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.)