Remote Sensing For Business - Trials, Successes, and a Long Way to Go

By Donald B. Segal

The use of remotely sensed imagery (digital aerial photography, satellite images) by businesses has come a long way in the last few years, but its widespread usage and acceptance still has a way to go.

In the early days of my career (back when my hair was still brown) I worked as an exploration geologist, with a specific concentration in the use of remotely sensed imagery for mineral and hydrocarbon exploration. In those days we worked extensively with data from the Landsat satellite. We started with data on 9-track (no, not 8-track) magnetic tape, and used mainframe computers (which were just like PCs but larger, slower, and much more expensive) to process the data. We spliced, diced and corrected the data for inherent miscalibrations, defects and geographic "unfitness", and finally (if we were really lucky), we produced a piece of film with an image on it. It wasn't easy.

Having worked with satellite and airborne scanner systems for many years, I understand the meaning of pixel resolution, radiometric corrections, sensor calibration, contrast enhancements, image mosaicking, ground control points, and geometric corrections. I understand orbital paths, sun angles, and the effects of pitch, roll and yaw on aerial imagery.I doubt that there are too many business geographers that do, nor should they have to.

I've watched the advancement of the remote sensing industry with interest over the last 10 years, concurrent with my migration out of exploration geology and into the then newly forming world of business geographics. In the early days, imagery was difficult to come by, there were limited choices, it was poorly packaged, the resolution was inadequate for site level studies, and it was prohibitively expensive.To make matters worse, it was difficult to work with.Invariably, some type of image processing system was required in order to enhance and correct the data to a point where it could be used within traditional mapping systems. Dedicated staff with specific technical expertise was often needed to properly exploit the data.The processing requirements were onerous, it took time to process, and most companies couldn't justify the expense.

Today, digital imagery is used by business geographers in a variety of capacities, including base map production, site selection, market analysis, planning, and change detection. These uses generally fall within two main levels of resolution and need.At one level, businesses use imagery of large areas (markets, states or multi-state regions) to provide an overview for strategic planning and regional analyses. Relatively coarse imagery (by today's standards) that distinguishes between urban areas, forested, and agricultural areas usually suffices for this purpose.Currency of the imagery is less important at this scale as well. Closer to the ground, businesses who use imagery for site selection and market planning are interested in identifying detailed land use patterns, delineating of areas of rapid growth, visualizing areas of recent construction, studying logistical relationships, and performing competitive studies. In these cases, higher resolution imagery is usually mandated, and the vintage of the imagery - and availability of recurrent coverage - becomes much more important.

The growing use of digital imagery is fueled in part by the recent availability of very high-resolution satellite and digital aerial photography.Geometrically corrected, color digital aerial photography with 1-2 foot resolution is now available over most major metropolitan areas from two primary providers: AirPhoto USA and Aerials Express. Satellite imagery from commercial vendors like Space Imaging, SPOT Image, and DigitalGlobe provide data with slightly coarser (1-20 meter), or equivalent resolution. Several providers of online site mapping and demographic reporting applications, such as SRC's and MapInfo Corporation's, now offer digital imagery as an add-on dataset to supplement their traditional mapping.

Another factor contributing to the growing use of digital imagery is that pricing has dropped dramatically over the years. While still not inexpensive, typical costs for digital aerial photography range from $2.50 - $50 per square mile. Satellite image prices are typically in the same range; older black-and white imagery is cheapest, while recently acquired high-resolution color imagery is more costly.

Notably, in this time of heightened security, acquisition of digital aerial photography is more difficult (or may be prohibited entirely) over some areas. Thus, current digital aerial photography may not be available in some markets. Satellite image acquisition is not hampered by these constraints, and imagery can be acquired over the same area repetitively, which facilitates change detection studies. Customers of several of the satellite image companies can request that an area is imaged under specific time and seasonal constraints.

Many of our larger clients involved with commercial real estate sitting and market analysis studies have become avid users of digital imagery. Several regional grocery chains, who had historically contracted to have photography flown at a cost of hundreds of dollars per square mile, have realized tremendous cost savings by using aerial and satellite imagery - reducing their acquisition costs by as much as ten-fold. In addition to the cost savings, they are now able to work with the data directly within their GIS systems and can better visualize relationships between ground features, customer locations, and demographics. Often the imagery will be used to correct locational inaccuracies with their data, repositioning store and competitor locations, and even realigning roadway systems.

Not all users of the data are large companies. We recently worked with a small, local provider of pool cleaning services and supplies. They had trouble finding a database of homes with pools that could be used for door-to-door prospecting. Using high-resolution aerial photography, they were able to identify and map residential pools, and quickly produced a set of "prospecting" maps.The campaign was hugely successful.

To be more widely used, providers of this data must:

Reconsider packaging of the data to be more inline with the geographies of the business user.
"Scenes", "sensor footprints", and "flight paths" are meaningless to the business user.They simply want their area of interest (site, county, market, MSA, etc.), and they want it yesterday.

Provide the data in a GIS-ready format, rectified to a common map projection.
Charging extra to geometrically correct the data or to mosaic the data to form seamless coverage of a study area is nuts.Build this into the price if need be, but don't burden the buyer with these details. Most businesspersons are blissfully ignorant about map projections and are quite happy to remain that way.

Make it easy to order and deliver it quickly.
Finding out the cost and availability of coverage online is cumbersome - if not impossible - in most cases. For "archived" imagery, shipment should be faster than the "5-business day" estimate given by most providers. Delivery of compressed data via email or FTP could/should be accomplished within hours. For most of our clients, the projects are short-fused and are over within a day or so.Waiting 5-7 days to receive data just doesn't work.
Revisit pricing strategies.
While the price of imagery has come down over the years, it is still relatively expensive, particularly for the small to mid-sized companies that aren't yet convinced of its value. Basic economics would suggest that lower prices will spark interest in a much larger portion of the potential market.

Coverage and vintage of the imagery.
Having current coverage of major markets and peripheral high growth areas is key to many companies. Aerial and satellite image acquisition companies should focus their efforts on these areas.

In many respects, digital imagery is an immature product and the use of the imagery for business geographics applications is in an early evolutionary stage. Companies that can afford to embrace it and deal with the challenges and costs have done so. In much the same way that TIGER-based streets and boundaries were initially expensive and cumbersome to work with, this data is now a commodity and available at a variety of price points and levels of quality, is packaged in logical geographies that make sense to the business user, and is easy to use. Business demands have spurred a large "aftermarket" of value-added companies that enhance and improve the data for specific applications. There is no doubt that digital imagery has tremendous value, but it must continue to evolve according to the needs and uses of the business community before it will become more widely accepted.

Published Tuesday, October 21st, 2003

Written by Donald B. Segal

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