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Conferences and Drones: What Else?

April 28, 2015  - By
Great view of the Pentagon while departing from the U.S. Hydro conference held in Washington, D.C.

Great view of the Pentagon while departing from the U.S. Hydro conference held in Washington, D.C.

I’ve attended five conferences in the past couple of months; Esri Water Conference (first one!), Esri Partner Conference, US Hydro 2015, APSG (Association of Petroleum Surveying & Geomatics) and the Esri Petroleum User Group (PUG) conference. It may look Esri-heavy, but the fact is that Esri is doing a really good job of organizing vertical market GIS conferences, and people are showing up. Even with crude oil prices in the cellar (relatively speaking), 1,200 people still showed up at the PUG.

There were a lot of good presentations at these conferences, and I’ll post links to some of them below. Not surprisingly, drones are a major topic of discussion at most GIS conferences. There was even a drone demo (I missed) at the Esri Partner conference showing Esri’s workflow in working with drone-collected data.

If you don’t follow me on Twitter, you might consider it. Twitter is easy and free. When I’m at a conference, I send tweets (most with a photo) in near real-time when I see something of interest. For example, I tweeted when Jack Dangermond showed up at the Esri PUG (he usually doesn’t, but did this year because it was the 25th annual conference) and had something interesting to say (read below). You can sign up for Twitter here, and then choose to follow me at I get that you may be hesitant to invest any time in this, but it looks like Twitter is becoming the standard for near real-time news (as opposed to other social media such as Facebook or LinkedIn.)

Of all the new technology I’ve heard about over the past few months at these conferences, two subjects continue to excite me.

Drone Mapping. Of course, one of them is drone technology for mapping. It seems like I’ve beat this horse to death over the past few months, but it continues to get juicier and juicier. Technology development in this industry is moving really fast. It seems like new drones are being announced as frequently as new smartphones, maybe more so.

Other ancillary technologies are being developed to support commercial drone operations. For example, in my hometown (Portland, Ore.), a company called Skyward just raised $4+ million in venture capital funding to provide “professional services for UAV operations.” Essentially, the company’s software helps drone operators stay within FAA regulatory compliance.

Last year, the Oregon Unmanned Systems Business Enterprise was formed “with a two-year $882,000 state grant from the Oregon Business Development Department and the Oregon Innovation Council and will be working to match the government money with private investment and other grants.” The organization will award grants up to $75,000. The point is, the money is flowing and it’s a wide-open market.

The drone market is so wide open, in fact, that most drone companies are just buying common airframes and associated parts, putting their brand name on them, and selling them. Perhaps oversimplified, but the point is there’s not much “special sauce” (technology) being added. The manufacturers that aren’t innovating and adding valuable “special sauce” will eventually disappear. Essentially, following are the parts needed for a fixed-wing drone for mapping:

Aircraft components:

  • Airframe (off the shelf)
  • Motor (off the shelf)
  • Servos (off the shelf)
  • Propeller (off the shelf)
  • Radio (off the shelf)
  • GPS (off the shelf)
  • Autopilot (off the shelf)
  • Batteries (off the shelf)
  • Camera trigger (off the shelf)
  • Camera (off the shelf)

Ground compoments:

  • 900-MHz controller (off the shelf)
  • Battery chargers (off the shelf)
  • Mission planning software (off the shelf)
  • Propeller balancer (off the shelf)

As you can see, all of these components are available off the shelf. You can order each component (maybe all of them from Amazon!), have them shipped to you, and assemble your own UAS for mapping. That said, someone who has gone through the process of building, flying and producing a valuable deliverable that you can make decisions from can add value. But, as competition increases, there’s no doubt that the companies that don’t offer much added value will not be able to operate a sustainable business.

Finally, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is being surprisingly nimble, approving “333 Exemption” requests at record pace and moving towards using a “summary grant” process to issue bulk approvals of 333 Exemption requests for commercial operations.

APSG Meeting

On a related note, at the APSG meeting in Houston earlier this month, Cynthia Lyle from the Lone Star UAS initiative at Texas A&M University made an informative presentation on UAS. Texas A&M is one the six FAA-designated UAS test sites in the US.

UAS presentation from Texas A&M University, one of six FAA-designated UAS test sites.

UAS presentation from Texas A&M University, one of six FAA-designated UAS test sites.

You may want to take a look at some of the other presentations at the APSG meeting. They were very good. Here’s a quick summary of each by Jon Stigant, long-time member of APSG:

Aerial, Mobile and Terrestrial LIDAR – Bob Williams, SAM LLC

This was a primer in LiDAR technology and methodology — while most of the paper is well understood in the survey community, it is and excellent overview. A reminder for some and a way to fill in the gaps for those not so close to this technology.

Integration of UAVs into O&G Operations — Stacey Lyle, BP (presentation forthcoming)

Stacey provided a valuable summary of the direction in which the FAA is going to regulate the emerging UAV technology. A “must read” for any company that intends to either provide or use this technology. As with most government regulation there is a lot of detail, the devil is in them. Stacey recommended that the APSG engage by developing some standards for the oil and gas industry.

UAVs 3D Laser Scanning and High-Resolution Imagery — Bringing Reality into the Geospatial Mix — Ron Hughes, SANE

Ron Hughes theme is massive data and managing it — also something of a common theme for all the talks. He focused on automating data processing and recommended a concept of doing this in an automated way with 80 percent of the data. This requires careful procedural development in collaboration with a given client’s business workflows. He gave an example of a large utility company, and how the development of an enterprise metadata server had functional impact for individual business units, but also had the knock on impact of improving inter-functional/inter-community collaboration within the enterprise.

Geiger-Mode LIDAR vs Traditional Linear LiDAR Sensors — Mike Fuller, Harris Corp.

Mike provided input on Geiger mode LiDAR, differentiating Harris’ approach from the more regular LiDAR methodology. The major difference is in data density, data frequency, volume and speed used from higher flying aircraft covering a larger area faster. Providing 10-cm accuracy and expecting 7-cm acuracy development using a/c at 25,000-ft height. Focus on fast processing of immense data volumes (pedabytes) – 24-hour delivery using Harris proprietary processing. Achieve higher density at lower cost.

Common Operating Picture, Video and DATA Integration in GIS — Mark Stevens, Oceaneering

Mark introduced developments in GIS associated with Common Operating Picture (COP), focusing on the combining of video and data in GIS system. DPFOS mnemonic: Data Management, Planning & Analysis, Field Mobility, Operational Awareness, Stakeholder Engagement. A new SIMOPS (SIMultaneous OperationS). The key is a single source of approved data. Examples of data required in COP from specific disciplines are provided — ROVs, shore clean-up, life of field data, asset and material tracking, live/recorded video, RT data and weather integration, “in the field'” vessel implementation.

GIS, Geospatial, Geomatics…Organizational Capability Evolution — Brian Boulmay, BP (presentation forthcoming)

Rethinking Geospatial Data Management at a major operator. One Map program — not physical, one-way provision. Focus on users vs. geospatial specialists. Users business driven, specialists IT and S driven. Geospatial data integrity and analytics – people, processes and technology. ID goals — massive deployment worldwide — has to be automated. Federated system — regions only have to deal with their own regional data, not be overwhelmed by whole enterprise on their doorstep. IT has the role of providing/maintaining a worldwide solution.

GNSS Technology Update — Eric Gakstatter, GPS World, Geospatial Solutions

Update on Spring 2014 APSG meeting — All major networks launching satellites. Very soon will have 30 live in-view satellites (U.S., Russia, Europe and China). RTK coverage in China is the best due to BeiDou, supplemented by both Indian and Japanese systems SBAS. $100 RTK on cell phone giving centimeter accuracy eventually, and changing the commercial dynamic!

LiDAR-Based Terrain Modeling, Analysis and Simulation — Kris Bergland, Blue Marble

Set up for managing and analyzing LiDAR data in Global Mapper. Workflows: terrain modeling, visibility, biomass (change monitoring); asset: inspect and maintain pipelines, as-built modeling, simulation. High-accuracy at relatively low cost, outpacing regulatory management. Much public data available — xyz values — minimum height threshold, dense RGB point cloud (almost photographic).

Improved ROW Inspection and Pilot Safety through Geospatial Technology — Sony Beech, GIS Inc.

Automated dashboard approach, reducing pilot distraction risk, speeding up RT transfer and operational activity reporting.

Esri Conferences

Here are a couple of neat things from the Esri conferences.

First, Jack Dangermond was his usual visionary self at the Esri PUG conference, making his appearance for the 25th annual PUG. He is a master at communicating his GIS vision.

The Evolution of GIS.

The Evolution of GIS.

In speaking about the evolution of GIS, Mr. Dangermond spoke about the far-reaching impact of email and stated that eventually web-based GIS will be deployed organization-wide, just like email. I agree with this vision. I believe the only question is timing. Is it two years from now? Five years from now? 10 years?

Onto the less visionary and more tactical tidbits…

Of particular interest to me is high-precision GNSS in the Esri environment. A lot of people I talk to are screaming for this. What does high-precision GNSS in the Esri environment mean?

  • support for high-precision metadata in ArcGIS Collector (ArcPad already supports this).
  • support for high-precision horizontal (eventually vertical) datum transformations in ArcGIS Collector.

This is important because Esri is supporting ArcGIS Collector across all mobile platforms (Android, iOS and eventually Windows), and people want to use their smartphones and tablets. ArcPad will never run on iOS or Android, so Collector is the GIS collection tool of choice, at least for the Esri environment. It needs to support high-precision GNSS, and by the looks of the following slide, it will. It’s just a matter of timing…

ArcGIS Collector to support high-precision GNSS.

ArcGIS Collector to support high-precision GNSS.

The other potentially neat product Esri announced was Navigator for ArcGIS. Imagine trying to guide a work crew to a buried valve across town (or in the next neighborhood). Displaying a system or region-wide map of valves would not be an efficient way of driving your way across town to find the valve. However, giving a crew turn-by-turn street directions to the street-level, then displaying the valves on that street section, might be a very efficient way of finding the valve.

Navigator for ArcGIS.

Navigator for ArcGIS.

Thanks, and see you next month.

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About the Author: Eric Gakstatter

Eric Gakstatter has been involved in the GPS/GNSS industry for more than 20 years. For 10 years, he held several product management positions in the GPS/GNSS industry, managing the development of several medium- and high-precision GNSS products along with associated data-collection and post-processing software. Since 2000, he's been a power user of GPS/GNSS technology as well as consulted with capital management companies; federal, state and local government agencies; and private companies on the application and/or development of GPS technology. Since 2006, he's been a contributor to GPS World magazine, serving as editor of the monthly Survey Scene newsletter until 2015, and as editor of Geospatial Solutions monthly newsletter for GPS World's sister site Geospatial Solutions, which focuses on GIS and geospatial technologies.

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