Geo Week News

November 6, 2012

Belle of the Trimble ball

Last night’s reception at the Trimble Dimensions conference here at the Mirage in Vegas had some kind of James Bond theme, but I’ve always seen these little get togethers as more like those dances they used to have in Jane Austen novels. There are a few belles with whom everyone can’t wait to dance. This year, all of the Mr. Darcys were lining up for Gatewing (and SketchUp and the TX5, too, actually, but I’ll get to them later).

Actually, who am I kidding? There were plenty of gentlemen lined up to take photos with the scantily clad “Bond girls,” too, but that’s not particularly interesting.

What was extremely interesting, and what pleased a standing-room-only crowd of about 200 people, was a presentation by Eric Sussenbach, director of GIS4c (Trimble reseller and ESRI dealer for the former Dutch Caribbean), on his first two months of experience working with the Gatewing x100 on the Caribbean island of Curaçao. I think the general sentiment when people heard Trimble had bought UAV-maker Gatewing was something along the lines of, “Oooooh, I want one … But how does that work, exactly?” Sussenbach provided the details in the straightforward, practical manner that only an actual user who’s tried the thing out could offer.  

Essentially, he was pretty pleased with the UAV’s performance, but he cautioned that working with the mini-airplane wasn’t all that different from flying real airplanes: “You’ve got to put in your hours.”

For example, one attendee asked, “How often does it land where you tell it to?”

Sussenbach: “Basically never.”

But it’s pretty close. You just need to realize that while you may have programmed the UAV to land in a specific spot with the GPS in the little tablet that controls it, there’s only so much the UAV can do to account for wind, etc., and that you need to vigilant in giving it a “boost” of extra glide to get it to land in the general area you’ve picked out. In fact, finding a flat place to land the thing is a major consideration. I grabbed some quick video to show you what I’m talking about:


Sort of a rough landing for an expensive piece of equipment, no? Sussenbach said to not expect the body to last more than about 40-50 landings unless you give it some duct tape reinforcement. But the body and all of the parts – propeller, wingtips, etc. – are fairly cheap. In fact, Gatewing gives you a replacement body from the outset, and it’s the electronics and camera that are expensive, so it’s not really a big deal.

The important thing is that the data is really useful, Sussenbach said. The Gatewing can get imagery for basically a square kilometer on each individual flight, he said, which means about 45 minutes in the air at 150 meters. Go up to 300 meters and you get double the area covered, but with less resolution. Each photo taken by the Gatewing, which dictates its own flight path based on where you tell it to shoot, overlaps by 75 percent by default, but you can set it for more overlap if you’re trying to create a 3D digital terrain model and you’re concerned there aren’t that many features for the software to match after the fact. Sussenbach showed a very nice 3D model of an open pit mine and some work they had done to map the scope of a small oil spill on the island.

The resolution of the camera is very nice – just about good enough to identify individual people if you know who you’re looking for – and Sussenbach said he gets 5 cm resolution on his orthophotos. Basically, you just grab the photos off the plane via SD card and then throw those on your computer. There’s a cloud-based solution for the processing, but he said they use the desktop version because they don’t have a great deal of bandwidth and uploading 5 gigs at a time would take forever.

Finally, he highly recommended the five days in training in Ghent, Belgium, that Gatewing provides. That, and giving yourself a good 15 training flights, he said was key to a successful first job.

There are some hurdles to be aware of, too:

• People will think it’s a toy. At customs, this could mean the difference between paying big tax on bringing in a cool plaything or not paying any tax on a survey tool. Be ready to explain yourself.

• People will think it’s a toy. When you go to get liability and damage insurance, you need to find an insurer who understands the value of the instrument. Gatewing can help with this – GIS4c went with a company in Amsterdam.

• You need to learn about local fly-zone regulations. In the U.S., you probably can’t fly it. In Curaçao, GIS4c needs to coordinate with the local air traffic control and with the Coast Guard. It’s a scary feeling, Sussenbach said, when you don’t really have control over the UAV and all of a sudden you hear a helicopter…

• You need to really understand your local terrain and relative elevation in general. The UAV flies at a steady 150 meters. If there’s a 160-meter hill in the way, the UAV goes boom. And if you launch from the bottom of an open pit mine, 150 meters isn’t as high as you think it is.

• Make sure you’ve got a good work station. Sussenbach recommends 32 gigs of RAM and even then doing the 3D DTMs will take you between six and eight hours of processing time.

Take care of all of that, he said, and there are some real applications you can monetize with this thing, including site planning for development projects, water runoff modeling, volume calculations for mines, and, really, whatever you can figure out when you’re talking with potential clients.

As you can imagine, there were plenty of suitors lined up for a dance with Gatewing later that night.

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