Esri’s Survey Summit Showcases UAVs, 3D, the Cloud

July 30, 2012  - By

While the Esri Survey Summit still struggled to find a way to attract attendees, the International User Conference exploded by blowing away last year’s attendance by attracting a record 16,000+ GIS’ers this year in San Diego.

The Survey Summit reeled in only ~250 people this year along with a roomful of exhibitors. That’s not to say the content wasn’t good. On the contrary, the content was very good, as it usually is. However, state/regional conferences seem to be gearing up so it’s difficult to see how a national conference like the Survey Summit can offer enough superior content to entice people to spend a few days and a lot of dollars traveling to San Diego during prime field season.

Further complicating the issue is the fact that ACSM/NSPS is likely not going to participate in next year’s Survey Summit. But, the Survey Summit will survive because Esri will continue to sponsor it, and there’s a select few of us (yes, I’ll likely attend next year) who see the value of networking with the others who are like-minded.

Highlights of the Survey Summit

The opening ceremony featured Esri’s Donny Sosa playing the “Star-Spangled Banner” on an electric guitar.

But Donny wasn’t playing just any electric guitar. It was an Atom 3D “printed” guitar made by 3D Systems. Folks, 3D printing is going to be mind-blowing technology of the future. It will be like everyone having a machine-shop in their home/office. Design a part or a system on your home computer and manufacture it using your 3D printer (or a local 3D printing service).

Aside from the 3D printing entertainment, three subjects stuck in my head from the Survey Summit:

1. UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) for mapping

I think the presenter from Hawkeye UAV said it best. Paraphrasing, he said that UAV commercial operations aren’t a major issue in any country besides the U.S. In the U.S., of course, commercial operations of UAVs are still prohibited. Only universities and government entities that are granted a CoA (Certification of Authorization) from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) are allowed to operate UAVs. The requirement for a CoA isn’t to be taken lightly, either. Last week, the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife was shut down from deploying a mapping UAV because its FAA paperwork wasn’t in order. They were planning to use an inexpensive RiteWind Zephyr II modified by Embry-Riddle University.

If you recall, a bill was passed earlier this year with a provision to integrate UAVs into the U.S. National Airspace System (NAS) by 2015. This is going to be a challenge for the FAA, and you can expect some pretty tight regulations being applied to UAV operations. Imagine paparazzi circling UAVs over Hollywood snapping photos of celebrity sunbathers. Some people speculate that UAV operators will be required to be licensed pilots, even if they aren’t actually flying the UAV (UAVs have pre-programmed paths they follow). The rationale is that UAV operators may need to communicate with Air Traffic Controllers to ensure there is a safe distance from other aircraft.

Although there are UAVs being designed and built specifically for mapping such as Gatewing (recently acquired by Trimble), there are an increasing number of low-cost and do-it-yourself UAVs such as Event 38 and others. In fact, I was speaking with one university researcher who operates UAVs. He said that for navigating one of his UAVs, he actually places a GPS-enabled mobile phone inside the UAV. The mobile phone, with a u-blox GPS chipset, is used to navigate the UAV as well as receive GPS corrections from mobile phone network. The only missing link from him obtaining reeeeally good accuracy was an external antenna (no such luck on a mobile phone), but he said the accuracy was still usable, and very affordable.

GPS World has published several articles lately on UAVs that you may be interested in reading.

March 9, 2012 – Unmanned Aerial Vehicles: The FAA is Taking Them Seriously, Should You?

March 21, 2012 – Unmanned Aircraft Navigation

April 9, 2012 – Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)

May 8, 2012 – Massive GPS Jamming Attack by North Korea

July 25, 2012 – Is It Time for Unmanned Aerial Systems to Get Certified GNSS?

August 1, 2012 – Drone Hack

Although I hear people say they don’t take UAVs seriously, I think it’s a serious technology with a lot of potential. Hawkeye UAV, which I mentioned earlier, says it is as busy as ever performing a lot of stockpile (volume) measurements in mines. That’s just one of many apps for this low-cost, fast, and easy-to-deploy technology.

2. 3D Rendering Technology

I’ve written before about 3D rendering technology; remember this cool Ted video? It’s worth watching.

Last year, Esri acquired a company called Procedural, which is the developer of a product named City Engine. It’s a really neat tool for “building” a city, from scratch if you wish, to help people visualize (in 3D) what a proposed development would look like. I’ve done similar things in the past with Autodesk’s 3D Studio Max, but City Engine seems to be a more quick-and-dirty, GIS-centric tool. Take a look at the following video on how to build a city from scratch into a complete 3D visualization:

3D visualization tools have been progressing slowly over the years, but I think it’s getting to the point that without a lot of expertise, one can generate high-quality 3D visualizations. The trend is clear. If you recall, Trimble acquired Sketchup from Google earlier this year to incorporate a 3D visualization toolset inside its software. Geospatial specialists are getting closer and closer to being able to produce video-game-quality 3D renderings for visualizing everything from land development to regional watersheds and environmental impact areas. It’s a fantastic tool for presenting rich, complex geospatial data to the general public.

3. The Cloud

Ok, cloud-based apps aren’t anything new. In fact, I’m writing this article using a cloud app. Microsoft has had a cloud version of Office apps for years.

It seems Esri has retooled its entire corporate strategy around cloud-based apps and data. It’s not just, Esri’s new cloud app for GIS, or ArcGIS for Android/iOS/Windows Mobile for mobile devices. According to Esri president Jack Dangermond, Esri has spent “tens of millions” on acquiring/licensing content (data) for cloud users. It’s not just vector data either (roads, etc.). In the U.S. subscribers will have access to nationwide 30-cm resolution imagery. In Europe, subscribers will have access to 60-cm resolution imagery, while subscribers in the rest of the world will have access to 1-meter imagery.

The upside of cloud apps is that users can offload the IT overhead part of GIS, which can be frightenly expensive and complex. It also makes GIS apps easier to deploy because there is no client software to install or maintain on users’ computers.

However, cloud GIS is not the solution to every GIS challenge. Even Esri president Jack Dangermond openly stated last week that “You don’t have to buy this, but you should,” referring to But make no mistake about it, he’s clearly pointed the Esri ship to the cloud. My gut tells me that with, Esri will be successful in introducing GIS apps to a much broader audience, seemingly in line with Dangermond’s vision that eventually GIS will evolve from a scientific tool to a tool used by general society.

Courtesy: ESRI

On the subject of bringing GIS tools to to general public, Esri announced Esri Maps for Office, which Esri describes as an analytics tool to “visualize data by creating and sharing interactive maps directly within Microsoft Office.” In other words, make maps based on your Excel (or other Office) data. Take a look at the video below to gain an understanding of what Esri is talking about.

If you’d like to see some brief comments that I tweeted from the Survey Summit on some other interesting items, click here for a quick summary. In next week’s newsletter, look for my summary on the Esri User Conference.

Thanks, and see you next week.

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