Your Business Model, not Ours!!

We have invested a tremendous amount of resources (monetary, development, knowledge) into developing technology and services for mapping sites using dense image matching collected with small Unnamed Aerial Systems (sUAS). Our focus is applications suitable for an sUAS (non-populated areas, smaller sites) that require near survey grade accuracy. The most common example is small open pit mine sites such as quarries. We have not considered agricultural applications since these tend to be very large areas where radiometric analysis is the focus rather than geometric correctness.

Like most other companies involved in this emerging market, we are trying to predict the most palatable business model. However, I would say that unlike many other technology providers, we are seeking the business model that makes the most sense for the customers, not for us.

AirGon LLC has a very big advantage over companies funded by venture capitalists. We are funded both by GeoCue and by investments from our small group of inside shareholders. This allows us to focus on a long-term vision of the market. We plan to become the “go to” company for sUAS mapping, much as GeoCue has become the “go to” company for airborne and mobile laser scanning.

One of the big questions that Venture Capitalists have in funding a startup is that of scale. If the venture will not scale up to a sufficient size to provide a comfortable multiple on the initial investment, the venture is not considered financially viable. In the sUAS business, it is hard to devise a model that will scale that does not require significant involvement on the part of the customer. The most popular model is a leased plan where the customer flies the drone and uploads the image data to a cloud-hosted system provided by the vendor. In some of these models, the customer may even do the data extraction such as defining the base of a volumetric stockpile.

These “self-service” business models proliferate in the rollout of new technologies that are generally called “Web 2.0” (or are we Web 3.0?). You now see it with everything from reservation booking systems to the Uber taxi concept (in the Uber case, the job of “dispatch” has been handed over to the customer). Even grocery stores have gotten on this bandwagon with self-service checkout kiosks.

We certainly believe that self-service will play a major role in the emerging sUAS mapping business. However, at the current time one size does not fit all. This is particularly true in light of the draconian FAA regulations that currently exist for commercial sUAS operations. A mine site leasing a “fly-it-yourself” drone would require an FAA 333 exemption as well as an FAA licensed pilot. This is a fairly significant barrier to adoption of the technology. In addition to the legal hurdles, many customers want to nibble into this new approach to mapping rather than wolf it down in one gulp.

We launched our CONTINUUM program as a way to address these customer needs. CONTINUUM allows a customer to pick from a menu of hardware, software and services that best suit her needs. A few customers want to buy a mapping kit and do it all themselves. For this customer we offer the AV-900 Metric Mapping Kit (in both base and RTK versions). Other customers want to fly their own equipment but have the data processed as a service. Still others want to have us provide full services where our Field Service Analyst shows up at their site and performs the complete job. Under CONTINUUM, we can provide what the customer wants, not what we think might be the best business model for us.

One of the real values behind CONTINUUM (and the reason for the name) is that most customers do not know what they will want to do as a final business model. They would like to be in an environment where they can experiment a bit. This is exactly what we provide through the CONTINUUM program. A customer can modify the business model from one of AirGon doing everything to they, themselves,  internalizing the entire process or any mix in-between, all without the need to change vendors.

I am not sure what will be a profitable business model for AirGon. We are still very heavily in the Research and Development mode. However, one thing I do know for sure – the successful business model will be the one that is deemed successful by the end-use customer. We intend to be the provider of that ultimate solution!

 

 

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Top Ten Considerations for Selecting a Drone Mapping Services Vendor

You realize that significant benefits would be realized by transitioning mine site mapping/volumetrics to drones (more properly, small Unmanned Aerial Systems, sUAS). You have decided, at least for the immediate future, to use an outside service provider rather than internalize the process.

Since you have, at least for the present, decided to outsource drone-collected mapping and volumetrics, the task now is to select a qualified company to perform these services. A checklist for evaluating a potential service provide should include these questions:

  • Is the vendor authorized to fly by the appropriate regulatory body (e.g. in the USA, the Federal Aviation Administration requires a Section 333 exemption permitting commercial drone flights)?Drone Picture
  • Does the vendor have sUAS aircraft liability insurance?
  • Are the rights to the collected data clearly spelled out?
  • Do you feel confident that the vendor’s methodology for rigorous network/local accuracy (surveying accuracy) will meet your requirements? For example, a 4 inch vertical error in a borrow pit computation amounts to about 538 cubic yards of volumetric error per acre!
  • For projects that require Network Accuracy (anytime you intend to extract information such as elevation models, contours or are performing time series analysis, you will need Network Accuracy), can your service provider tie their results to a reference network that can be independently verified?
  • Does the vendor have a plan for incorporating surveyed quality assurance check points that will be captured in the aerial flight?
  • Does the vendor understand how to incorporate design information such as “bottom” lines, reclaim tunnel models, complex a priori stockpile toes and so forth into the modeling process?
  • Does the vendor have a reasonable approach to allowing you to collaborate on resolving project boundaries, stockpile identification, stockpile toe definitions, occluded areas and so forth?
  • Have proposed ground personnel worked on mine sites and have safety awareness? For example, for USA mine site operations, do they have basic MSHA Part 46 training?
  • Can the vendor provide references?

You should engage in a pilot project with your candidate vendor. This will limit your initial investment and give you an opportunity to fully vet the proposed provider before committing to a long term relationship. You will want to have independent test data to validate the vendor’s solution.

An immediate red flag is a potential vendor who will not explain their methods in detail, hiding behind a veil of “well, that is our proprietary method that sets us apart from our competitors.” The plain English translation of this is “I have no clue!”

December 2015

Well, like everyone is saying, I cannot believe that 2015 is drawing to a close.  Where did the year go?  This will be a short note – I have to get some Christmas shopping done!

We finally released LP360 this past week.  Our early postponement was to squeeze new features into the products whereas the later delays were to ensure stability.  We have been using the products in our internal production processes for the past few months.  This has been a great experience in terms of fine tuning features and monitoring stability.

One of the things we have been focused on is production processes.  Of course, repeatable process is what the GeoCue workflow products are all about so this is not a new thing for us.  We have always appreciated that quality is most directly related to rigorously controlled processes, not to the heroics of individual production folks.  Now that we are doing a lot of field work, we are examining ways to improve this aspect of the process.  For example, the field work associated with acquiring mine site data with an sUAS is tricky.  It is not that the individual steps are particularly complicated, it is that there are a lot of steps that must be successfully accomplished in a specific order.  We are currently using a lot of checklists.  This is the minimum required to be successful.  How do we improve this process in harsh environments that often lack connectivity to the outside world?  No clear solutions yet but we are working on it!

We have also been working on simplifying our business structure.  We acquired QCoherent Software LLC (a Colorado-based company) in 2009.  Over time, we have moved all of the company to our headquarters in Huntsville, Alabama.  We are finally absorbing the corporate structure into GeoCue Group.  You will not notice any changes other than communications related to LP360 and LIDAR Server now being from GeoCue Group Inc.

We will soon be releasing Service Pack 4 for the GeoCue product set.  The next major release will be in 2016.  We are working on some simplifications to the product as well as better schemes for archiving products.  I think you will appreciate these changes.

Terrasolid is now offering a true 64 bit version for MicroStation CONNECT (the version of MicroStation that succeeds V8i).  Maintenance customers will have access to this new version of Terrasolid tools.  We do caution however, that this is still in the beta stage and is probably not sufficiently stable or feature complete to introduce into production.   We estimate that this new version will be production ready by the end of Q1 of 2016.

During this past year we have learned an incredible amount about how to design sUAS for mapping as well as the tools and processes needed to create products.  This overall workflow is fundamentally changing small area mapping but it is not easy to achieve accurate and repeatable results.  We now have come to realize that mine site mapping requires control 100% of the time and establishing this in dense image matching workflows is not at all straightforward.  I think this is good news for the professionals out there providing these services.  In the area of metric mapping, you will not be easily displaced by someone buying an inexpensive drone and a point cloud generation software application!

All of us here at GeoCue Group wish you a very relaxing holiday season and the very best of success in 2016!

October 2015

A special thanks to our customers who attended the LP360 software training that we held at our offices in September. As this core group of customers can attest, a few days invested in training on the latest features and techniques can save weeks of time in production and analysis. I think we all particularly enjoyed the evening social at the Blue Pants Brewery!

Several of us have just returned from a whirlwind three weeks on the road. We attended the American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (ASPRS) unmanned aerial system conference in Reno, Nevada at the end of September. We conducted (along with Dr. Qassim Abdullah of Woolpert) the UAS Workshop on the day prior to the conference. We had over 110 participants so the interest in sUAS mapping is only growing.

We next attended the inaugural Commercial UAV Expo hosted by Diversified Communications (the folks who bring you ILMF and SPAR) in Las Vegas, Nevada.   This show had well over 100 exhibitors and about 2,000 attendees. We presented a paper on some of the practical aspects of stockpile volumetrics (sort of a lessons learned overview). I was pleasantly surprised at the number of potential end users who attended this conference. We were constantly busy at our booth discussing mine site mapping with quarry and stockpile owner/operators.  Hopefully it was a mere coincidence but the booth next to ours was a company selling automatic parachutes for multi-rotors!

Many companies who are using point clouds extracted from camera carrying drones are realizing that workflow tools beyond those supplied within the point cloud extraction software are needed to efficiently extract products. We have been seeing a nice uptake of LP360 for sUAS by this set of production companies. Our 2015.1 release (by the end of October, I promise!) includes a few new tools such as an automatic stockpile toe extractor that really speed up these processes.

We have been very heavily involved in collecting mine site surveys using our AV-900 sUAS platform. These engagements have been very enlightening in terms of informing us of the tools that can really make a difference in this type of work. One thing we have paid particular attention to is the frequency with which we are denied access to site areas for placing survey control. Fortunately we have our initial version of a Real Time Kinematic (RTK) positioning system on the AV-900 (we actually use this in Post-Processed Kinematic mode). This allows us to collect mine site data with no control at all (we usually do place some checkpoints to verify accuracy). We have come to realize that this is not a nicety for mine site surveys but rather a necessity.

On the LIDAR front, the USGS 3DEP program continues to gain momentum with a number of new projects underway. An interesting aspect of 3DEP is that the deliveries are required to be compliant with the ASPRS LAS 1.4 format. Both GeoCue and LP360 have been compliant with LAS 1.4 for some time now and offer workflows to realize these delivery requirements.

As we move well into the fourth calendar quarter of 2015, we are heavily engaged in product planning for 2016. I see a continued uptake in the use of small unmanned aerial systems for local area surveys and hence we will continue our rapid pace of tool development for this market. LIDAR continues to be a major data source for base mapping with ever increasing expectations on data density and accuracy. We intend to keep LP360 at the forefront of technology for processing and deriving value from these data. I see cloud based services as a technology that promises to provide a means of controlling capital expenditures as data densities expand. While data transfer speeds remain a problem (e.g. they are much too slow), we are developing some clever ways to use hybrid deployments to reduce this impact.

Until next time, enjoy some fine fall weather!

Development, Windows 10, and EXP LP360 2015.1

We are entering the hottest and most humid part of the year here in Alabama so, like January, this is a good time to stay indoors and do things like system design!

We do a lot of system engineering and development work here at GeoCue. This ranges anywhere from customizations of our GeoCue workflow tools to new (“green field”) developments. I have noticed that more and more frequently we consider cloud hosted environments such as Microsoft Azure and Amazon Web Services (AWS) as our solution platform. Besides fractional scaling (add more when you need it, remove it when no longer needed and pay for only what you use), we really like the data storage options. Prohibitively expensive just a few years ago, you can now consider archiving all of your production data in the cloud. For example AWS offers its Glacier archival storage for less than $125 per Terabyte per year. There is just no way to do this on premise with the level of assurance of no data loss that you can get with AWS. At any rate, cloud deployed solutions make more and more sense as this paradigm matures. It is rather ironic since when my great granddaddy started in this business he was renting access to a remote time share system. The more things change, the more they stay the same!

I just upgraded my workstation-class laptop to Windows 10. Since I was moving from Windows 8.1, this has been a positive experience. I have not yet had a lot of experience with the various capabilities so the jury remains out on which is better for workstation (no Microsoft, we don’t do image and LIDAR processing on tablet PCs !!) – Windows 7 or Windows 10? There is a detailed story of my installation experience in this newsletter.

If you are an LP360 customer on maintenance (thank you very much!), you may have already installed our 2015.1 EXP release (yes, it finally went out the door!). The purpose of the Experimental release is to provide you with an early look at some of the features we are adding to the official release. Examples in the current EXP release include three new major tools:

  • Live View – A completely redesigned, real time interface for filtering the display
  • A Ground Cleaner Point Cloud Task (PCT) – this new PCT (available at the Standard level) is a tool that allows you to very rapidly clean up areas of ground classification that are incomplete (a common problem in delivered LIDAR data)
  • An Automatic Stockpile Toe Extractor PCT – This is a tool still in beta form. It allows you to automatically create polygons at the base of a stockpile by simply selecting a point on the pile. This tool really speeds up volumetric analysis

If you are not currently on maintenance, contact Ashlee Hornbuckle at ahornbuckle@lp360.com and she can assist you with returning to the program.

We will soon be moving our licensing to a cloud-hosted solution. This will make self-service of common licensing operations possible. We’ll first move LP360 and then look at our other products. This will take a bit since we have to do this development in-house.

OK, enough said! I have to get back to work! Have a great remainder of the summer!

Best Regards,

Lewis

3DEP, LP360 Toolbox and AirGon

I am looking for the month of May – it seems to have disappeared without a trace!

We recently visited with the Tennessee Office of Information Research (OIR) in beautiful Nashville, Tennessee. The OIR is the coordinating state agency for a USGS 3DEP LIDAR (3 acronyms in a row – not quite a record!) acquisition project. Under this program, the state of Tennessee will be flown at Quality Level 2 (2 points per square meter) over a four year period. The initial collection (slated for this fall) will encompass some 11,500 square miles, covering 27 counties.

3DEP is an excellent opportunity for state and local government agencies to pool their financial (and often technical) resources to obtain point cloud data. By spreading the cost across a spectrum of stakeholders, a surprisingly large amount of data collection can be accomplished.

Our discussions with the OIR led naturally to a conversation about how LIDAR data are used in GIS and engineering departments. We covered the usual suspects such as flood plain analysis, basic 3D visualization, site planning and so forth. By the end of the conversation, I was convinced (as usual) that every single state and local government GIS workstation should have access to a current image and current 3D (e.g. LIDAR point cloud in LAS format) backdrops. Why would anyone find it acceptable to be without a cross-sectional view of their municipal data on an ad hoc basis? Mainly because they have never had this level of information available. You never miss what you have never had!

When we returned to the office, we decided to put together, once and for all, a package of material for folks who are either contemplating acquiring LIDAR data or those who have access to LIDAR data. We will develop use cases and return on investment information for the range of applications that make sense for these data. If you have some novel ideas and particularly case studies, please work with us. Obviously we want to sell more software but we believe a rising tide lifts all boats. We need to get the tide (meaning the understanding and effective use of LIDAR data) rising first!

Speaking of software, we hope to have our experimental release (EXP) of LP360 available for download by the end of this month (June). The developers are doing fine. It is me who always throws a wrench in the delivery schedule – “let’s get return selection added to the new Live View dialog before we release…” Speaking of Live View, this is a new dynamic filter in LP360 that lets you change class, return and flag filtering on the fly. You are really going to like this new feature!

While we try to make features in our tools easy to use, the LIDAR tools on the market still tend to be toolbox oriented rather than workflow specific. For this reason, it is very important to participate in training if you hope to realize a maximum return on your investment. We offer a range of training (and consulting) from web based to on-site. In addition, we have our Huntsville-based LP360 training coming up in the fall.

On the AirGon side of things, we have been talking to a lot of potential clients who can make immediate use of small Unmanned Aerial Systems (sUAS) mapping. We offer a complete helicopter-based metric mapping kit in the AV-900 MMK. This is garnering a lot of interest since it provides a turn-key solution of hardware, software and training for doing jobs that have an immediate high return on investment such as stockpile volumetric analysis. However, we also offer just the piece parts for those who wish to assemble their own system. For example, if you have decided on a small wing type sUAS such as the eBee from SenseFly, LP360 for sUAS is still your best option for extracting volumetrics (anyone who has tried to do a multi-pile site using the point cloud generation software shipped with these systems will readily agree!). In addition, AirGon Reckon is the best product in the market for hosting and delivering mine site orthos and volumetric reports. By hosting our volumetrics delivery system in Amazon Web Services, we relieve you the need to worry about data delivery to multiple offices, data backup and security.

Summer promises to fly by just as quickly as the spring. We are attending a number of conferences such as the ESRI meeting and the Transportation Research Board AFB-80 summer meeting. If you are attending one of these, please look us up. See you in July!

Drones, Metric Mapping and RTK

We have been very busy this first third of 2015 with software development (as we always are).  The thing about software is that it is never static.  It is either undergoing new additions or entering the end of life phase.  We have had a very big focus on ensuring that our products are optimized for LAS 1.4 support as this is the new requirement of the USGS.  Additionally, we like to use LAS 1.4 in our mine site workflows since it supports a few nice capabilities that were not in LAS 1.3.

This is definitely the year of the drone.  Every major geospatial hardware firm has announced a drone system for remote sensing (some for metric mapping).  While the USA is inching along toward some usable drone rules, other countries have clear rules in effect and drone mapping is becoming a standard survey/mapping tool.

We are garnering a very high interest in AirGon’s Metric Mapping Kit (MMK).  This solution provides everything you need to do uncontrolled mapping projects using a small Unmanned Aerial System (sUAS) except a processing laptop computer.  Add in your own surveyed control points to reach survey grade accuracy.

Speaking of the Metric Mapping Kit, we will be hosting a AV-900 MMK workshop in Toronto, Canada on June 11th and 12th.  Thanks to Jim Giordano, we will be presenting live flight demonstrations at VicDom Sand & Gravel as well as an in-depth look at mission planning and post-collection data processing.  Our focus will be on drone-collected volumetrics. Personal protection equipment (steel toed boots, hardhat, safety vest and safety glasses) are required.  Remember that a passport is required for travel between the USA and Canada.  Space is extremely limited so sign up early!

We have been (in a joint project with Applanix, a Trimble Company) researching the use of Post-Processed Kinematic (often erroneously called Real Time Kinematic, RTK) control solutions.  Obviously everyone flying a sUAS for metric mapping purposes would like to dispense with the tedium of deploying ground control.  We will publish the results of our efforts as a white paper when the work is complete.  My goal is a recipe, if you will, of the methods that are appropriate for a given desired accuracy level.

We will be posting an experimental (EXP) release of LP360 (all license levels) within the next few weeks.  Those of you on software maintenance will be able to download this release via the “Check for Updates” option under LP360 Help.  There is a separate article in this newsletter that provides a highlight of the new features.

Till June – Best Regards,

Lewis

GeoCue Group News – May 2015

April 2015

We’ve had a very busy first quarter with many road trips and demonstrations of technology. I continue to remain very excited with respect to small unmanned aerial systems (sUAS or drone) technology. Applied to the right sort of problem, this is a real game changer.

We just attended the SPAR conference in Houston last week. SPAR is a conference with a primary focus on tripod (static) laser scanning and secondary foci on mobile laser scanning and an emerging section on sUAS technologies. The conference was attended by perhaps 1,000 folks. We were exhibiting as AirGon in the UAS section of the exhibit hall. If you are involved in building information management (BIM), this is a must-attend conference.

I made an interesting observation regarding the emergence of sUAS technology for mine site mapping.  It reminds me a lot of the years when tripod laser scanning was emerging and replacing total station surveys in brown field as-built documentation projects. sUAS mapping is the logical choice for volumetric mapping at mine sites. While it has some disadvantages, its pluses put it ahead of any other technique for this sort of application. For the first time, I encountered service providers who are using other approaches to solve this problem. Many of those who are using tripod scanning for volumetrics feel threatened by this newly emerging technology. Who can blame them? If I had just invested 80K in a laser scanner for volumetrics and then observed a technology much more suited to the task, I would be defensive as well! Thus I am seeing end-users (e.g. mine owners) as the parties most embracing of sUAS mapping with service providers being drug into the space by their customers. This is, ironically, not unlike the situation when tripod laser scanning was emerging. Service providers had big investments in total stations and had no burning desire to have to invest in a new technology.

We are changing our newsletter a bit with this issue. We will now be hosting information such as our tool tips and how-to articles in our new GeoCue Group knowledge base. We will put a lead-in sentence in this newsletter that will link you to the knowledge base article. This will be a real benefit as time goes on. The Knowledge Base includes a robust search capability and consolidates all of this rich information in one spot. This means that if you need to review our extensive past article on breaklines, you can simply search the knowledge base rather than digging through the newsletter archive. We are gradually moving all of the past technical articles over to the knowledge base.

We continue to focus a lot of our development efforts on LP360. These developments range from ease of use to advanced methods for creating the toes of stockpiles for volumetric analysis. In addition, we have been tuning our display subsystem to increase window refresh times and reduce our memory footprint. Finally, we are adding (to the Standard level) a new point cloud task for cleaning up areas where batch ground classification did not quite do the job.  We will be posting an “Experimental” release of LP360 within the next several weeks that provides initial versions of these features.

Thanks very much for being a GeoCue Group customer or an interested observer! See you in May.

Best Regards,

Lewis

GeoCue Group News – April 2015

The Worst Decision is No Decision

In business, the easiest decision when faced with a multifaceted problem is no decision at all. Unfortunately, it is often the worst decision. The world marches on, not caring about your inability to decide. You are at the winds of fate rather than taking an active hand in shaping your destiny.

I think this is the case with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and small, unmanned aerial systems (sUAS). Hiding behind a front of “air safety” and “complex problem”, the FAA has chosen to make no decision at all. Meanwhile, most of the rest of the world is well into the second generation of integrating sUAS into the commerce infrastructure.

While the FAA says that it is minding safety and will not make a decision until all the i’s are dotted and the t’s crossed, this cannot actually be the true reason for a lack of rules. Within the existing framework of admittedly very fuzzy FAA rules, it is perfectly legal for the farmer’s daughter of age 10 to fly a 40 pound drone over the 1,000 acre farm, collecting as much data along the way as she desires. It is her hobby. However, the FAA says that it is illegal for the farmer herself to fly this same sUAS if the purpose is collecting data to improve yields or any operation that is revenue generating (yet another really fuzzy boundary). Let’s see now; if I am a non-professional doing this simply as a hobby, it is perfectly safe. If I am a professional who has devoted business investment into the effort, it is inherently dangerous. Of course this is an absurdly ridiculous situation and everyone involved in drones is quite aware of the fact that the lack of realistic flying rules for drones is as issue of bureaucratic morass rather than safety. My own opinion is that no one at FAA wants to be the person who signed a paper that might somehow surface in an accident investigation. And, yes indeed, there are and will be many, many sUAS accidents!

I posit that this lack of simple and sane rules from the FAA is actually endangering the airspace. The genie is out of the bottle; on any given day, thousands of sUAS take to the air in the United States in a vacuum of simple safety guidelines. It is a lawless environment with participants ranging from those very aware of safety rules (think surveyors doing volumetric data collection over coal mines in West Virginia) to kids flying high end multirotors over crowded sidewalks (oddly, one can make a pretty sound argument that the surveyor is the person on the wrong side of the law!).

The recent FAA exemption for six companies doing aerial videography gives us a preview of what may be coming. Rather than a very simple set of rules focused on safety, the operating regulations for these guys reads like the ground prep for a moon shot. Now admittedly, the folks applying for the waivers threw everything including the kitchen sink into their request for waiver but the FAA, rather than crossing off many of the proposed items for the sake of simplification, said instead “this looks sort of good but we need to add this big list of additional requirements…..”

What we need are some very simple rules that will set the guidelines for folks who are going to fly drones, regardless of the regulatory environment. Why not ask them to abide by some very straightforward guidance that will help ensure the safety of persons on the ground. After all, the real safety threat from sUAS flying close to the ground (say 130 meters and below) is the drone falling from the sky and hitting someone on the head. This is the approach that has been taken by many leading aviation nations such as Canada and the United Kingdom. No onerous, irrelevant requirements for manned aircraft private pilots licensure and FAA airframe certification but simple rules that aim at keeping altitudes such that threats to manned aircraft are avoided and a big focus on protection of persons who might be below the aircraft.

Oh well, I think I wish for too much. In our current political environment, common sense is in very short supply!