Aerial Mapping Fall 2013
I have been associated with aerial imaging for quite a few years. Strangely, my career in this field began with digital national resource imagery, moved to analog systems, and moved back to digital with the advent of the Z/I Imaging DMC aerial camera system. Each year I find myself saying, “There has never been a more exciting time to be in this industry!” This year is no exception.
Remember how worried many of us were about the advent of commercial satellite imagery? What would happen to our huge investments in air breather technology? Of course, the lower resolution data from these space-borne platforms had very little impact on the rapidly accelerating airborne digital business. By the time 50 cm data were available from space, clients were demanding 15 cm color data. Next came the free imagery of advertising companies such as Google. Again, this served only to whet the appetite of our professional clients for more-precise, higher-resolution data. It made an orthophoto backdrop a necessary component of a vector street map.
Now we are on the brink of another major evolution in the digital imaging business. Professionals and amateurs alike have taken to the skies with lightweight remote controlled aircraft (what we might call “micro-Unmanned Aerial Systems,” µUAS) carrying non-metric digital cameras. Overall, we are seeing a fundamental change in digital imaging. Traditional (dare I say staid?) photogrammetric processes are rapidly being superseded by exciting new algorithms from the fields of robotics and computer vision. Applications such as Structure from Motion (SfM) are enabling the generation of high density, metrically accurate point clouds from low-cost platforms without ancillary positioning information—in plain language, creating dense 3D point clouds without GPS or inertial measurement unit. New comparison algorithms such as Scale Invariant Feature Transform (SIFT) have made comparisons between images of overlapping object space but with significantly different image properties possible. New feature vector search algorithms such as Fast Library for Approximate Nearest Neighbors (FLANN) have made searches of huge image databases for similar images practical. It is astonishing that an enterprising young chap can generate a useable colorized 3D point cloud of the exterior of a building with a $300 Parrot quadcopter and open source software.
Does this mean the end of high-end aerial imaging? Of course not. What it means is a new thirst for innovative products. The digital orthophoto will soon be replaced by 3D colorized point clouds. When viewed from the nadir, they are the perfect “true” ortho. But when rotated, the world explodes into 3D visualization. All of the major large-format camera manufacturers are already offering a path to these models (what Michael Gruber and I dubbed, “Photo-Correlated Digital Surface Models” at a recent conference—does it get any geekier?) through various post-processing software applications. All we need now is a native viewer for common mapping platforms.
On a more traditional front, aerial oblique imaging (first introduced for useful purposes in the American Civil War) has been making a strong comeback during the past 10 years. Made viable by answering simple viewing questions for emergency dispatch (how many floors in that burning building?), it is now on to metric questions such as the exact location of a wire-insulator attachment point. Our insatiable need for quantitative information will ensure the future expansion of precision imagery.
Now the innovation focus needs to be on solutions. Pictometry/EagleView have proven that a technologically simple product such as roof measurements for insurance companies can drive considerable demand. The rapidly expanding need for pipelines to move the fruits of fracking is crying for new products to ensure public and environmental safety. Further out will be the need for data at the 4 cm accuracy level for autonomous vehicles. However, the need is for information, not just informative content. Roofers need measurements, not pretty images. Pipeline managers need encroachment metrics, not fly-through movies. And, of course, they want all this stuff to be in a hosted solution!
We are always on the sharp curve up of the adoption hockey stick in this digital imaging business. We just have to keep moving as the stick superimposes over the next evolution.
Aerial Mapping Spring 2013
That is the general consensus of aerial mapping professionals who offered their view of the coming year at the January 2013 meeting of MAPPS (Management Association for Private Photogrammetric Surveyors) in Miami, Florida.
But before I get into a few of my findings and observations, let me preface this by opining that these are exciting times for anyone in the aerial mapping profession. Note, I did not say “booming times” or “easy money times,” because they are not. But it really seems that for those willing to extend beyond their comfort zones and explore new business possibilities (and accept that occasional failure is a part of this process), the future holds great promise.
Many firms at the MAPPS meeting (and those who responded to a MAPPS-sponsored poll) reported that existing clients seem to be adding projects, and new or potential customers are inquiring about aerial services. Firms, excited about growth potential, have been hiring a few new employees because a shortage of qualified, trained professionals is a very real possibility in the near future. One respondent predicted a “bidding war” for qualified staff members.
Another trend seems to be partnering among some of the newly downsized aerial mapping firms. A rising tide raises all boats, and it’s generally agreed, considering the last devastating downturn in the economy, that it is wiser to stay small and efficient rather than overstaffed and bloated.
Most firms polled by MAPPS predicted that revenue during 2013 would be up primarily due to commercial contracts. However, most firms reported that government contracting is flat, capacity utilization is down, and planned capital investment is also down.
Michael Joos of Michael Baker Jr., Inc., in Pennsylvania cautioned that while “you can bring new technologies to the table, the [client] is not necessarily interested in them.”
Allen Nobles, PLS, in Florida concurred, “You can make a Blue Ray movie but if you go in and [the client] has a Beta tape player, where are you?” He spends a considerable amount of time educating clients and potential clients about the capabilities of new technology. “I love showing them what is possible. I sat with some DOT folks and talked to them about aerial lidar, with my goal being to take the magic out of it. I explain to them how it works until they get comfortable with it and embrace it. Once they figure out what you’ve got, you might very well open up the floodgates. This does not mean you need to cover all the intricacies of how a technology works but you can, for example, explain that a laser scanner is basically just a total station on steroids. They understand that.”
Gary Outlaw of Merrick & Co. in Colorado predicts that inside mapping is a rapidly growing market. Noting that in the next 10 to 20 years we’re going to see a virtual explosion of intelligent buildings, Outlaw said clients are now requiring BIM (building information modeling) in much of the work Merrick does for them. Jim Van Rens of Riegl USA based in Florida agreed and demonstrated how his company’s scanners are being retrofitted and designed for indoor use.
Thermal mapping was the subject of one session, and Aaron Schepers of Cornerstone Mapping in Nebraska and Max Elbaz of Optech in upstate New York detailed how their respective companies (one a service provider, the other a manufacturer) are moving fairly rapidly into a realm of business that didn’t exit last decade. New applications of sensor and camera technologies are making this very possible and attractive to existing and potential customers.
And, of course, around every conversation and panel discussion the mention of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or systems was ever present. Most aerial mapping professionals now look at the commercial application of UAVs in the United States (pending FAA approval for work beginning in 2015) as a done deal, with UAVs serving a very real niche that will need to be filled. Many seem to indicate that UAVs will become another tool in their arsenals.
Onward and upward!
~Neil Sandler, Editor & Publisher
Aerial Mapping Fall 2013: Feature Articles
Early adopters partner to prepare for a revolution in domestic surveying.
Jeff Lovin, CP, PS and John Perry
UltraCam offers a unique approach to achieving high image dynamics.
Gavin Schrock, PLS
An innovative mapping company uses multispectral aerial surveys and 3D imaging to create maps of inaccessible rock formations in Szomolya, Hungary.
Gábor Bakó, Zsolt Molnár, and Eszter Góber
A 77-year-old aerial mapping firm successfully employs new technologies on major infrastructure improvement projects./em>
Aixa G. Lopez, PE
Technology is making geospatial information real-time and relevant.
Aerial Mapping Spring 2013: Feature Articles
In the wake of the devastation wreaked along the East Coast by Superstorm Sandy, government agencies and private companies partnered to quickly and efficiently collect and analyze aerial data for emergency responders, relief and reconstruction workers, and the public in need.
The future of unmanned aerial vehicles for the geospatial profession looks to include bigger platforms for better sensors.
North Carolina raises the bar for orthoimage accuracy in a statewide project.
Kevin P. Corbley
Lidar, Helicopters, and the FAA.
Gregory S. Winton, Esq.
A user’s fee could provide sustained funding for national geospatial data, but how?
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Aerial Mapping Spring 2013: Case Studies
Leica GeosystemsThe Southwest Florida Water Management District protects the water supplies of 4.7 million people while also maximizing the environmental, economic and recreational benefits of water as a natural resource. Since the 1980s, the district has relied on seagrass monitoring as an indicator of overall ecosystem health in its five major estuaries. Working closely with Photo Science, SWFWMD has devised a process using digital aerial imagery for mapping seagrass that is accurate, efficient, and environmentally safe.
OptechDelivering high quality, engineering-grade models of overhead lines (OHL) remains a challenge for even the most experienced airborne lidar surveyors. We are always trying to strike a balance between controlling costs and operating efficiently while still delivering accurate and actionable data products.
MicrodronesAfter loading the images and external orientation file from the Microdrone, the project – based on a fully automatic plotting point and matching procedure – was completed in full after just a few hours of computer calculation time.
Prince Edward Island made the switch from film to digital imagery in 2010 and hasn’t looked back since. Airborne acquisition of 40-cm imagery with Midwest Aerial Photography’s DMC II digital mapping camera has enabled the island province to map its entire 5,682-square-kilometer land area at a level of detail not previously practical.
Keystone Aerial Surveys is a leading aerial imaging and remote sensing services company with customers throughout the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Using Applanix POS AV inertial systems since the 1990’s, Keystone began using digital cameras in 2005 and has been relying on Applanix positioning technology for all digital aerial survey projects ever since.
Our customers rely upon RIEGL systems to work. In a highly demanding industry, reliability can often be hard to come by but RIEGL provides that reliability consistently.
After recognizing that no companies in New Mexico were acquiring digital aerial imagery, Blue Skies Consulting purchased an UltraCamLp photogrammetric camera from Microsoft. Now, Blue Skies is the premier provider of digital aerial photography in the region and can cost-effectively deliver superior digital images to its customers in a matter of days—without making investments in new flight systems and camera mounts.
Founded in 1999, Getmapping pioneered the concept of nationwide coverage of aerial photography. Today Getmapping produces its own vertical aerial photography, oblique photography and height data.Getmapping services a wide variety of business sectors including central and local government, utilities, the emergency services, media and publishing, property and construction, transport, communications and the environment across Great Britain and internationally.
Adirondack Park Agency Uses Stereo Analyst for ArcGIS to Protect and Regulate its Wetlands While Reducing Costs
Aerial Mapping Spring 2013: Corporate Profiles