Editor's Note: Welcome to our Audio Articles Series. In December 2017, Bill McNeil caught up with Antoine Martin, formerly with Pix4D, about his perspectives on drones and the GIS Market. We'll bring you more interviews in the coming months on other geospatial topics. These articles are ready to read below, listen via iTunes or view the video. We hope you find these new offerings informative and interesting. Special thanks to our sponsor, Esri.
Bill McNeil: Today we are conducting a podcast with Antoine Martin, the former North American Managing Director of Pix4D. Antoine, can you give us a little more information about your background and experience in the UAV industry.
Antoine Martin: Absolutely Bill. Well, first thank you for having me over this podcast. Always happy to share my experience. I have about 20 years of experience and back in the days I actually started developing robots in the late 90's. I have been solely focusing on UAV's of the last 10 years, so I have seen the industry boom. It's been great to have been involved with very large companies, very small companies, start-ups, mid-sized companies and most recently as you pointed out, Pix4D.
Bill McNeil: With that background experience, can you give us perspective on how you see the industry and how it's evolved over the last 4 or 5 years?
Antoine Martin: Yes, and really the last 4 or 5 years really seem like 20 years to me, just because of the pace of everything. It really started with the government. The government, especially the military and the Department of Defense, has always been very keen on UAVs just because they really offer a completely disruptive way of conducting operations at a standoff which provides an enormous level of safety instead of putting people at risk. From that it may very purely be a military endeavors. A lot of government labs from the scientific point of view and public universities started to have grants and really look into UAVs for ways which would be other than military. And, that lasted a little while and very early on we had tinkerers and do-it-yourselfers that were putting together servos, auto pilots, cameras and making things fly. Back when the word drone was not really used very much, people used to call them UAVs. Then once the technology was kind of working, we had the early adopters. Those would be very small companies, with a couple people within, often providing a service that really wanted to try out the new technology and really provide something else other than their competitors and the market as a whole did not provide. And, from these early adopters that really proved that the technology was working which transitioned to mid-sized companies. So that would be insurance companies, survey companies, civil engineering companies that really started to think we can really use UAVs in our operations. How can we really use them? The reliability over the past 5 years has gone up tremendously and regulators have aligned that now it is possible to fly UAVs. We are starting to see different options in terms of sensors and more importantly the trust for UAVs as a new tool in the toolbox is here. So, really over the last 5 years is what I have been observing.
Bill McNeil: Can you speak specifically about data collection, processing and how this has evolved?
Antoine Martin: Yes, you have to realize that really most drones fly with a camera to record photos or videos. Really for the most part, that is what drones are doing. So, certainly when you fly a drone you are collecting data and the data being something from usually the earth. You can actually create maps and models and really have a good understanding of what is happening below you. It is not very convenient to store hours and hours of video and look at video as you know. So, if you are in a business where you have something to do or something to measure and suddenly you need a map or a 3D model that is accurate and true to scale so that you can use drones as a tool. So, in terms of data collection there has been a lot of data collection, a lot of data processing that people can do on their own and that is really a technology that drones are not only just flying machines but that they enable people to collect and process their own data. So, in a way drones have democratized map making, photogrammetry and 3D models as a whole.
Bill McNeil: One specific question about that with regards to expanding the market and bringing new users in. Can you comment about the new user that are now enjoying or realize the capabilities of drone technology?
Antoine Martin: Absolutely, maybe I should give you an example here. Let's say you are in the mining business and you extract earth and minerals and you have big trucks and are moving valuable material that is constant and you are billing people for what you are giving them and you are monitoring your formation, its PML, its balance sheet, etc. [If] you are in the mining business, you are not really at all in the drone business or anything. You have work to do and suddenly drones are able to give you numbers as volumes of earth that has been moved, for instance. The traditional way of doing things is putting people and surveyors or survey equipment to go throughout the mine and collect points, discreet points, so that volumetric measurements can be done. Well, that takes time and is dangerous for the people and takes a couple days just to collect the data. So, suddenly drones are giving you a really good return on investment. They are inexpensive and you can get your volumetric calculations very easily. But, in addition to getting volumes or piles of whatever, coal or gravel, whatever it is. Suddenly you have a whole map of your site. You have elevation of your entire site. You have a 3D model in the point cloud that before you might not have even seen or knew what they were. So, those mining managers are suddenly facing not only that they can get their volumetric calculations done for a fraction of the cost, but increase safety. They also have additional data that they can use to their advantage. So, those people are now really in the imagery with imagery products in their hands which they can leverage and find new use for where before they were just caring about volumetric measurement every so often. So, really what drones have been doing because they are so inexpensive and reliable and you can get maps out of them, they have enabled a new breed of people with maps and with 3D models which they can really use and leverage.
Bill McNeil: Sounds pretty impressive. How about some technology that I think you touched on briefly. Technology like GCP, PPK, RTK, and Lidar. How does all of that fit into the new drone technology?
Antoine Martin: Sure, so what you have to realize, Bill, is a drone that flies has a GPS antenna. This is a small GPS antenna with a small receiver inside, its more or less consumer grade and the absolute accuracy you would derive from that GPS which is embedded in the drone is usually about 10 feet absolute accuracy. Which is not enough for somebody doing survey or somebody who wants to derive precise measurement. So the way to augment the positioning and the accuracy provided by the map and its drone imagery is really by adding survey tools. So a grand central point is a simple way where you would go onsite with highly precise GPS equipment or GNSS equipment to measure the site at a copper point with a high degree of accuracy. Then you would merge if you want the map that you have been deriving with the drone with this GCP measurement. And, by doing that it augments the accuracy of the entire map. So, another way to increase the accuracy of what would be given with a drone, which again is not very high if you only rely on the GPS is to use technology called RTK, real time kinematics or PPK which is kinematics, which basically says luckily you have the GNSS receiver in the drone but you have what is called a reference station or base station that could be where the pilot of the drone is or could be a network of base stations that may be in the area. What it does is leverages luckily the GPS signal content, but also the phase of the GPS signal. What you get by using a solution, which is usually an add-on to drones that you may buy. It augments the accuracy tremendously, almost as good as ground control points. So, again let’s take the example of the mine manager who wants to know the volume of the bags or earth that is being moved. We can use a ground control point or can use RTK or PPK solutions that are becoming more and more available. Another way to use drones is really with another type of technology, Lidar. Lidar is simply a laser, so it's an active signal that is being sent from the sensor itself and scanning the area below. Lidar’s are very high accuracy, very good precision and they are very reliable. It's another way of using drones. Often Lidar is actually merged with photos. So, I guess what I am saying here really is the ground control point, RTK, Lidar are existing technologies but are being integrated to various levels of integration with drone technologies. So, the industry, surveyors and engineers are starting to just simply use drones and UAVs as a tool in the toolbox. They have other tools in the toolbox and they are really integrating those tools so that they can do their work more effectively.
Bill McNeil: So, moving forward, how do you see all this technology addressing the future of the GIS market?
Antoine Martin: So, it is affecting the GIS market or now that what we have seen is a moderate affectation of the GIS market. Basically, anyone can buy a UAV. Anyone can make a map. And, from this map, you can extract any type of information. You can really create GIS data from the map. So, the GIS sector is affected where anyone can really create a GIS database from drone data. Often GPS does not mean imagery data. You can have GIS information without the mishap that goes with it and sometimes it is enough. I was recently just looking at state of emergency maps of the state of California, most of the information is GIS information. But, with drones that provide what we call minute maps or high resolution maps. Then you can actually augment the GIS information at a much more discreet level than what you would get from satellite data or from large scale area mapping imagery. So, the point I am making here is GIS would be able to get much more precise and much more abundant levels of data because a lot of people before where relying on people walking throughout the sidewalk with equipment or from a car to go by with a body scanner. Suddenly all these people have access to a new type of information coming from drones that will come to augment the level of details and the level of information that they can integrate within GIS whether it’s for municipality or whether it’s for a fire department.
Bill McNeil: Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and insights on the UAV industry and actually we look forward to seeing what your next drone venture will be.
Antoine Martin: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure, Bill. Glad we got to talk about UAVs and drones. I really like that sector and was happy to help.