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.

 

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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!

 

 

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!”

sUAS – Where will this business go?

The small Unmanned Aerial Systems (sUAS) business is very appealing. For less than US $20,000, you can outfit a complete system for collecting aerial imagery and processing the data into an array of high quality mapping product.

But who will roll out these new low cost mapping systems?  Will it be the major airborne acquisition companies?  Perhaps, but with a business model predicated on large collects, does this fit?  Will it be the owners of the sites that require mapping such as quarry owners, land developers, coal fired power plants?  Or will it be professional land surveyors who offer sUAS mapping as another tool in their toolbox?

In my mind, the professional surveyor is best equipped to roll out this new business tool.  The PS is already tuned to a business model of travelling to small sites, collecting  data, processing results and consulting with the client.  The sUAS will provide a new tool that will allow the PS to offer a broader range of more accurate services to the client base.  For example, rather that delivering estimated elevation models based on a few RTK points, she can now deliver very dense point cloud derived models based on dense image matching.

Perhaps the most exciting new business opportunity is the rapid collection of accurate volumetric data.  Today this is done either by manned aerial mapping or by ground based techniques.  Ground based techniques are very problematic for many situations since accurate data collection of complex or tall stockpiles is very difficult.  Manned airborne methods work extremely well but are prohibitively expensive for high frequency monitoring (even quarterly monitoring is not practical except for the most valuable of stockpiles).  Enter the sUAS.  A flight of 20 minutes can provide the base data necessary for very detailed volumetric computations over a typical 1 square kilometer area.  In fact, the entire process, from mission planning to client deliverable can be performed in less that one day.

The sUAS is upon.  Enterprising folks will figure out very quickly how to produce professional products at a profit.

(Read the GeoConnexion article describing our experience of putting together an sUAS system.)