The Truth About Drones in Mapping and Surveying

According to 2015 statistics from the US Department of Labor, there are 44,300 surveyors in the United States. But mapping is practiced by a larger population of cartographers, topographers, photogrammetrists, civil engineers, and geographers – it’s not exclusive to the surveying industry.  The American Society of Civil Engineers lists more than 150,000 members in 177 countries, and the Imaging and Geospatial Society has 7,000 supporters.  All of these disciplines can be grouped under a broader category called geographic information systems (GIS).  GIS professionals provide a wide variety of land-related services like identifying property boundaries, subdividing land, and surveying construction sites for placement of buildings. They also produce topographic and hydrographic maps, volumetric calculations for stockpiles, and flood insurance maps, among other services.

The number of surveyors is actually projected to decline by two percent from 2014 to 2024 because of improved surveying technology.  Even though surveyors are a fraction of the broader population of GIS professionals, how will the improved surveying technology that is affecting them apply to that broader GIS population? And given the downbeat forecast for surveyors compared with the numerous upbeat billion dollar projections of drone use from the FAA and other industry observers, the question becomes, Where do commercial unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) or drones fit into the surveying technology mix?

With those questions in mind we just completed a study titled “The Truth About Drones in Mapping and Surveying,” The report is the fourth in series of studies that look objectively at each major commercial market for drones and drone technology. This report is co-authored by Bill McNeil, Contributor / Advisor, and Colin Snow, CEO and Founder, Skylogic Research, LLC, and it shows how small drones have been used successfully in surveying and mapping thus far and outlines the lessons learned. It goes on to discuss the opportunities and challenges for GIS professionals, reviews competitive and traditional approaches offered by incumbent technology, and discusses what’s next for drones in this sector.  Here is an excerpt:

“Drones are going to have a major impact on the surveying and mapping industry, but perhaps to a lesser degree on traditional surveyors.  As mentioned earlier, the Department of Labor is forecasting a 2% drop in the number of surveyors from 2014 to 2024.  On the other hand, the Labor Department is projecting 29% growth for the photogrammetry category.  This means more and more photogrammetrists will do surveying work and more surveyors will use photogrammetry tools for mapping.  In other words, inexpensive data collected from drones has and will continue to blur the lines between photogrammetry and mapping.

There is another issue at play here.  The process of physically flying a drone is not unique to map making.  The type of data collected is determined by the instrument payload — not by the drone operator.  In other words, it really doesn’t make any difference if the application is precision agriculture or mapping a pipeline, the deliverables are the information extracted and processed by the crop consultant, the photogrammetrist, or the surveyor.

Drone technology is moving extremely fast.  It’s very possible many surveyors would rather hire a service provider to collect data than invest in a tool that can be obsolete is as little as six months.  They may also consider short-term leases to ensure their technology is relatively current or just rent a drone when needed.  Regardless of how small drones fit into the workflow, they will not only affect the industry, but they will also create new opportunities for independent contractors who, based on their experience, may be able to fly and collect data less expensively than surveyors.  The value add is the knowledge and data processing skills of the surveyor and photogrammetrist, not their drone-flying skills.”

You can get the free report here.

If you have questions about what’s in the report or would like to comment on it after reading it, write me

Image courtesy of BZ Media.

Is Esri’s Drone2Map a Game Changer?

Features should appeal to Esri users, but will they appeal to non-Esri users?


In June 2016, Esri released an application called Drone2Map for ArcGIS.  Drone2Map (D2M) takes raw image data from drones and creates digital surface models, orthomosaics, 3D-point clouds and 3D PDFs that can be shared.  Data processed by Drone2Map can also be rendered in Esri’s ArcGIS online web service and integrated into ArcGIS for further processing. The photogrammetry engine in Drone2Map is Pix4D.  Esri licenses D2M as a yearly subscription for $3,500 plus a nominal data storage cost.

Esri’s ArcGIS platform provides maps and a wide variety of analytical tools to governments, business, and utilities.  Applications range from finding the optimal retail store location, to mapping pipelines, to planning public works projects.  In the past, Esri has been rather lethargic in adopting new technology, but to their credit, they have been a forerunner in recognizing the potential of drone-generated data. This new product is proof of that.


If you don’t know Esri, then you don’t know geographic information systems (GIS). ESRI so dominates the GIS industry that the name GIS and Esri are almost synonymous. Esri has been doing business since 1969, has 9,000 employees from 67 countries, 41 offices worldwide, and has annual sales north of $900 million dollars.

More than 350,000 organizations use Esri products, but the number of users is actually much larger because many of these companies have licensed multiple copies of their software.  In other words, Esri’s user base is large enough be a market in itself.  The D2M feature set, combined with ArcGIS integration, should be appealing to current Esri users.

On the downside, Drone2Map only becomes an end-to-end solution when it is used with the ArcGIS platform, making it an additional cost consideration for non-Esri users.  Also, sales of D2M, like other drone data solutions, will be paced by the speed at which drone technology is adopted by enterprises and the data is integrated into the GIS workflow.


Harris Geospatial Solutions and Icaros, Inc. have formed a partnership that enables Harris to sell Icaros’s One Button imaging processing software.  Like Drone2Map, OneButton generates 2D, 3D, and orthorectified images from drone data.  OneButton may not attract Esri customers, but it will be a compelling alternative for those who don’t use Esri tools.

There is an irony in Esri’s offering—Pix4D is both a supplier to and a competitor with Esri.  Irony aside, we see this as a win/win situation for Pix4D because, being part of Drone2Map, they profit from each Drone2Map sale and from sales to non-Esri customers.

There is another twist in the story here. Esri announced last month a beta integration of its ArcGIS software with the very popular DroneDeploy software. But right now, DroneDeploy offers much more to surveyors and mappers than Drone2Map because it offers a simple mobile app for mission planning, data-to-cloud upload, and the same sharable data analysis (digital surface models, orthomosaics, 3D-point clouds, 3D PDFs, etc.) that Drone2Map does. It seems to us a push-button integration to ArcGIS just makes DroneDeploy more valuable.


Drone2Map for ArcGIS is important to Esri because it works on several different levels.  For one, the strong feature set and ArcGIS integration should attract current users. If one half of one percent of Esri’s 350,000 users purchase Drone2Map, Esri will realize a revenue gain of over $6 million.

In addition to generating revenue from their user community, Drone2Map also works as an Esri promotional tool.  Drone companies like 3D Robotics, senseFly, and Drone Deploy all want to promote their solutions as working with Esri products.  This is free publicity and introduces prospects outside of Esri’s user base to the company.

Drone2Map should sell well to the Esri user base but considering the fact that it is not a complete mobile end-to-end solution, Esri will be challenged to successfully find new customers outside their user base.  Also, the commercial drone industry is fast moving and very fluid.  Esri may have a difficult time keeping up.  However, you can never count Esri out.  Once the market settles, Esri will be a formidable competitor.

Image: Esri

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New Report: Drones in Public Safety and First Responder Operations

It may not seem like it, but drones are still in their infancy and only proving themselves through the rigorous testing done privately, commercially, and by state and federal government agencies. Despite the tangible benefits that drones can provide, the public has mixed sentiments about their use by law enforcement, firefighting, and search & rescue operations.

As early as 2012, this AP-NCC poll found a third of the public fears that police using drones for surveillance will erode their privacy.  But negative sentiment is changing.  In 2013, an Institute for Homeland Security Solutions (IHSS) and RTI International survey found 57 percent of the general public supports the use of unmanned aircraft systems for any application. It found:

  • 88 percent of the general public supports drone use in search and rescue operations
  • 67 percent support drone use in homeland security missions
  • 63 percent support drone use in fighting crime

Nevertheless, despite fears by segments of the public and civil rights proponents like EPIC that broad use of drones heralds a domestic “surveillance state,” many more believe unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) provide tremendous benefits and dividends for public safety. This includes everything from traffic accident investigation, to forensics, to fire investigation and damage assessment.

With that in mind we just released our third research report series of studies that looks objectively at each major commercial market for drones and drone technology. This study titled “The Truth about Drones in Public Safety and First Responder Operations,” shows how drones have been used successfully by law enforcement, firefighters, and search & rescue thus far, reviews competitive and traditional approaches using incumbent technology, discusses the opportunities and challenges posed by regulations, outlines the lessons learned, and discusses what’s next for drones in this industry. Here is an excerpt:

“All these use cases are vital public safety matters that civilian market drones are well suited to handle. Cities, towns, and municipalities facing strained budgets and dwindling resources may more easily be able to afford small drones than traditional big ticket first response equipment and personnel. Consequently, drones will give some local governments a bigger bang for their buck.

But would-be adopters need to know that in the U.S., the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) controls the skies and has created regulations (safety standards) governing the operation of aircraft. Thankfully, not all, but still some, of the Federal Aviation Regulations (“FARs”) apply to public aircraft. The FAA allows first responders with an FAA certificate of waiver the ability to create their own safety standards for the pilots, the aircraft, and maintenance. Additionally, first responders can choose to also operate under the newly created and liberal Part 107 small UAS regulations if that benefits their operations more.

In the U.S., it’s reported there are almost 18,000 state and local law enforcement agencies with at least one full-time officer or the equivalent in part-time officers.  That includes over 12,500 local police departments and over 3,000 sheriffs’ offices, and 50 primary state law enforcement agencies. The National Fire Protection Association reports that in 2014, there was an estimated total of 29,980 fire departments, of which 19,915 (about two-third) were staffed only with volunteers.  Smaller law enforcement agencies and volunteer fire departments that have limited finances stand to benefit greatly because the price entry point has decreased for consumer drones (like the one pictured in Figure 3), their capabilities have increased, and the new liberal Part 107 regulations make it easier to legally operate.”

The report details major use cases and discusses the challenges and lessons learned by police and search & rescue teams including the lessons offered by Gene Robinson, head of Unmanned Aircraft Operations for the Wimberley Fire Department, from his work in the aftermath of the 2015 Texas Memorial Day floods.

You can get the free report here.

If you have questions about what’s in the report or would like to comment on it after reading it, write me

Image courtesy of AeroVironment, Inc.

QuickTake: Can Kespry Overcome Its Brand Challenge?

Its enterprise drone is fit for construction, mining, and insurance companies, but the question is whether companies already catering to those audiences and adding drone capabilities will win out over this well-funded newcomer.


In June 2016, drone manufacturer Kespry announced the close of a $16 million Series B equity financing round.  It included investments from DCM Ventures and Lightspeed Venture Partners and follows the company’s initial $10 million Series A round in October 2014. The company has been on a solid march of advancement that includes a partnership with chip manufacturer NVIDIA and — according to investor John Vrionis — has “100 customers, millions in revenue, and several dozen field units in production.”  By Silicon Valley standards, Kespry’s Founder & CEO Paul Doersch is a rising star.  He has successfully assembled an R&D team with expertise in a variety of areas, including computer science, mechanical engineering, aerospace, and electrical engineering with specialties in robotics, computer vision, and data visualization.


It’s impressive that Kespry has been able to acquire so many customers and secure a revenue stream in such a short period of time. Their solution has only been in

It’s impressive that Kespry has been able to acquire so many customers and secure a revenue stream in such a short period of time. Their solution has only been in market about year. Their current focus is on acquiring customers within the aggregates, construction, and inspection industries, which is a shift away from their initial focus on precision agriculture. We think this was a smart move.  We have written about the challenges of the precision agriculture market for years (most recently here) and we also extol the virtues of better opportunities in The Truth about Drones in Construction and Infrastructure Inspection.

Kespry gets what a lot of drone manufactures are only starting to realize, and this that enterprise customers buy full end-to-end solutions — not products.  To that end, you can’t just go out and buy a Kespry drone outright.  The drone is bundled with a cloud solution that provides data processing and reporting with secure online storage. There is no standard remote control device for the drone.  Everything operates via a mobile tablet. This keeps the user interface simple and the customer learning curve short.

The cloud solution is nothing exceptional. It does what most drone and top construction and inspection data services do. For instance, it allows users to measure cut and fill volumes, distances, areas, and perimeters; overlay PDFs and drawings on their maps; make annotations for collaboration; and view contours, elevation maps, 3D models, and more.

However, what’s exceptional has yet to be fully developed. Kespry’s collaboration with NVIDIA centers on the Jetson TX1, a credit-card-sized module machine learning device. Kespry has integrated it on a prototype drone and used it to automatically track and identify construction vehicles in real-time. This video shows that demo. While they are still developing this new capability, there is the possibility Kespry stands poised to do what other drones solution providers have yet to do, which is offer live asset monitoring and logistics optimization.


On the surface Kespry’s quadcopter drone looks like any other.  And even at second glance it’s hard to differentiate its current technology from other vendors that provide drones for the same markets and industries they serve.  Brands like Leica Geosystems, Lockheed-Martin, Riegl, Trimble, and Topcon are much better known among aggregates and construction companies.

Outside of those brands are a host of other start-up drone manufactures that all are vying for the same set of customers.  These include names like 3DR, Altavian, Aerialtronics, Aeryon Labs, Ascending Technologies, Draganfly, MicroDrones, and senseFly – some of whom are building solutions via strategic partnerships like this one between 3DR and well-known brand Autodesk.


Kespry has a two-part challenge, and it must face both at the same time. Its first challenge is to acquire new customers for its existing drone solution in a crowded market.  For the brands well known in the construction, mining, and insurance market (like Trimble and Topcon), this is not that difficult; they can simply start selling drone solutions to their existing customers.  But Kespry is new brand for these customers. The second challenge is to ramp R&D and find applications and markets for their “machine learning” drone solution.  Perhaps their new drone solution could prove to have such a competitive advantage that purchasing departments will be willing to risk a contract on a rising star.

One thing is for sure — investors will want to see a return, and in this Kespry will not be alone. In the coming year, we expect that drone-related companies will walk into prospects that have already been pitched by half a dozen companies. The challenge for all will be how to shift from R&D-based operations into well-branded sales organizations.

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The Truth about Drones in Construction and Inspection

We just released a new research study titled “The Truth about Drones in Construction and Infrastructure Inspection.” The free report is the second in series of studies sponsored by BZ Media that looks objectively at each major commercial market for drones and drone technology.

In the report, we show how drones have been used successfully in construction and infrastructure asset management as aerial image and data capture devices thus far, review competitive and traditional approaches using incumbent technology, discuss the opportunities and challenges posed by the technology itself, outline the lessons learned, and discuss what’s next for drones in this industry. Here is an excerpt:

“Unlike The Truth about Drones in Precision Agriculture, where satellite and manned aircraft image services have been available to growers at low costs for years, construction and inspection professionals have had historically few options.  Up until now, the process for construction planning and documenting was mostly manual and done from the ground — and hiring helicopters or aircraft to take aerial images was either too costly or logistically impossible due to airspace restrictions.  The simple truth is small drones — in particular multirotors — can fly lower and closer than traditional aircraft and capture more useful detailed information.

In the inspection world, unmanned aircraft have a distinct cost and safety advantage over using people on ropes, ladders, scaffolding, and bucket trucks.  For example, a rope-access inspection at a wind farm can involve two or three workers who need at least half a day to get the job done in order to produce a series of photos for a report.  This can cost $1,200-$1,500 every 12-18 months – in addition to the costs incurred from shutting off the turbines for at least half a day (see details here).

There are many other examples of the benefit of drones vs. traditional approaches.  This article points out that the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MDOT) recently completed a study on the benefits of using drones to inspect roads and bridges. MDOT estimated that a standard bridge deck inspection costs $4,600, takes eight hours, a crew of four people and heavy equipment. The same inspection with a drone takes just two people and two hours, at a significantly lower cost.”

The report goes on to summarize the proof-of-concept projects for drones done by hundreds of firms across the globe – not just for construction but also for civil infrastructure and asset management purposes.  We explore the major project types according to a commonly used building lifecycle framework of design, construction, operation, and demolition.

You can get the free report here

If you have questions about what’s in the report or would like to comment on it after reading it, write me

Image credit: BZ Media