Lidar Technology Comes of Age

Some two decades after its arrival, the speed laser is rapidly becoming a commodity. POLICE Magazine gathered all of the most recent arrivals and spent weeks evaluating their performance, utility, and user-friendliness. Then they were placed in service with a local PD for one week each.

Applied Concepts' Stalker Lidar LR. Photo: Applied ConceptsApplied Concepts' Stalker Lidar LR. Photo: Applied Concepts

Editor's note: View our related photo gallery, "Laser Speed Guns."

Some two decades after its arrival, the speed laser is rapidly becoming a commodity. From a paltry two models from as many manufacturers in 1991, the market this year has ballooned to a dizzying eight models from five companies.

To chart the changes, I gathered all of the most recent arrivals and spent weeks evaluating their performance, utility, and user-friendliness. Then they were placed in service with a local PD for one week each. A condensation of that department's subjective observations is noted separately.

Six new models from four manufacturers were evaluated. Missing is the Torch, a newcomer from Laser Atlanta, which declined to provide a demo unit. These were divided into two groups: frontline models and specialty units. Here's what I found.


Applied Concepts: Stalker Lidar LR

Although nearly identical to its forebear, the Stalker Lidar LR is an all-new design. At 60 ounces, on average it's 50 percent heavier than the others due to its housing, a thick-wall extrusion of aluminum, rather than the polycarbonate used by the competing models. Metal suggests superior durability, although the extra heft is noticeable.

It's powered by a battery-handle that's forward-swept, centering the mass over the operator’s hand.

On the rear panel, a large LCD screen depicts operating mode, speed, range, and other essentials. It’s surrounded by an array of nine buttons that control all operations.

Six-step-adjustable for brightness, the HUD (Head-Up Display) reticle is a hollow red square. It will display speed, range, or both.  

Unique feature: simulated audio Doppler that begins beeping to verify that the target is being acquired and once tracking, its pitch is proportional to target speed. Similar to radar’s audio Doppler, it helps to confirm that officer and laser are eyeing the same vehicle.

During daylight operation the Stalker's HUD made target tracking an easy task. The dual display of range and speed can sometimes be helpful, particularly when working dense clusters of vehicles. At night, I found that displaying both speed and range tended to crowd the available HUD real estate, creating something of a visual distraction.

There's no ambiguity about the Stalker Lidar LR's performance: in maximum range it scored within feet of the Laser Ally. In other key tests it was virtually tied with the Laser Ally.

Verdict: The Stalker's weight is an advantage when working outside the vehicle on windy days. The added bulk can sometimes be noticed, particularly when operated non-stop for hours, like when working with multiple catch-cars in a big enforcement project. That minor issue aside, the Stalker is easy to handle and fast to acquire targets; it also reached out farther than every unit but the Laser Ally.

Digital Ally: Laser Ally

The lightest of the frontline models tested—five ounces less than the next-lightest Kustom ProLaser 4—the Laser Ally runs on two C-cell batteries. Its red HUD reticle is a hollow rectangle that doesn't obscure a distant target. Either speed or range is displayed in the HUD, but not both at once.

The back of the case sports a blue-backlit LCD screen flanked by six buttons that control all operations. The latter are emblazoned with easily interpreted pictograms, and I found its menu system to be the most intuitive of the group.

To illustrate this simplicity, on the quick-start guide that accompanies the Laser Ally, all of the essentials are found on a single envelope-size laminated sheet. For more details, a consultation with the operator manual CD is required.

Unique features: Obstructed mode instructs the laser to ignore an object partially blocking the beam. Others use conventional range-gating, setting a minimum distance that must be exceeded before speeds are displayed. In contrast, the Laser Ally records and stores the range to the obstruction, a tree branch, for instance. Then it ignores only the branch while showing speeds for more-distant targets.

This unit was the only frontline model tested that proved impervious to laser detectors and jammers. Although not widely used, some high rollers employ both of these countermeasures. But in squaring off against the popular Escort ZR4 laser jammer, the Laser Ally willingly displayed speeds while showing no ill effects from the device. Of equal note is that the ZR4 was unable to detect the Laser Ally, allowing the laser operator an extended opportunity to take speed measurements.

In its Normal mode the Laser Ally was the least affected by patrol vehicle side glass, roadside foliage, and vegetation. With Weather and Obstructed modes also on call, this unit has the widest array of tools to combat commonly encountered obstructions.

Its audio was arguably the best of the group: a low-pitched growl for quality as it acquires a target, a high-pitched tone to verify that the speed is locked.

The Laser Ally proved quick and fast-pointing, showing good tolerance for operator shake. Its performance was also the best of the group, eking out a tiny lead over the Stalker.

Verdict: Intuitive, simple controls; quick handling; sophisticated signal processing, class-leading range; an unusually well-developed piece of gear.

Kustom Signals' Pro Laser 4. Photo: Kustom SignalsKustom Signals' Pro Laser 4. Photo: Kustom Signals

Kustom Signals: ProLaser 4

Successor to the popular Pro Laser 3, this newcomer was the most compact fully featured lidar unit tested and second-lightest, narrowly trailing the Laser Ally by a few ounces in weight. It was also the only unit to be powered by four AA batteries, housed in a forward-swept grip covered with non-slip material.

The Pro Laser 4 employs an OLED (color) rear display, with green alphanumeric characters. The HUD reticle likewise is green, with three styles available. In speed mode, both range and speed appear in the HUD, also on the rear display.

The Pro Laser 4 arrives with a quick-start guide that provides basic information; the 58-page manual is on a CD. Six buttons encircling the rear display operate the unit; five of these are dual-function.

Its feature set mimics that of the others: single-shot or continuous tracking; Weather mode, directional operation, Sleep mode.

The audio delivers a high-pitched beep that increases in frequency as a target is acquired, becoming a steady tone when it locks-on. The Kustom laser proved exceptionally resistant to operator shake and was the least finicky about point of aim.

But it was the least enthusiastic about shooting through patrol car side glass and roadside obstructions. It also trailed the field in maximum range and its target-acquisition times were the slowest of the group. In fairness, the latter was influenced by a misaligned HUD that required the operator to hold the device six feet high at 2,000 feet to register a hit.

Verdict: A compact, well-balanced, fast-pointing laser, it breaks little new technological ground but offers significant enhancements over its forebear.

Laser Technology: TruSpeed

The first laser to be retail-priced under $3,000 at the time of its introduction, the TruSpeed is also the first domestic unit to use polycarbonate material for its housing.

Powered by two C-cell batteries, the TruSpeed is 35% heavier than the featherweight Laser Ally but 23% lighter than the Stalker. Its back panel houses an LCD screen and seven soft-key buttons, the latter bearing easily interpreted pictograms to identify their functions. 

The TruSpeed powers-up automatically with a trigger-squeeze; it quickly performs a self-test and is then ready for business. It can be operated either in single-shot or continuous mode.

The TruCam's scope has an integral polarizing filter to regulate contrast under varying lighting conditions. A 3.5X scope is an option and threads onto the back of the HUD.

The latter has a red reticle and displays either speed or range, but not both: the missing data are displayed on the LCD screen.

Some limitations are imposed by the manufacturer, probably to prevent this attractively priced unit from stealing sales from its up-market siblings. Range is limited to 2,000 feet, for instance, and some features available on the step-up models are unavailable.

Although it occupies a lower-price segment, I found the TruSpeed capable of running with the big dogs. It was second-quickest in acquiring targets, for instance, and its maximum range of 2,085 feet rarely proved to be a handicap on the street.

Verdict: simple controls, user-friendly operation; very quick, with performance quite similar to the more expensive models tested.


Laser Technology: TruCam

Not a direct competitor of the frontline units, the TruCam is a specialized piece offering some unique features in exchange for its loftier price tag. Chief among them: an integral three-megapixel color video camera. And unlike the others, this unit can operate unattended, automatically recording speeding violations.

Its advanced features require some acclimation, greatly assisted by a comprehensive owner manual. It was also the only frontline unit that arrived with a printed manual, eminently more useful in the field than a CD or DVD.

The TruCam runs on a Linux OS and records onto an SD card a full-motion video clip plus two still images of each violation. Also captured are the details—time/date, direction of travel, range, speed, posted limit, laser operator ID—plus GPS coordinates. Violations can be viewed on the color LCD touchscreen display and also downloaded to a PC using a USB cable.

The TruCam is available with DBC—Distance Between Cars—that automatically calculates following distance. A tough violation to prove in court, it's also a leading cause of collisions, accounting for 29.7% of all crashes, according to a 2001 NHTSA study. The TruCam's visual record of these violations makes for a nigh-unbeatable case.

Like the LTI TruSpeed, there's a polarizing filter to regulate light entering the HUD; a higher-magnification scope is optional.

Its LCD display, like the others', washes out in direct sunlight, but an effective sun shade is supplied, something unavailable on competing models.

In Video Tracking mode, speeds are shown as soon as the target is within range; the still image is recorded when it has closed to within a user-set range, adjustable between 50 and 500 feet.

Video image quality is excellent, but the still photos can be out of focus if care isn't taken to correctly set the capture range.

In most respects, the TruCam performs similarly to its TruSpeed cousin. It was second-quickest at acquiring targets, marginally trailing the Stalker Lidar LR, and was the most adept at spotting our stealthy black target car that wore no front plate.

Verdict: sophisticated but user-friendly design; unique features, well-rounded performance portfolio.

Laser Technology's TruSpeed. Photo: Craig PetersonLaser Technology's TruSpeed. Photo: Craig Peterson

Laser Technology: TruSpeed S

Powered by a small lithium-ion battery, the TruSpeed S is the size of a Big Mac and registers just under one pound on the scales. Unusual among lasers, it’s a monocular design, with an adjustable eye relief. Its HUD sports 7-power magnification, also a rarity.

All information is displayed within the HUD—operating mode, range, speed—and its powerful magnification imbues it with special abilities. An unbelted driver or expired plate can usually be spotted at a considerable distance, for instance. Its compact size and that 7X scope also make it a good candidate as a range finder, say for a SWAT callout for a barricaded suspect.

Controls are minimalist: three buttons for operating mode, user menu and preferences, with another, larger button serving as trigger. Features include single-shot or continuous tracking; Weather mode.

In targeting, the TruSpeed S was more demanding than the others, a legacy of its HUD magnification, and it required a steadier hand to produce results. (Officers accustomed to catching up on paperwork while running radar are likely to find operating lasers—and this one in particular—a far more labor-intensive enterprise.)

Maximum range is purposely limited to 2,000 feet, same as the LTI TruSpeed, which doesn't measurably hamper its utility in the field.

Verdict: A sub-$1,500 (suggested retail price) laser small enough to fit inside a coat pocket, the TruSpeed breaks new ground in affordable lasers.

Officer Evaluations

It never hurts to ask for second opinions, so we sought out a local department for assistance. But to avoid potential bias, it had to be one that wasn't already using lasers.

That made it tough: Every agency we called already had units in service. Then we got lucky. A local tribal PD had briefly looked at lidar technology and while spotting some advantages, decided to continue using only radar. Better yet, the chief assigned the project to his second-in-command, a heavily experienced lieutenant who'd served with two high-profile local departments before accepting a slot there.

The chief had one stipulation: no publicity. This came directly from the governing Council. It was pleased to assist, but wanted nothing in return save for adding to the patrol division’s knowledgebase. Fair enough; we signed on.

The lieutenant obligingly diverted from regular duty two of his four patrol sergeants and a couple of tech-savvy officers, sending them through a NHTSA-approved lidar-training course. The LT himself attended—and aside from orchestrating this intricate project, logged hours on the road with each laser and issued citations.

This group spent one week evaluating each of our four frontline lidar units. Thirteen categories were rated, everything from battery life, maximum audio volume, size, and weight to the comprehensiveness of the operator manual. Other categories rated performance characteristics including range, quickness of target acquisitions, Weather and Obstructed modes, and related criteria. For charts detailing results of the officer evaluations, pick up a copy of the September issue of POLICE Magazine.

Craig Peterson is a Mesa, Ariz.-based writer specializing in speed-measuring technology, mobile electronics, vehicles, and EVOC training. He is an IPTM-certified radar instructor with 22 years' experience.


PHOTOS: Laser Speed Guns

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