The Democratization of Aerial Photography

From earliest times, humans have held a fascination with the “bird’s eye” view from above. Therefore it’s not surprising that, not long after the invention of photography, pioneers began to turn their attention to the aerial view.

The first to successfully accomplish this feat was Gaspar Felix Tournachon or “Nadar” in 1858 when he photographed the houses of the French village of Petit-Becetre from a balloon tethered at a height of 80 meters. In the years that followed, that craft benefited from advancements in aircraft, rocket, camera, and film technology. But even as image resolution and coverage improved, the craft of aerial photography remained specialized and only in the hands of those who knew how to aggregate expensive technology – if you will an oligarchy.

Fast forward to 2014, and here we are in a time when just about anybody can do it. All you need is $1,200 US, and you can buy a small ready-to-fly remote control (RC) drone like this one with a high-quality digital camera affixed to it. Turn it on, put it into the air and, viola!, you’re an aerial photographer.

This radical development came from the convergence of two technological advancements:

  1. smaller lightweight higher resolution consumer cameras, and
  2. more reliable and durable multirotor RC helicopters.

I call this convergence the democratization of aerial photography, and in this post I discuss the advancements and implications.

Consumerization of professional cameras.  For years people associated certain types of cameras with professional photographers. For the most part professional cameras were something outside the reach of consumers, and too complex for them to want to use anyway. For example, the Nikon F4 35mm single-lens reflex film camera apparently looked butch enough to other people that they assumed its users were being paid to use it professionally. I know, I had one. And in the digital age the same is true. Most DSLR cameras look exactly like their older film counterparts – even though they don’t always need to from a technical standpoint. Notwithstanding, lens and camera specifications do matter. A better image sensor and a better lens means a better picture.

Still, despite form factor differences between professional cameras and consumer cameras, they have become homogenized in many ways. Consumer cameras are lightweight and compact. You get a camera and lens in one unit that allows you to “point-and-shoot”.  Problem is these cameras now produce the same great images as larger ones do – as does this one. And for professionals not only has the price of DSLRs come down into consumer range, but the addition of automatic scene modes and programming capability has effectively transformed the DSLR into a high-quality point-and-shoot device (with more advanced modes still available if you want to use them).

Enter the GoPro and the culture of ‘Good-Enough’.  While professional-grade cameras are without question exceptional, some point-and-shoot cameras now produce images suitable for professionals. Take for example the GoPro HERO camera. It started out as a consumer camera. But in only a matter of five years it has become the staple of professional camera crews around the world. From NASCAR racing to Felix Baumgartner’s incredible space jump, the wide-angle, first-person view offered by a GoPro has become a popular filming technique. Consumers love the camera too. They are lightweight and easy to use. You simply turn it on, press record, and out comes great high-definition imagery.

At first, professional photographers bristled at GoPro images. Who wants to see a video or a still shot with a lot of wide-angle distortion?  After all, the profession’s most cherished value-added service is to remove those anomalies so the customer gets clean, realistic looking imagery. But who cares anymore? It seems consumers don’t. Apparently, we are all anesthetized by the distortion defect (our eyes don’t see real life that way) as witnessed by the 15.4 million GoPro videos on YouTube. So, it is in once sense odd, but it must be acceptable.

Apply this same sensibility to photographs, and you can see where we have another problem. With the huge growth in smartphone-captured photos, we have adjusted to seeing (mostly) lower quality pictures rather than studio-quality images. Have we gotten so used to these images and their flaws that we now cannot see beyond that? And if my new phone comes with a near professional grade camera, why do I need a professional to take photographs – especially if all I do is upload them to Instagram and share them with the world? (Heck – even professionals do that.)

It may be that we are now the culture of ‘Good Enough’ and have numbed ourselves such that we no longer recognize or appreciate the value of a good-quality image. I suspect this regression applies to aerials shots as well, as witnessed by the growth in popularity of  Dronestragram.

Democratization of drones. A few years ago, remote-control multirotor helicopters were only the purview of hobbyists and makers – another oligarchy. Almost all drones come from a model aircraft background (for that matter ALL of aviation did) – and, because they were model aircraft, newbie’s wanting to join the drone revolution were required to climb a steep learning curve. Back then (only four years ago!) you had to become an expert on multiple topics – like electronics, hardware, assembly, remote control radio, flight control programming – to build and fly a drone. As the revolution began to take hold, specialized on-line global forums like RC Groups and DIY Drones flourished and droning went viral as the community cross-breed innovations.

In some ways droning was – and still may be – the Wild West.  Here’s what Bart, founder of MultiRotorForums, says in his welcome to the forum post:

“I’m writing to tell you, for all the great success you may see going on around you, multi-rotor helicopters don’t assemble themselves and there are a lot of challenges that come up well after you click the first two parts together. Before you buy, before you send [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][sic] a dime, keep in mind that these things don’t assemble themselves. Even an RTF (Ready to Fly) will become a do-it-yourself project the second you crash…”

You can read for yourself the crash and fly-away war stories on any of these forums and appreciate his words. Still, if you spend a lot of money for a drone or drone kit, it shouldn’t be money lost. The manufacturers get this. In the past four years there have been significant advancements made by companies like  DJI and 3DRobotics to improve product reliability and lower the overall learning curve such that savvy consumers can now use them. As I write here, RTFs with automated flight planning software are becoming commonplace. Nonetheless, as Bart goes on to say “…there is still a fair amount of good decision making to be done in the process of making any of them fly.”

When camera meets drone. Take a look at this latest promotional video from DJI to see what I mean when I say we are now in the age of the democratization of aerial photography. As the video alludes, taking to the sky and doing aerial photography is as simple as a motorcycle ride down a country road, It’s “fly-and-shoot” (it isn’t, but you get the point). Ready-to-fly drones like the Phantom 2 Vision and 3DR IRIS have made it possible for consumers to conduct low-altitude aerial photography at low cost. And the quality is so good that professionals like Philip Bloom use them. Even Adobe has gotten into the act. They have a Creative Cloud instructional workflow specifically for drone / GoPro users. Notwithstanding local governance on commercial use, what more do you need? The drone is cheap. The camera is cheap. The correction software is cheap.

Now I am not recommending these products, but I share all this to make a point. Advances in drones – especially multirotors – have made them the platform of choice for aerial photography. Their ubiquity has lowered the barrier-to-entry for aerial work like real-estate advertising, where a bird’s-eye view of commercial or residential properties is valued.  And so, the question now becomes: why do you need a professional when you can do it yourself?

Feel free to comment with your answer and thoughts.

Image Credit:  Wikimedia Commons – Brooklyn Museum[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]

Drones Revolution Means Big Data Cloud Services

I love drones. No, not the big high-altitude ones like the Predator Drone, I mean the smaller low-altitude ones like Aeryon, Flexrotor, Phantom, and PrecisionHawk, that do everything from 3D mapping, to cinematography, to forensic inspections, to precision agriculture. I love making, programming, and piloting small unmanned aerial vehicles (sUAVs), and over the past several years I have made it an avocation to understand the impact this innovative technology will have on the future of business.

In this blog I discuss what I believe is the largest impact: big data cloud-based services.

Hardware is already a commodity. Today, much of the buzz about small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) is focused on the technology itself —  their components, their payload capacity, how fast they fly, how long they stay up, the latest camera, etc.  But honestly, those are quickly becoming non-differentiated product features. What is considered an innovation today– such as a stabilization gyro or avionic CPU – gets quickly mass-produced in Taiwan, China, or Mexico tomorrow. Airframe materials are generally the same—made of tried and true materials like light-weight shapeable foam and carbon fiber. For the buyer, it’s more a question of how much you’re willing to spend — like with a bicycle or laptop.

Software isn’t the differentiator either. For all drones, the interaction between the user and the aircraft is mediated by software. True, the quality of the pilot experience can be driven by the features and the quality of implementation, but this, too, is quickly becoming commoditized. For example, consumer-level vendors like 3DRobitics, DJI, and MikroKopter have software running at “ground level” for mission planning. The basic feature set includes: setting altitude, waypoints, speed, camera angles, and capture points. All vendors import Google Earth to help with that, and what once was done on a notebook PC and ‘uploaded’ to the aircraft prior to mission start is now performed on a tablet in real-time. Surely in the months ahead, usability will increase as planning software begins to import 3D models and perform pre-flight simulations, but that too will be a common feature across vendors. FAA regulations and public sentiment aside, we could, in fact, see Jeff Bezos’ vision of ‘Amazon Prime Air’ drone delivery technically feasible soon enough.

The greater value is in the data captured. Because small drones can fly at low-altitude, they make perfect precision image and data capture vehicles. Right now, it’s more efficient to fly an inexpensive drone over a large land area than it is to traverse it in a vehicle — and even more efficient than sending out an expensive multi-person surveying team. Keep in mind a digital photograph or video is not simply an image or composite of images. Rather, it is the result of processing visual light (blue, green, and red) as a binary numeric representation of a two-dimensional image—in other words, light becomes digital data. As cameras become more resolute, the amount of data captured goes up — as does the potential value of those images. But prices are coming down. For example, what once was available a few years ago only from a high-value satellite image service provider now comes from a drone affixed with a consumer level camera and off-the-shelf PC software. The software can automatically build textured 3D models from still images. And then there’s infrared cameras. They are now small enough, light enough, and cheap enough to mount on a drone. Infrared cameras don’t just let you see differences in heat; they let you measure those differences. So, there’s even more valuable data to evaluate.

Big farms mean big data. Dr. Kevin Price of Kansas State University says that about 80% of the money that will be spent on unmanned aerial vehicles in the next 10  years will be spent in the area of agriculture. He and others predict this will be a $100 billion industry by the year 2025.  While we dont agree with those numbers, we do see many agriculture applications for drones currently in development include data collection on crop health, vigor and yields; tracking the spread of invasive plant species; and monitoring cattle feedlots. Field images from cameras mounted on drones can be captured within an inch of accuracy. You can’t get that from a satellite or commercial aircraft image. Small drones are agile enough to provide ‘anywhere, anytime’ remote access. That means farmers and ranchers can do daily surveys to find exactly the right time to harvest or replenish feed stock. Similarly, changes over time can be equally revealing. By doing regular surveys and using software to highlight differences over time, it’s possible to zero in on anomalies. This valuable information, of course, can be used to improve productivity.

Cloud-based services are the future. You can buy a decent image-capture drone off the shelf for about $1200 US, but that doesn’t make you an image information specialist. The first thing you need to realize is that flying a drone and taking pictures is merely the first step in the data collection process. Images need to be corrected, calibrated, processed, stored, and evaluated. For precision agriculture and mapping, data quality and post-processing are critical to getting real value from the images. And helping the customer attain that value is the role of a data services provider. Already PrecisionHawk offers a service they call PrecisionMapper (now called DataMapper), “a cloud-based application that gives anyone the ability to upload, store, process, and share their aerial image data.”

By gathering data on a large scale over time, service providers will be able to process unprecedented levels of detail data and turn it into usable information for farmers. This vision is confirmed in a recent article where PrecisionHawk’s president Ernest Earon says ” the company views itself as a data company, rather than a drone company. He envisions an “app store” model that would allow, say, somebody in North Dakota with a top-notch algorithm for detecting potato blight, to license it to other farmers.”

There you have it. This is the future of small drones and I suspect as their use and applications increase small and medium business (SMB) niche service providers will flourish.  And as they flourish these firms will differentiate themselves based on processing speed and the salience of their insights. Certainly the use of a cloud-based in-memory computing platform to accelerate analytics, processes, and predictive capabilities will be foundational to that differentiation.

Feel free to leave a comment telling me about your interest in this innovation.

Image credit: Shutterstock

This post also appears on SAP Business Innovation

The Yellow Brick Road of FAA Drone Regulations

This post provides a few helpful links to get you started on the journey of understanding Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations for UAS.  Come back later and look for updates.

There are three basic categories of UAS operations as defined by the FAA – LINK

  1. Public. This includes public entities such as federal and local governments, police departments, universities, etc. Public entities must obtain a Certificates of Waiver or Authorization (COA) from the FAA for approval to operate. This is a lengthy/drawn out process that takes months to materialize.
  2. Civil. This includes commercial and private industry operators. Civilian operators do not have to obtain a Certificate of Authorization or Waiver otherwise known as a COA. They do, however, need approval to operate by obtaining a Special Airworthiness Certificate (SAC) from the FAA. The necessary steps for SAC obtainment are cumbersome. The one step that stands out is the necessary requirement of being a certified pilot regardless of aircraft size or operating altitude. This is a great barrier since the vast majority of people interested in operating UAS are not certified pilots.
  3. Recreation / Sport. Any person operating a model-aircraft UAS for recreation or sport or hobby falls into this category. Hobbyists are to abide by the 1981 document AC 91-57 and fly without certification or approval. The basic standards of AC 91-57 are: operation away from populated areas, maximum flying height of 400 ft above ground level, remain within line-of-sight, vehicle must be less than 55 pounds.

Start your detail journey here:

  • FAA Unmanned Aircraft Q&ALINK
  • Fact Sheet – Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS)LINK
  • Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Certifications and AuthorizationsLINK
  • Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Regulations & PoliciesLINK
  • Busting Myths about the FAA and Unmanned AircraftLINK

Next, get a handle on the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. LINK. See Subtitle B for Unmanned Aircraft Systems.

Then take a look at the Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Comprehensive PlanLINK

The FAA also has a roadmap for integrating drones. Check out the Integration of Civil Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) in the National Airspace System (NAS) Roadmap – LINK

The FAA has issued Restricted Category SACs for two “small” UAS weighing less than 55 pounds that had previous military acceptance of the designs – LINK

There are six UAS test sites for drones – Alaska, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Texas, and Virginia

  • Here is the FAA’s original Press Release – LINK
  • Here is the Fact Sheet – FAA UAS Test Site ProgramLINK
  • Here is the FAQ for UAS Test SitesLINK.

There is a Notice of Intent to Establish the FAA Center of Excellence (COE) for Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) –  LINK

The Department of the Interior (DOI) Office of Aviation Services (OAS) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) have a Memorandum of Agreement (MoA) regarding operation of small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS) in Class G airspace. – LINK

The Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) and FAA signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) is the establishing the platform upon which the AMA and the FAA will jointly work to ensure the continued safe operation of model aircraft in the National Airspace System. – LINK

But wait, there’s more. You need to understand Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) and FAA Advisory Circulars (AC).  FARs are mandatory, but ACs are not.  Abiding by Advisory Circulars is ‘strongly recommended.’  The FAA Advisory Circular that has the biggest impact right now is  AC 91-57.

This FARs link is a good resource to have for all aircraft operators including recreation / sport.  Every pilot should be aware of and comply with Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFR) and Notices to Airmen (NOTAM) that may affect your area of operation. Current TFRs and NOTAMs are available for viewing by using the FAR’s link.

Regarding those flying model aircraft for commercial purposes it should be noted that the recent Pirker case law has implications. As noted here by a former top attorney for the FAA:

..the FAA created its own legal confusion by relying on advisory (as opposed to regulatory) methods for distinguishing model aircraft (which could include the small drone operated by Mr. Pirker) from other aircraft beginning in 1981.  Its attempt to retroactively distinguish model aircraft based on the nature of their operations (commercial vs. non-commercial) is unenforceable as that distinction has only been made via public notices (first starting in 2007) and not by  rulemaking.  Since notices are not rules, they are legally unenforceable.

See this chart of International Airspace Classifications.  Click on image to enlarge.

Airspace Classifications

Congratulations! You have reached the Emerald City!

…well, maybe not yet.  Check back later to keep up the latest regulations.

Making Sense of Drones

What do you think when you hear the word drone or unmanned aerial system (UAS) or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)?

Drones come in all sizes now. Most of you know about the big high altitude Defense related ones like the Predator Drone, but you may not know about the many smaller low altitude ones for Civil and Public use like AeryonDJI PhantomPrecisionHawk, or Flexrotor that do everything from 3D mapping, to cinematography, to precision agriculture, to forensic inspections.

For sake of clarity we follow the taxonomy of Drone Law Journal and use the word “drone” to refer to remote-controlled aircraft.

Why the word drone and not another? Because it’s a one syllable word and immediately understood as something flying without a person on board. The journal says:

“Drones are not only “weapons of war.” Yes, one of their first practical uses was in warfare, but the same may be said of airplanes and helicopters. As was the case with airplanes and helicopters, drones will be used by the military, the public sector, corporations and regular people like you and me. They will be commonplace, useful and profitable. Drones will allow us to do what we have and have not done before— more safely and far less expensively for both pleasure and profit.”