Small players and hobbyists can evangelise the UAV and drone market

Interview with Joerg Lamprecht - CEO & Founder Aibotix Gmbh

Small players are creative, innovative and bring lots of different ideas to the field, says Joerg Lamprecht, Founder & CEO, Aibotix, now a Hexagon group company.

What significant drivers are shaping the UAV market?

The UAV market is new; it is only three-four years old. It is only in the past few years that UAVs are able to lift heavy payloads of 2-3 kg and fly for a significant time to perform missions. Now they are able to fly for 30 minutes on autopilot mode and capture aerial imagery. This is revolutionary because earlier, before conducting any survey, aircraft equipped with high resolution sensors were deployed. Now people can create their own aerial imagery, which can be used for various purposes like surveying, stockpile volume calculation, etc. The significant drivers for this industry are the batteries, which have increased the fly time, the payloads, and high-resolution sensors that can generate imagery of up to 1 mm resolution.

The UAVs are very small and in the traditional sense the platforms are really big. How is the market or industry trying to tackle this challenge? 

UAVs are a mass product on which every surveyor and everyconstruction firm can lay hands to create data. Initially, it was like a service market where one would hire someone to fly over their territory and capture high-resolution aerial images. UAVs cannot do large area mapping and create maps of the whole country. But they can create smallscale maps and are very useful in creating a map of say, a 10-hectare area.

There is a feeling that the traditional photogrammetry market will die out or phase out because UAVs are coming up. Do you think so?

No, it’s not so. It is certainly an add-on. There is certainly a need for traditional photogrammetry. UAVs, as I see it, are not equipped to carry out the same missions as any aircraft could; that would require sending drones thousands of miles away across airspaces and across countries. I do not think that is what people want. They do not want drones flying over their houses. But, on a smaller scale, the imagery is equally good and comfortable to work with. We certainly need men flying aircraft equipped with high-resolution sensors and oblique cameras for creating all kinds of maps. If we were to deploy UAVs equipped with the same cameras, then we would have drones flying across countries, and this is certainly not what we want and what the regulators want. In my opinion, UAVs should be used for small scale maps and aircraft for large scale mapping.

A lot of small players are trying to enter the UAV market. Do you really see it as a challenge for the big players?

I think the small players are also driving the market. They are creative, innovative and they bring lots of different ideas into the field; so we need them to evangelise the market. But, of course we do embrace some regulations. If there are no regulations then anyone can fly in the cities with the help of some indigenous products. So, there should be a certification of the product, of the pilot, and of the mission and that’s what we really embrace. But we also really like the enthusiasts who are driving the market like we were some years ago. Competition is naturally something that is positive … we have more players who tell the story, help to convince the market. However, we still have a majority of customers who have no idea what a UAV is and what it can do. So evangelising the markets about UAVs may take some time. Meanwhile, we can conduct some demos and perform missions.

What is your opinion about the current policy frameworks on UAVs?

Currently, every nation has its own regulations. This holds the market down. It’s good for bigger players because they can get certified in any country, but when the smaller ones want to export their products, it becomes really hard. If you have influence in Germany, you are allowed to fly up to 5 kg, and if it is France, you can fly without any limit. But one must not fly in the cities, unless we have a certain parachute with it. You really need to apply for a pilot licence to fly a UAV. In the US, you cannot fly at all because they just do not allow it! So there is a huge variety of laws and regulations and that is different in every country.

We certainly need to allow UAVs in the cities because that will help us in developing city maps and building 3D models. But we want them for fair and proper use…not flying over our balconies or spying on our companies. Therefore, it is important to have regulations in place.

Has the ‘sensors’ development kept pace with the availability of this new low altitude platform?

UAVs have the ability to go as close to the ground or as close to the object as needed. When we map Hoover Dams we fly three-dimensional, when we map the ground we can fly low and slow, and if you have a high resolution sensor, let’s say a Nikon D800, 36 MP camera and you fly it 5 metres high, then you can get resolution of up to 1 mm or even lower if you want. So I think the roadmap we have of the UAVs is more autonomous. I think we have reached a level which is better than our eye.

Published in Geospatial World Magazine – December 2014 under title ‘Small players can evangelise the UAV market’