Directions Exclusive: CEO Keith Kaplan discusses ‘All Things Drone’

By Bill McNeil

Directions recently caught up with Keith Kaplan, co-founder and CEO of the Tesla Foundation Group, to discuss "all things drone", and posed the question: “Are drones, or sUAVs, really bringing disruptive technology to the GIS industry?”

Kaplan is uniquely qualified to answer this question because he is head of the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Systems Association and is also organizing the 2nd Annual International Drone Expo to be held in Los Angeles on Dec. 11-12. He is working closely with the FAA on regulating the new Wild West of drones, and is actively assisting UAVSA members applying for Section 333 commercial UAV flight exemptions. Kaplan has been featured on NPR, Fox, CBS, ABC and NBC, as well as in stories by Reuters and Los Angeles Times, among others.

What is “disruptive technology”? When Hewlett-Packard introduced the HP-35 calculator in the early 1970's, it ushered in a new era of portable scientific calculating. The effect was far-reaching; it not only terminated production of most slide rule products, it also decimated the entire mechanical calculator industry. That was disruptive technology.

Apple’s iPhone is probably the best, contemporary example of disruptive technology. Not only did smart phones become an industry standard, but the iPhone also spawned collateral markets. Companies, and even individuals, can now write applications to sell in Apple’s App Store. Music, video and photos became part of the smart phone’s ecosystem.

Q: According to a forecast from the Association of Unmanned Vehicle System International, the unmanned aerial vehicle market will reach $82 billion within ten years after the FAA issues regulations for commercial flights. The same forecast predicts $3 billion of that will be in agriculture and over the next decade this number will rise to almost $30 billion. Do you believe these numbers are accurate?

A: Well, I think everybody is ballparking. What we’ve seen is the largest growth in the aviation space in decades. Actually, it might be the largest growth ever. We can’t be sure which of these companies will have successful commercial applications, but we have about 200,000 drones that have been purchased in the last several years in the U.S. Even if 50,000 of these UAVs would be used fordata collection, the numbers could be small. We’re seeing an entire new business segment in aviation.

I think the thing that is interesting is these are airships or aircraft, they’re unmanned aircraft, and they allow us to do low altitude GIS data collection in a way that is unprecedented in our history. It really allows us to mitigate risks to human life because of the ability to use robots.

Q: We’re currently researching prosumer drones from the likes of DJI, Parrot and 3D Robotics. I have a DJI Phantom 2 Vision+ and it seems to me that the data collected by these types of sUAVs can easily be processed for GIS applications. Are you seeing the same phenomena?

A: I think we see companies on a daily basis modifying the exact drones that you mentioned in a way to be used with different types of sensors at a micro level. We’re talking LIDAR and being able to use software to do 3D mapping down to centimeter accuracy. This has opened up an entire new opportunity for employment and also for business opportunities. That’s one of the things we’re going to be focusing on at the expo in December. We’re going to have scientists and other folks from all over the globe talking about what we’re discussing. That is, discussing the available applications that happen with the combination of aerial robotics and the emerging sensor technology. We’re entering an entirely new phase of autonomous and semi-autonomous data collection.

I think we are going to see some people that emerge in the space that are going to find applications and ways to make this available from the prosumer to the enterprise in uncanny ways. It’s interesting when you get a number of really smart geospatial engineers, computer scientists and computer technicians all focused on different types of problems; they’ll create an application for something, but then some young entrepreneur will find that application can be used for a completely different application. This is very exciting and encouraging.

Q: Where do microsatellites from Skybox Imaging, Planet Labs and other firms fit into the mix? These will soon be able to collect data from anywhere on Earth on a daily basis.

A: I think the ELOs — Extreme Low Altitude — satellites are going to be part of the next space race. Triangular algorithms, radar and other sensing devices in our current satellite system leave a lot of dead zones. These ELOs will be integrated into this environment and will provide a more consistent flow of data. This would not only be for air traffic management, next gen and the universal traffic management system NASA is developing, but also for businesses that are using robotics for flight planning. This will be for not only aerial, but also for ground and sea data. There is a tremendous model of how data will be moving. I think it needs to be managed in a productive way. The privacy of both company and personal data needs to be protected.

Q: GoPro announced they would ship an sUAV sometime in the first quarter of 2016. How does this affect the existing competitive landscape and do you see this making any profound changes to the industry?

A: Well, America is famous for competition and I think just the knowledge of this is pushing the other companies. DJI, one of our members, just announced a new platform called Mattrice. I think we’re going to see a lot of interesting things because it steps away from the prosumer and allows the professional to create their own platform. Specifically, it’s an SDK platform that has hardware and software positioning and has stereoscopic cameras on all four sides. It is completely customizable and it will open up a very interesting box for GIS and geospatial users. It’s something the GIS community should be very interested in. 

Q: The geospatial industry seems to be facing somewhat of a dilemma. What I mean by that is the cost of collecting drone data verses the cost of processing the data using traditional GIS applications is not consistent. Low-cost drones have the ability to collect large amounts of data, but many of the existing GIS applications that process these data remain disproportionally expensive. Do you see this changing?

A: So let’s go back to the first HP calculators. I had one of these calculators, as you probably did. That was the prosumer to enterprise tool at the time. That displaced tremendous rooms of mathematicians or engineers that you would use to do the different type of work for different applications that you needed developed. We’re going to see that same type of disruption where the computing power moves along with the hardware technology to push the industry toward the different types of software applications that you are discussing. It’s going to be a very different type of disruption. I wouldn’t want to predict that the market companies wouldn’t be able to pivot. I think that would be very poor, but I do think it would behoove them to definitely look into that space as soon as possible.

The interesting thing about what is happening in the space we have, and I hate to say this, is old guys like me are earlier adaptors, but yet we look at some of the things that our young entrepreneurs are doing because they don’t have any history of “you can’t do that”. So when we look at geospatial data collection and things like drones being able to not only map your data but also being able to create 3D maps and do real-time data analysis for navigation, this is really a game-changing moment, not only for aviation but also for robotics and artificial intelligence. It has to be managed for privacy concerns, but when you look at the good of it, it’s so exciting.

Q: I attended the AUVSI expo this May in Atlanta. It was a very interesting show with exhibits ranging from a Black Hawk helicopter to a GPS device no bigger than the size of a quarter. With the exception of a small 3D Robotics kiosk, most of the prosumer companies, DJI for example, did not exhibit. How will your show, the 2nd Annual International Drone Expo, be different?

A: It’s very different. It’s solely focused on the commercial world and commercial [business opportunities]. It’s really the young entrepreneur all the way to the enterprise level. Companies like senseFly, Pix4D and Flir will be exhibiting. The show gives attendees the opportunity to see new sensor and image processing technology and interact with developers.

It will even include an international pitch fest with three different categories: hardware, software and service maintenance. This gives drone entrepreneurs the opportunity to get in front of the most influential venture capitalists dominating the powerful drone community with $150,000 of funding to be won. It’s going to be very exciting and we encourage those of your readers that can, to attend.

Register for the International Drone Expo at the Los Angeles Convention Center, Dec. 11-12, at, and get more information about the pitch fest here.

Published Wednesday, August 26th, 2015

Written by Bill McNeil

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