GIS solutions have been around for decades, but low cost, high tech drones have increased the market potential so dramatically that what we're seeing now is almost a new industry. Established businesses are being revolutionized, while new opportunities are evolving daily.
But when we speak about these revolutionary drones, what we're really talking about is the payload they carry, i.e. the camera and/or sensing device, and the software that processes the resulting data. Without cameras, sensors and software, drones are just radio-controlled aircraft, like those that hobbyists have been flying for decades. Sure, they now come fully assembled, are less expensive and easier to fly, but the real differentiators — and what matters to the geospatial industry — are the instruments and software sUAVs now carry and use. There's a critical symbiotic relationship between the UAV, its payload and geospatial applications.
In this article, we'll take a look at some of the new cameras and sensing devices that have been specifically designed to serve the industry's emerging and evolving markets.
Parrot, the French-based drone and robot manufacturer, has just announced development of a lightweight multispectral camera called Sequoia. In addition to a 16MP RGB sensor, Sequoia has four 1.2MP sensors that gather near-infrared, red-edge, red and green data. Users can specify high or low-resolution imagery. The device weighs less than 4 ounces and contains 64GB of internal storage plus an SD card.
Sequoia will first be used onboard the fixed-wing eBee UAV to monitor and respond to crop health. Once data are collected from eBee flights, the information can be processed and analyzed by MicaSense’s ATLAS software platform. The eBee drone is manufactured by senseFly, a Swiss UAV company, also owned by Parrot. Sequoia is expected to ship in March at a price point of $3500.
MicaSense, a Seattle-based startup, developed the RedEdge multispectral camera for UAV operations. Parrot backed MicaSense by investing almost $10 million in the company. This relationship enabled Parrot to use RedEdge technology to build Sequoia, a more affordable and smaller camera. Both the RedEdge and Sequoia drones now use MicaSense’s ATLAS software platform to analyze and measure plant reflectance.
RedEdge is priced at $5900 and has been shipping for about a year. Both Parrot and MicaSense intend to license these cameras to other drone companies.
Flir is a large, established, publicly traded company that has been making thermal imaging cameras for almost 40 years. They have recently introduced three new lightweight cameras specifically designed for UAV operations.
DJI’s gimbal technology and knowledge of image transmissions was combined with Flir’s thermal imaging expertise to build the Zenmuse XT Thermal Camera. The device provides aerial infrared scanning at 640/30 fps or 336/60 fps when used with DJI’s Inspire1 or M100 drones. Both cameras are available with four different lens options. Cost and delivery have not yet been announced.
The DJI Go app provides real time camera controls for color palette selection isotherms, zoom levels and the selection of either video recording or still image capture. Applications include fire fighting, cell tower and substation inspections, and precision agriculture.
Flir Vue (left) & Flir Vue Pro (right)
Flir also offers two additional thermal devices, the Flir Vue and the Flir Vue Pro. The Flir Vue offers either 336 or 640 pixel resolution and is priced at $1500 and $3000, respectively. Both versions have optional GoPro mounting holes but neither is hardware integrated like the Zenmuse XT. In other words, users will need to independently mount the Flir Vue on their UAV.
Like the Flir Vue, the Flir Vue Pro is not an end-to-end hardware solution, but it does have thermal video recording capability. Users have access to in-flight camera controls and output is compatible with applications like Pix4D. Cost is $2000.
San Diego-based Peau Productions, Inc. has developed a 12-megapixel UAV camera that captures images every 3 seconds. Images taken at 400 feet produce an accuracy of 6.83cm/pixel. The MAPIR camera is about the size and weight of a GoPro Hero camera, at just 2.3 ounces.
Peau Productions has actually created not one camera with these specifications, but a series of six devices. A different lens type distinguishes each camera.
- Camera one has a standard lens that sees visible RGB light.
- Camera two sees blue and infrared light.
- Cameras three through six see infrared, red, green and blue light.
Multiple devices can be mounted on a UAV and, depending on the combination of the cameras, captured images can be used for crop scouting, assessing plant health (ENDVI), identifying different areas of vegetation, surveying and creating photomosaic maps.
The picture above shows 4 MAPIR cameras mounted on the 3DR Solo UAV. (Images: http://www.mapir.camera/)
The most interesting camera is the one you can’t buy. Light, a Palo Alto startup, has developed the L16, a point and shoot-sized camera that houses 16 different lenses. It is billed as a $1700 DSLR replacement. Unfortunately, it’s not being delivered because the first production run has sold out. We expect shipments to begin again this summer.
Light describes the L16 as the world’s first multi-aperture computational camera. Firmware on the camera merges images from the lenses to form a 52-megapixel image. Depth of field, focus and optical zoom (35 to 150mm) can be adjusted after the photo is taken.
The L16 is not currently being promoted as a drone camera, but considering the image resolution and optical zoom capabilities, it's hard to believe this device won’t also be used as an aerial mapping and surveying tool.
Seek Thermal's cameras attach to phones. (Images: http://www.thermal.com/thermal-cameras/)
Seek Thermal, a startup out of Santa Barbara, has developed several consumer thermal cameras designed to operate with both iOS and Android devices. Their Reveal camera is a stand-alone hand-held version of the Seek Pro. It has a 26-degree field of view and works up to a distance of 500 feet.
Like the Light L16, the Reveal is not currently being used in drone operations. It is however, worth mentioning because a modified version of this lightweight device could be marketed as a low cost alternative to other pricier thermal cameras.
It’s interesting to note that none of the cameras and sensing devices in this article were developed by what one might call traditional camera companies, and it's not surprising — disruptive forces almost always come from outside the industry they disrupt. And these cameras are just the first wave. No doubt, lighter, less expensive, more feature-rich devices will be developed by those companies that see the market potential and are nimble and creative enough to build winning products.