

    June 18, 2023
  • star rating  Very special experience visiting these caves and listening to Amber explaining about the cave formations and their continuing work in preserving its nature.

    June 17, 2023

    star rating  Amazing caves so different from any other caves I've seen looking forward to visiting again when they have Opera in The Cathedral Cave, if you are in the area... read more

    June 16, 2023

    star rating  An excellent experience full of learning opportunities an very eco tourism. Some special features that can only be experienced on this tour.

    Tracy C
    June 11, 2023
  • star rating  I joined a morning tour at 9:30 and the atmosphere in the morning was so great! I and my family enjoyed it very much! the tour guide was very knowledgeable.... read more

    June 10, 2023

    star rating  Heading north towards Cairns, I chose to take a rain check on visiting Capricorn Caves. However, with more time on my hands, I decided to make this a priority. And,... read more

    Greg W
    June 5, 2023

    star rating  We had a good tour in the Capricorn Caves with an enthousiast guide. The caves were on average quite accessible with some nice passages for those group members that wished... read more

    Harrie M
    June 4, 2023
  • star rating  Cave adventure was excellent, guide was very knowledgeable about the caves, after doing the adventure tour second tour was bit of a let down

    May 28, 2023

    star rating  Interesting tour. I particularly loved the Cathedral tour. Just amazing to sit there when our guide turned the lights off slowly and we sat in darkness as the... read more

    Maria L
    May 25, 2023

    star rating  My son (15 yrs) and I thoroughly enjoyed our visit to the caves today. The tour guide was super-friendly and extremely informative. We learned so much! An absolutely stunning cave.... read more

    May 24, 2023
  • star rating  Great tour. Izzy the tour guide was very informative. We live in Mackay and it has been on mt to do list for a long time. Glad I did it... read more

    May 20, 2023

    star rating  Our guide was very well informed and gave us a lot of info about the caves. The caves were amazing and we got some great photos. I would recommend this... read more

    May 19, 2023

    star rating  A great tour, Amber was knowledgeable and enthusiastic , highlight was the acoustics in the cathedral for sure

    May 17, 2023
  • star rating  Unexpectedly wonderful experience at the Capricorn caves, especially in the Cathedral Cave - fantastic effort made to make the whole visit truly worthwhile! Our guide, Amber, was informative and enthusiastic.... read more

    May 17, 2023

    star rating  So glad we planned a visit to the caves. Wish I would have ventured even further into the caves with a longer tour.

    Jeannie C
    May 13, 2023

    star rating  Really interesting tour even though we did the 45minute one. Rory our guide was great. Very informative and knowledgeable. Only improvement I could suggest is a more vibrant light... read more

    May 10, 2023
  • star rating  Tour guide was just perfect, wouldn’t have changed the way he delivered in any way. Thanks so much! Look forward to doing another tour one day!

    May 9, 2023

    star rating  Amazing tour with Lizzie, we did so many cool routes and was way for adventurous than we were expecting. Lots of tight crawls and the bats were amazing. Thank you!

    May 8, 2023

    star rating  Was an amazing cave system , we only did the cathedral and was hoping to do another more advanced track but was booked out .
    Would definitely come back again... read more

    April 29, 2023
  • star rating  Amazingly tranquil. Cabins extremely comfortable. Cave tours a most, just beautiful. Friendly staff who provide excellent service.

    April 27, 2023

    star rating  Fantastic family day out. We did the family adventure tour (with two 9 yr olds) and they loved it. Our guide James was informative and engaging and kept the atmosphere... read more

    April 23, 2023

    star rating  Our tour was amazing we all had an awesome time and our tour guide, James, was great helping people who struggled, he definitely is worth more money

    April 13, 2023