If you have experience making maps from aerial photographs, you know it takes effort.
When I stumbled upon another UAV-related kickstarter, Mapping with Drones, I backed them without giving it another thought. But it wasn’t because I thought they could make mapping easy. You see, I have a problem. I admit it. I’m an addict. Not just with flying robots, but also with kickstarter.
With sixty-eight projects backed, I didn’t even watch the video. A quick glance over the text and photos, plus my own experience with tools like PTGui Pro, PhotoScan, AutoPanoGiga, and DroneMapper told me everything I needed to know, that it’s worth risking pizza money for the promise of easier-to-generate aerial maps. Even if that same experience gave me serious doubts about the “ease” with which less-than-ideal photos could be corrected, stitched, and referenced. The guys at Drones Made Easy seem to understand the issues, and aside from attempting to introduce a niche tool to the wider non-UAV public, they seem to focus well on what they are offering: an easy-to-use cloud-based service to generate corrected, stitched, aerial photography and geo-referenced maps.
I’ve backed many other UAV-related kickstarters, some of which I might never use with any frequency, including HEXO+ and AirDog. After all, I have purpose-built UAVs, and I’m not into extreme sports. Leading the list as my most wiz-bang, anticipated kickstarter gadget so far is the Glyph. I suspect I will not actually use the Vaavud wind meter, but I tell myself that it will help in my pre-flight checks. I backed Easy Drone, no relation as far as I can tell, to Drones Made Easy, the San Diego team behind Mapping with Drones. Most of my flights involve aerial photography, and they start by risking my gear for a few hundred photos. Back from the field, the arduous phase begins: post-processing the data into something useful. I have a shelf littered with cool kickstarter projects, electronics, gadgets, post cards, tools. But of the near seventy projects I’ve backed so far, Mapping with Drones is leading contender for “Most Useful”, “Biggest Timesaver” and “Best Value.” But now I’m getting ahead of myself.
Post-processing. Ground control points, custom perl-scripts to parse out location information from the logs, shifting the time stamp, deleting blurred photos, and some manual processing when it all goes askew. I’ve used other online aerial map making services, I’ve been lost at the keyboard for hours initiating semi-automated workflows, waiting for my modest CPU/GPU to spit out another disappointing map, before I begin again, using smaller groups of images. I’m used to tedious requirements like uploading supporting flight data and needing to using GPS-enabled cameras, so I was skeptical of just how easy these guys could make this service. Still, for only thirty clams, I figured it was worth giving them a helping hand.
That is, until their CTO Tudor Thomas sent me a friendly “thank you” message, and asked some questions about my early interest in the kickstarter. He seemed pretty confident that his team could make mapping easy. And that bothered me. So I let him have it.
By “it”, I mean I turned over 850,000 square feet of photos, 80,000 square meters, 20 acres of images. It's far from the largest photo survey I have, but at about 800MB, it fits nicely on a typical dropbox account. It is, however, a very difficult dataset. AutoPanoGiga couldn’t process it. PTGui botched it over and over. PhotoScan and PTGui each required more than six hours of assigning ground control points, loading in photos in small batches, and re-starting the workflow multiple times. Now, don’t get me wrong, these are great tools, the fault is my own. This dataset is challenging.
Moreover, I’m not processing it on a fifteen thousand dollar workstation, with fancy graphics chips, twelve multicore processors and massive memory.
My lowly workstation is the same computer I lug to the field, with just 16GB RAM, and a few multicore i7 chips. As for the dataset, some sections have less than 50% overlap. The camera was not stabilized, flown in 30 kt/hr gusts, and the survey was long and narrow.
The lighting conditions were not ideal for the 1/2000 second shutter speed, so about one in five photos is so blurry as to choke up most stitching software.
It’s exactly the sort of data one expects when nothing goes right, but nothing goes horribly wrong… what most of us would call a good day. Tudor, unaware, accepted my challenge, and fed the 177 randomly-named photos, without GPS data, without flight logs, into his still-alpha version server farm. Fully automated workflow? I didn’t think they had a chance.
They nailed it.
Just few hours later, an e-mail was waiting for me in my inbox, with a URL for my finished map. Operated just like maps.google.com or maps.bing.com with grab-to-move, scroll-to-zoom, and a small set of un-obstructive manual zoom controls, my aerial map, far more detailed than anything I was able to export from PTGui (with only 16GB RAM and ordinary graphics processors) is easy to navigate at any zoom level.
With this same dataset, it took me over six hours of manual processing with other software. Each time, in the offline software, the long narrow runs would go slightly off angle, and botch the automated workflows. Tiles from different parts of the survey area would become adjacent, and reality, as I knew it to be on the ground, was re-written into some strange new spider universe. So it was something of a shock to take in the correct shape, zoomed out, realizing that Tudor and his team had no first-hand experience with the land, no plan for how the photos were taken, no mission data, and no idea from whence these photos originated.
Color me impressed.
For a limited time (about 20 days more) they are offering “points” towards map generation at their lowest rates. In fact, if you read the interview carefully, you’ll discover they are even offering additional discounts for DIYDrones backers. Even before I learned that, I was impressed enough that I wanted to share my delight with the output but I wanted more information to share. The proof I had already seen, but that proof lead me to wonder more about the people behind this time saver, this unexpectedly easy map generating experience. I had the opportunity to discuss, via e-mail, Mapping with Drones with San Diego, CA based Tudor Thomas, the CTO of Drones Made Easy.
Arcaven [my alter ego] - Can you tell me more about your project and about the team?
Tudor: A lot of it can be found at the following links
We have software engineers, web applications engineers, electrical engineers, a mechanical engineer and a sales and marketing guy. Between consulting jobs as 510labs, we started work on what would become Maps Made Easy a few months ago. When the need arose to start collecting our own data, we purchased a DJI Phantom 2 with Zenmuse H33D gimbal and GoPro Hero 3+ Silver. It certainly was an adjustment from the $500K-$5 million systems we were used to working with, but for the results we were getting we felt the tradeoff was more than worth it. Not to mention the fact that we didn’t need to deal with procuring aircraft time. We knew this was the future of commercial mapping. One day after this realization we secured a DJI dealership and formed relationships with a number of accessory manufacturers. Drones Made Easy was born.
As we grew nearer to being able to release Maps Made Easy, we knew there would be a lot of costs associated with doing it right. Security audits, expanding our computing cluster, rack space, database optimization help and further development were all going to cost money. Most of us had always wanted to do a Kickstarter so we figured we would give it a try to get the word out and raise some of the needed funds required to proceed in the form of prepaid mapping. Support has been great so far, but the more support we get the sooner additional features will be added.
Arcaven: Can you share more about the features this service will offer? How will the data be made available for export?
Tudor: Initially, we will only be offering output as hosted map tiles (similar to Google Maps) and providing code snippets and iFrame embed codes to allow users to share their output. Through iFrame use, commercial users will be able to share created maps in forums, blogs and on their own sites without restriction. Clever people will be able to turn these tiled maps into other formats. Soon (in the next 2 months) we will be expanding the output types to include GeoTiff/Tiff, OBJ/MTL, Google KMZ (georeferenced only) and 16bit DEM. Writing conversion tools is a pain and really time consuming so we are trying to provide one type from each category of output. Users can convert it to other formats from there.
Arcaven: Will there be methods to georeference the data?
Tudor: For sure. We will provide a simple webbased interface for associating points in aerial images with a point on a known basemap (Google Maps or Bing) or a method to manually enter more accurate means of ground control point collection. These GCPs are entered at the time of image upload and produce fully georeferenced output. This process keeps users from having to sync GPS files with their images or even dealing with the GPS output track at all. We don’t require GCPs to be entered at all. The output will be almost identical except for the fact that it won’t be georeferenced and will likely have a random rotation. I suspect nongeoreferenced stitch jobs will be more than good enough for most people. We plan on adding a simplified geoalignment workflow where the user will be able to set the rotation and scale of produced stitch so it can be viewed North Up and be used for making measurements.
It was about this time in my discussion with Tudor that he let me in on a secret. Understand, I’ve spend far more money on offline mapping software than I would care to admit to anyone except my credit card company, and that is without the cost of hours of fighting with the software. The map generated by his fully-automated workflow? He estimates it would cost me less than his lowest paid subscription service, with processing budget left over. Less than $9.99.
Arcaven: Do you have a message for the average drone operator who is concerned about the privacy of their mapping data?
Tudor: Sharing and ease of access to our processed data is our primary concern. We provide users with controls for including their maps in our public gallery and allowing public sharing by means of embedding. Our map tiles are redundantly stored using industry standard cloud storage solutions. All tiles paths are deeply obfuscated behind 512 bits of UUID combinations that make it all but impossible to access the images without prior knowledge of where the image resides. If a user doesn’t want to share their data, the best way for them to access it is by accessing it while logged into our site. The cloud storage for map tiles is publicly accessible, but like every image accessed by social media, it is heavily obfuscated. If a user is extremely concerned about data privacy, I would propose that they download the output data as soon as possible and delete the map. We can work with extreme sensitivities on a case-by-case basis.
Arcaven: Do you foresee loosing potential customers due to concerns that the FAA or other government agencies might come looking for rule-breakers at your site?
Tudor: Maybe. I must say this: we do not condone breaking the rules. Maps Made Easy will work with images taken from drones and other RC aircraft as well as images captured using full-sized airplanes or helicopters. It is very hard to tell the difference between the two once the imagery is processed. That being said, we don’t control what data is posted to our site for private use. As long as maps are not included in our gallery or shared publicly, access to the data is nearly impossible. The map creator’s username is not shared in our gallery. Also, if a map is not geo-referenced (I realize it is not a real map without a location and scale), there is no way to tell where the images were taken from unless someone recognizes it.
We really doubt the FAA is going to be granted the authority to regulate airspace all the way down to the ground on private property. This is an air rights issue and they go back to the day flight was first conceived. Private property owners will always be able to operate within a certain distance above ground on their private property for legitimate private use. Mapping activities will all be able to be conducted within whatever this ceiling is eventually defined as.
Arcaven: What sorts of features and map editing tools (orientation, 3D rendering, ..., etc) do you foresee in the service, initially and over time?
Tudor: Some of these were answered above, but it is a good list to have them all in one place.
|Orientation||Yes and scale input. Will we offer a 2m x 15cm strip of white material that can be put on the ground oriented North to South. This will allow the user to get an orientation and scale for the image.|
|3D Rendering||OBJ Object and MTL Material file output. We are looking at integrating a model viewer into our web interface, but the models can get pretty big and we don’t want to scale them down just for that.|
|Markup||A method for dropping markers, selecting color and adding notes to them is planned.|
|Orthophoto generation||We have already generated the orthophoto. If someone wants to do something else with it I suppose they could use the 3D files|
|Texture mapping||MTL Material file that goes along with the OBJ file|
|DEM output||This will likely take the form of a 16bit DEM GeoTiff. Still working on the best way to share this|
|Multispectral output||Yes, eventually. This is actually our core background from our … imaging past. We will likely be offering an NDVI optimized workflow and deal with the other ones as they come up. We have a really good layering capability. We specialize in IR/Vis fusion.|
|Layering/comparison tools for surveys||Yes. Our main goal for all of this is to be able to document changes over time. Once a user georeferences the first layer, the subsequent layers are much easier to do. Not that the first one is really that hard|
|Ground Control Points||[Not required but supported] Yes. They will need to be entered previous to upload so they can be taken into account in the processing|
Arcaven: What message do you have for potential backers, and for DIYDrones members?
Tudor: We would love to help people realize what kind of new applications are presented by being able to control when aerial imagery is taken instead of waiting for a Google Maps flyover update. Legitimate use of drones will be a rapidly growing segment of the economy over the next 10 years and DIYDrones users are already at the forefront of it.
In addition to processing that rivals the best available: ease of access, ease of sharing, control of data accessibility, compatibility with GIS systems and management of data over time are the key aspects to what we are trying to provide.
We are doing everything we can to help legitimize the use of drones. Yes, they are fun to play with but they will open up many opportunities for people as useful business tools. Our stretch goal on the Kickstarter campaign is to create a Mapping Marketplace that will pair drone users who like to create maps with property owners who need mapping services. We need a lot of help to reach that goal...
We would like to offer a special incentive to DIYDrones users that back our Kickstarter. For backers that identify themselves as DIYDrones community members after the campaign ends, we will add an additional 25% to whatever their backer reward point total would be.
What makes your service special, and sets it apart from similar services and software?
Tudor: Accessibility and ease. Aerial data is huge and notoriously hard to share. We have seen people take 10s of TB of images and never process any of it because it was disorganized and too unwieldy. We get a lot of requests to offer our software for offline use, but that goes against our goal which is to make stitched aerial imagery easier to share and manage. This is an internet driven world and we are taking aerial mapping off the client machine and putting it in the cloud.
Full Disclosure: I backed the project. That, and this article, is my only association with these guys. No kickbacks. Except they did stitch a map that I'd already spent more than 20 hours stitching with other software. My purpose in sharing is because I was really impressed with their demonstrated ability to save me time in the future. Back them, and I think they will impress you, too. I may have a problem with my addiction to Kickstarter, but I'm not regretting my decision to back this project.