The Secret is Out

By Ashlee Hornbuckle

I have been tasked with keeping a secret over the past few months—which is sometimes difficult for me, as I have trouble remembering what has been told in confidence.  However, Lewis told me a secret so big, I almost blabbed for the mere fact of how utterly exciting it is.  Are you ready for it?

AirGon has developed a direct geopositioning Post-Process Kinematic (PPK) system for the DJI series Inspire 2 and Phantom 4 Pro drones!

Dubbed LOKI, this PPK system is a third generation AirGon design that uses the latest Septentrio GNSS engine, the AsteRx-m2.   The m2 is a triple band GNSS engine, supporting NAVSTAR GPS L1/L2/L5 and GLONASS L1/L2/L3 and sporting 448 hardware channels.  The GeoCue engineers tell me this is the most advanced UAS class receiver on the market today.

LOKI is self-contained and uses an internal battery (charged via a USB port).  It has been designed to survive most crashes and easily can be moved to a new, replacement drone.  LOKI interfaces to the DJI series drones by simply plugging a personality cable into the DJI drone SD card slot, making it a user installable “plug and play” system.  We use a patent-pending set of hardware and firmware algorithms to figure out when the camera is triggered.  Should users elect to use a higher end drone with a DSLR camera, the LOKI system can be moved by simply using a DLSR personality cable.

LOKI provides a huge advantage over using drones without RTK/PPK.  Without direct geopositioning, dense ground control is required to achieve the accuracy necessary to calculate differential earth works volumes and to create 2’ (60 cm) or closer contours. This can be extremely time consuming and sometimes a safety issue. In fact, on some sites ground control cannot be placed due to restrictions to site access. However, joined with the BYOD Mapping Kit and a base station, users can expect around ⅛ foot horizontal and ¼ foot vertical accuracies with no ground control placement.

The system is scheduled for release in late July/early August. Please contact us at info@airgon.com for more information on LOKI and the BYOD Mapping Kit.

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What We Do

Since this is our first general distribution newsletter in a few years (see the introduction), I thought it would be a good idea to review a bit of the history of GeoCue Group Inc. and what we do.

 

We formed the company under the name NIIRS10 (that’s another story!) in July of 2003.  Thus this is our 14th birthday!  Prior to forming this company, I was the CEO of Z/I Imaging, a global photogrammetry hardware and software company.  Z/I was acquired by Intergraph in 2002 (the point at which I left the company).  Intergraph was, of course, subsequently acquired by Hexagon, the new home of Z/I Imaging.  Our core group of developers joined me from Z/I and thus have a long and rich history in developing advanced photogrammetric and LIDAR hardware and tools.

The first product set of GeoCue (at that time, NIIRS10) was GeoCue, a set of enterprise workflow management tools aimed at organizations who need to manage professional LIDAR and photogrammetric workflows.  GeoCue was rapidly adopted by most LIDAR production companies (in those years, primarily airborne laser scanning, ALS) in North America where it remains strong to this day.

Most of our LIDAR workflows encompassed the Terrasolid processing toolset.  This caused us to form a close relationship with Terrasolid OY of Finland.  In 2005, Terrasolid asked us to become their North American distributor, providing software, training and maintenance.  This, too, we maintain to this day.

In 2009, we recognized that LIDAR was being exploited, to a small degree, by end users of LIDAR data such as federal, state and local governments.  We quickly entered this business by acquiring QCoherent Software LLC of Colorado Springs, Colorado.  QCoherent was the company that initially developed LP360, an ESRI extension that allowed advanced exploitation of point cloud data directly in an ArcGIS desktop environment.  We quickly internalized this product and developed a robust standalone version for use outside ArcGIS.  Since that time, LP360 has become the standard for LIDAR exploitation (especially QC) in a great many agencies including the USGS, the USACE, the USDA, Forest Service, many water management districts and so forth.  LP360 is the desktop LIDAR tool against which all others are judged.

In 2012, we entered the small unmanned aerial systems (sUAS) or “drone” business with the aim of bringing tools such as LP360 to bear on the point clouds produced by dense image matching.  After a very careful evaluation (from an accuracy and model conformance point of view) we selected Agisoft PhotoScan and Pix4D Mapper as the tools of choice for point cloud generation.  We developed agreements with these two companies and began sales and support of these products.  We also started down the path of adding powerful sUAS mapping tools to LP360, such as volumetric analysis.

In 2014 we began development of a global navigation satellite system (GNSS) post-processed kinematic (PP)K) direct geopositioning system for our high-end drone, the AV-900.  This resulted in the AirGon Sensor Package (ASP), one of the most accurate positioning systems for rotary wing drones. The ASP is based on a Septentrio GNSS engine specifically designed for sUAS operations.  Since we were effectively entering a new market, we decided to launch this through a wholly owned subsidiary, AirGon LLC (www.airgon.com).  We also developed an Amazon Web Services (AWS) drone products hosting site called AirGon Reckon.  Reckon serves as a data repository and information sharing portal for companies with multiple mapping sites (particularly the aggregate mining industry).

In 2015, AirGon began offering limited drone services for companies who were testing the waters of drone-based mapping but did not want to internalize the operations until the workflows and products were proven.  Our aim is not to compete with our customers, of course, but to evangelize this game changing technology.  We were early to receive an FAA 333 exemption and had certified Part 107 Remote Pilots a few days after that new rule went in to effect.  We have now flown over 600 missions with a wide variety of potential drone users from aggregate mining to paper mills.

Since we have been in business, we have always done some amount of bespoke software development when that development advanced our commercial products.  These bespoke activities ranged from funded additions to our core software all the way to custom workflow solutions.  An example is a very high throughput LandSat change detection system developed for MDA Information Systems.  This system is controlled and managed by a GeoCue Distributed Processing System.

In 2015, we entered into an agreement with Teledyne Technologies (specifically Teledyne Brown Engineering) to develop an Amazon Web Services based system to manage and disseminate data from their Multi-User System for Earth Sensing (MUSES), a multi-sensor host platform mounted on the International Space Station.  This development, the Earth Sensor Portal (ESP), is being offered as a commercial hosting platform for data from satellite imagery to LIDAR data.

We saw a resurgence of interest in mobile laser scanning (MLS) in late 2016/early 2017.  Our MLS software suite had a bit of a hole in that we did not have a package specifically aimed at asset collection from MLS data.  We have been aware of the Orbit offerings from Orbit GT of Belgium for some time.  Earlier this year, we re-evaluated their offering and signed on as their North American distributor.

 

So this brings us to the present!  We now focus on several business areas:

LIDAR – Both Production and exploitation.  Our portfolio includes:

  • The GeoCue product family for workflow management from production to QC.
  • The Terrasolid family of products for industrial strength geometric correction and processing of both ALS and MLS data.
  • LP360 for high performance data editing, QC and specialized functions such as hydro modeling on the product side and a rich exploitation environment (in ESRI and standalone) on the LIDAR consumer side.
  • Orbit GT for feature extraction from MLS data.
  • LIDAR Server for local data management/distribution.
  • Earth Sensor Portal for enterprise data hosting and dissemination.

sUAS (Small Unmanned Aerial Systems) – Data collection, processing and management.  These offerings are via our AirGon subsidiary.  The main thing to remember about AirGon is that we can bootstrap you into the drone mapping business and we can do it in a very cost effective yet completely professional manner.  Our offerings include:

  • Agisoft PhotoScan, Pix4D Mapper – software for generating point clouds and orthomosaics from drone collected imagery.  We offer the software, support and training.
  • LP360 (sUAS licensing level) – The same LP360 as used for LIDAR.  We offer it at a lower price point for small area mapping, such as with drones.  LP360 provides the full workflow from point cloud ingest (point clouds from imagery and LIDAR) to derived product output.  This is really the most powerful tool kit on the market for processing drone data where the desired outputs are high accuracy mapping products.
  • Bring Your Own Drone (BYOD) Mapping Kit – this is a kit of PhotoScan, LP360, a Reckon subscription and comprehensive training that enables data production from any drone.  It has a special emphasis on mapping using low cost DJI drones such as the Inspire 2 or the Phantom 4 Pro.  The BYOD plus a DJI is a great starting point for entering the drone mapping business and we train you in how to be successful.
  • AirGon Reckon – our AWS-hosted data dissemination system for drone data.  This is a great tool for service providers who want to deliver data in a professional, cloud hosted manner to their customers.  Service provider partners can actually use Reckon as a revenue generator for their business.
  • LOKI – This is the most exciting product we have developed in the hardware arena in some time.  It allows you to add PPK direct geopositioning to a Phantom 4 Pro, an Inspire 2 or any drone with a camera equipped with a flash hot shoe.  There is a separate article in this newsletter regarding LOKI.  Add this to a BYOD and you truly will have a professional mapping kit with direct geopositioning using low cost DJI drones!  This is a financial game changer.

ESP (Earth Sensor Portal) – ESP is an Amazon Web Services hosted platform for LIDAR, Imagery and related products.  It is a great dissemination platform for agencies who acquire data such as LIDAR and need it securely backed up and made available to stakeholders (including the public) via a web facing portal.  ESP includes the idea of workflow so agencies can have us integrate in, for example, a QC workflow, allowing their collection contractors to post data directly to their ESP portal.   This is a subscription model that offloads all need for server technology as well as concerns of your own firewall being maliciously penetrated via your data portal.  This is exciting stuff!!

Bespoke Solutions – GeoCue continues to offer custom development when it adds value to our strategic product portfolio.  For example, if you need a niche tool added to LP360, consider discussing a bespoke addition with us. It will show up in the standard code base, maintained as part of the global product.  This prevents you from getting stuck in the situation of having to contract specifically for updates.  On the larger side of the equation, we have developed very large projects for various clients, primarily around LIDAR/imagery data processing, management and dissemination.

 

As you can see, we have a complete product set for several different imagery/LIDAR related production and exploitation scenarios.  We are very happy to entertain your inquiries ranging from simple product questions to those difficult things you encounter in your workflows.  So please keep us in mind when you are thinking of adding a workflow or improving the ones you have.

 

Terrasolid: The Workhorse is Still a Valuable Tool in LIDAR Production Shops

As the North American reseller for Terrasolid’s software suite, we get to work with the majority of the LIDAR production shops in the US and Canada.  The Terrasolid suite – TerraScan, TerraModeler, TerraMatch and TerraPhoto – continues to be common-place on the production floor regardless of the type: airborne, mobile or terrestrial.  And increasingly we see UAV operators deploying Terrasolid to assist with their own point cloud workflows, whether LIDAR or imagery based.  The focus of the industry is often on the what is new and different and exciting, on the “latest and greatest” so this week we thought we’d step back from the hype and hoopla and check-in with a long-time user of Terrasolid to see how this old workhorse of the LIDAR production shop is doing these days.

We spoke with Amar Nayegandhi, Vice President of Geospatial Technology Services at Dewberry.  Dewberry has been using LIDAR commercially since 1998 – yes, 1998; Dewberry received the first LIDAR task order from the USGS under the Cartographic Services Contract (CSC) – and is well-known and well-respected in the industry.  GeoCue Group sold our first seat of GeoCue and Terrasolid software to Dewberry more than 10 years ago back in 2007.  Dewberry is also a major user of our LP360 software along with many other commercial software tools that are available on the market; basically, they know their stuff when it comes to LIDAR software.

What is the biggest benefit you get from using Terrasolid in your business?

One of the biggest benefits of Terrasolid software is we can integrate the entire LIDAR workflow into our MicroStation CAD environment.  Our geospatial and engineering professionals have a very good understanding of the CAD environment, which enables us to perform point cloud processing (TerraScan), surface modeling (TerraModeler), and sensor calibration (TerraMatch) directly in the CAD environment.

Of the four modules, TerraScan is the primary point cloud analysis tool; where do you see it helping you the most?

When we first started working with LIDAR data, just being able to load millions of points into our CAD software was a challenge that TerraScan solved for us.  Now data sets are in the billions of points and expectations of basic point cloud functionality has evolved with the times.  Still, the core functions we use TerraScan for haven’t changed much over the years – our biggest benefit is the automatic bare earth filtering using our proprietary macros developed through years of experience in processing LIDAR data in various environments. Some of the newer tools in TerraScan like Groups for spatial object classification or newer surface classifications for pulling ground from noisy UAV data are really helping as well.  Project and data management tools are also big time-savers we often take for granted.

After TerraScan, what module do you find the most critical for your production?

Probably TerraMatch.  Sensor manufacturers have come a long way in having calibration and geometric correction built right into their pre-processing software, but TerraMatch gives us the ability to independently verify and correct the fit of the data.  We often use TerraMatch to calibrate data in a project area that include multiple “lifts” because sensor-manufacturer software does not always produce the best fit over lifts that have variable GPS/IMU trajectory solutions. It is also vital for working with older data sets or subcontractor-provided data where we may have no visibility into the calibration processor – TerraMatch gives us an independent verification of goodness of fit.  For mobile LIDAR data, with the GPS outage concerns and other aspects particular to driving around in a car as opposed to flying over in an aircraft, having a set of tools like TerraMatch for calibrating the laser scanners and the cameras is absolutely mandatory.

Dewberry is a major LIDAR production shop in the US, certainly one of the biggest.  That is a lot of staff and over the years, staff turnover is inevitable.  How do you find the learning curve for Terrasolid for new users?

Well, like most engineering software, there are many, many buttons to learn and concepts to get straight in your head.  We are processing more than 100,000 sq miles of LIDAR data this season, and though we don’t see a lot of turnover in staff, our staff has almost doubled in the past two years due to increased workload. So, we do face this issue of training our new staff, not just in Terrasolid, but also in understanding our entire production workflow. We have noticed that most new users come up-to-speed pretty quickly as we have them undergo an intensive one to two weeks of training and practice immediately after they are hired.  It’s a huge plus if the new hires are already comfortable with the MicroStation environment.  I would say a new user is productively working unsupervised after 30 days.  They won’t be using the power tools or doing the complex workflows such as developing macros, but they will be productive with the basics like doing a bare earth extraction and editing the point cloud.  And one of the hidden advantages of Terrasolid is that, unlike 10 years ago, you can find many candidates in the employment pool with significant hands-on Terrasolid experience already.

Do see an alternative or any new contenders you might want to incorporate in your production to replace Terrasolid?

Well, we do keep an eye on alternative software, and we do have other tools in our shop, which we use extensively; but for now we see no benefit to changing our workflow where we use Terrasolid.   With our investment in the suite of bare-earth extraction macros developed by our analysts for various types of data densities, sensors, vegetation, above-ground features, and terrain, as well has the new and interesting features added regularly to the Terrasolid suite, we believe that Terrasolid is reliable, robust and just works to do what we need it to do.

What’s the most interesting or unusual feature in Terrasolid you personally haven’t had a chance to use but would like to?

TerraStereo?  Viewing point clouds directly in stereo seems like it might have some interesting benefits.