In tropical forests, the penetration ability of airborne laser scanning (ALS) may be limited because of highly dense vegetation cover. However, in the typical planning of ALS surveys, the ability of laser pulses to penetrate forests is not considered. Nine round-trip flight lines covering the area of a tropical forest on the northeast side of the Tsengwen Reservoir in Taiwan were designed in this study. Five flight lines flew at altitudes of 1.525, 1.830, 2.135, 2.440, and 2.745 km, and the other four had pulse repetition frequencies (PRFs) of 100, 150, 200, and 250 kHz. The laser penetration index (LPI) is a quantitative index measuring the penetration ability of the ALS and consists of the ratio of the number of laser pulses reaching the forest floor to the total number of laser pulses. The LPI was used to represent the laser penetration rate and investigate the influence of flying altitude and PRF on the LPI. The results showed that as the flying altitude decreased by 1 km, the average LPI increased by 10%, and as the PRF decreased by 50 kHz, the average LPI increased by 2%. The effect of the LPI on digital elevation models (DEMs) was confirmed by visual images obtained by DEMs at five altitudes. The DEM obtained at an altitude of 2.745 km was coarsely textured, whereas that obtained at an altitude of 1.525 km was finely textured. The in-situ height data obtained from the electronic Global Navigation Satellite System (eGNSS) were compared with the data of the ALS-generated DEMs. The results indicated that when the LPI ≥60%, the height difference between the in situ data and DEM data was not prominent. However, when the LPI <60%, the ALS-derived DEM could be higher or lower than the in-situ height; the largest difference between the two was 1.7 m. The LPI of a forest should be considered for ALS survey planning, especially when consistent DEM precision for large tropical forest areas is paramount.
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