Many small to medium sized companies have been considering adopting drone-based LiDAR into their traditional workflow and have legitimate concerns about moving forward with this emergent technology. While LiDAR technology has been used by U.S. Government agencies for several decades, commercial applications have only become viable with small UAS payloads in the last five years. This technology shift brings new capabilities and requires a different way of thinking from both aerial and terrestrial LiDAR employment strategies.
Since 2017 MODUS AI has seen an explosion of drone use in the #construction, #engineering, #environmental, and #surveying industries. Most of this growth is coming from inexpensive small camera drones and cloud-based photogrammetry processing. But what stood out in 2018 was a race to the bottom for job pricing in the outsource market I.e. companies either adopted these aerial imagery methods or used an external vendor to minimize their exposure and risk. At the same time, aerial lidar pricing stayed constant, due to the relatively small number of experienced drone LiDAR companies. While we have seen this downward trend in aerial capture pricing using imagery, we have not seen the quality of photogrammetry data increase, with the exception of volumetric in aggregate studies.
A SHIFT TO THE DATA PROFESSIONALS
The rapid increase in drones and LiDAR technology has seen an equally rapid rise in small, medium, and large vendors. Every trade show is packed with companies offering the best solutions of mission planning software, geospatial corrections, sensors, IMUs/INSs, drones, data visualization tools etc. As these one-stop-shop/fly by night drone service providers slowly leave the market, we have seen a rise in niche data-centric professional companies. These companies not only know how to process data in order to generate products their customers need, but they are realizing they need both optical camera and active measurement sensors like LiDAR. For geospatial field services it is difficult, if not impossible, to put one remote sensing technique over another. There are simply too many use cases in each industry.
Overall, there has not be an increase in requests for traditional drone mapping services, but a slow shift to augmenting photogrammetry with LiDAR data. Towards the end of 2018 and in the first quarter of 2019, MODUS AI has seen a significant spike in requests from companies wanting to incorporate LiDAR into their well-established workflows. These companies are pursuing LiDAR for two basic reasons: vegetation poke through and increased workflow efficiency speed.
Moving through 2019 we predict that many of these companies will either just use the LiDAR technology without advertising, so they can increase margins, or work with their client base to build trust on the accuracy of the data products.
SO HOW LONG DO WE HAVE BEFORE WE REACH SATURATION?
Technology introduction is not new to the construction, engineering, and surveying industries. The introduction of GNSS (Global Navigational Satellite System) had the same impact as the introduction of mapping drones does today. After the early adopting phase, it took five to six years for the surveying industry to adopt a standard and accept the accuracy claims of GNSS. Drones were heavily adopted in 2018, indicating that we are past the early adoption phase. With the GNSS experience in mind, this suggests we have four to five years before we see most of the surveying and engineering companies using drones with LiDAR and photogrammetry in their projects.
The majority of consultations that MODUS AI has conducted reveals an interesting mindset that most small and mid-sized business owners, across various industries, seem to have regarding drone and LiDAR technologies. Dramatically increased workflow efficiencies in field measurement collections means higher margins, significant ROI, and reduced operating costs. All of this is obviously true in the short term, but for companies to be successful in the long-term, there are other factors to be considered. Depending upon the environment and current aviation regulations, drones can only collect between 10 to 100 acres per flight, a fraction of what manned aircraft can accomplish. However, becoming an early adopter of LiDAR UAS technology and doing the jobs too small for helicopter or aerial LiDAR now, will pay dividends in the years to come. Coming on-board before the drone market really takes off will allow a company to gain experience, establish a professional reputation, and develop their customer base ahead of their competitors.