Editor’s Desk: Change in the Air for Aerial Lidar and UAS

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Aerial Mapping 2014

By David A. Brown

I have been in the geospatial industry for 35 years, first as a geologist and a geophysicist, and then in the photogrammetric industry, where I have worn many hats. And I’ve seen quite a bit of change.

I’m writing this after attending back-to-back the 2014 winter MAPPS (Management Association for Private Photogrammetric Surveyors) conference and the International LiDAR Mapping Forum. These conferences together indicate the pulse of our industry: perspectives of both the management and the user/vendor community.

There is a lot to be excited about. In the last few years, the market has introduced efficient, larger-format digital cameras and lidar sensors. Processing and viewing software development is making leaps in handling the huge amount of data we are creating. Perhaps surprisingly, innovations are coming from video-game and computer-vision technology. Massive amounts of data can now be streamed to the user from the cloud.

Twenty years ago, lidar was an emerging technology, and at that time I was making DOQQs using 30-meter DEMS. Now we are mapping the entire country with lidar. In those days we measured production by hours/exposure and hours/model. Now the goal is to deliver “next day true orthos.”

As always there is a lot of buzz about unmanned aerial systems (UAS). Miniaturization and battery technology continue to evolve, so lighter and more compact systems are coming. Will UAS replace the traditional manned platforms for all projects? Probably not for all, but for many projects, absolutely. Ironically, while most of the world is working through the implementation of the technology, we in the U.S. are working through policy and privacy issues. I hope that our companies are ready when the skies open up; look to this publisher for future analysis of policy and adoption processes.

One of the common themes discussed at MAPPS is competition from offshore companies, the public sector, and academia. I believe those challenges will never disappear. The best we can hope for is that our customers will understand the entrepreneurial culture that created this industry and will give value a consideration in the selection process. MAPPS members deal with the realties that change is inevitable and that change is not easy.

Another trend is consolidation. In the past few years there have been mergers, acquisitions, and, sadly, closures. I understand the business case: the demand for imagery and elevation data is unprecedented, and a 20-year-old business model is not going to fill that demand. Unfortunately there are casualties; I know several skilled photogrammetrists who have been displaced.

It is ironic that the U.S. photogrammetry industry was founded by many WWII Army Air Corps veterans. Some of the names include Milton Hardin, Mark Hurd, Spencer Gross, and George Walker. The companies they started either no longer exist, or their names have been changed. Hopefully, those names and the companies they pioneered will be remembered for getting this amazing industry started.

~Dave

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