Since Google Earth was released to the public back in 2001, satellite imagery for individuals and most businesses has been useful yet limited. In today’s digital age, satellite imagery has been used more by consumers than an average company, because a higher resolution approach is critical in large scale projects. Goodbye trains, planes, and automobiles—hello, drones, planes, and satellites.
What About Current Satellite Imagery?
Satellite imagery offers widespread coverage but lower resolution—a suitable solution to view what the surrounding area looks like when you need directions to a restaurant. It does have limitations. For example, it cannot provide the resolution level required to measure distances and see up-close details for projects in construction, residential and retail development, architecture and other industries. Publicly available satellite imagery also is often outdated.
Grit Daily sat down with Nearmap, an Australian-based company that is one of the first companies to democratize aerial technology to better understand the significance aerial technology has in the 21st century.
“Look at your house, for instance. With Nearmap historical aerial captures, I can show you what’s happened in that space during the last few years. I can show how the property has changed over time, including, pavement, roof condition, changes in the landscape and more,” said Tony Agresta, executive vice president of product at Nearmap.
“You simply do not have that functionality with regular satellite imagery.”
Aerial imagery—partially because photos are taken from a closer distance—provides the detail and resolution that companies need to make more accurate decisions. However, to obtain aerial imagery, companies had to contract with professionals to take pictures and fly the plane. Then, you stored terabytes of that imagery on hard drives until you could afford the next flyover.
What Is Aerial Imagery Technology?
Nearmap, an aerial imagery company that has been around for more than 12 years, provides high-resolution, frequently updated imagery, predominantly in high-density areas in Australia, the U.S., Canada and New Zealand.
Currently, Nearmap is the fastest-growing company on the Australian Stock Exchange (ASX), having been invited to join ASX Top 300 Companies last September. In April, the company was invited to join ASX Top 200 Companies, demonstrating its massive growth within a short period.
What’s interesting about Nearmap is that it not only has patented all its technology, but it also owns the process behind the technology, becoming one of the first companies to democratize aerial imagery.
“We were the first to make imagery available from the cloud with new images available multiple times per year,” said Agresta. “Now, we’ve provided access to 3-D imagery through our easy-to-use browser application. Individuals and small businesses can now afford to use aerial imagery, including simplified ways to export 3-D for custom areas. We even have multiple captures for 3-D, and the archive is growing. Our 3-D is wide-scale and our processing and delivery capabilities are second to none.”
Since Nearmap owns the process from start to finish, it can capture and download aerial photos to its software service and then transmit that imagery to customers within a couple of days, according to Agresta.
Transforming the Public Sector
We were able to speak with Agresta and Sue Steel, executive vice president of people & culture at Nearmap, about the company and how aerial imagery is transforming numerous sectors in the 21st century.
In our conversation with them, we learned that many traditional imagery companies have only pieces of the solution. Some deliver images in the cloud, but those images are not updated consistently. Others don’t have instantly accessible imagery from the cloud. Some provide only offline 3-D files. Others don’t have API access.
“Our ability to capture, manage and deliver aerial imagery in so many forms and at an affordable rate makes us different,” Agresta explained.
“This provides our customers with current imagery to profoundly transform the way they work. It’s also important to deliver imagery consistent with the needs of our customers. Some customers stream the imagery using our integration APIs. Many customers access all or some of it through MapBrowser, our cloud-based SaaS offering. Others consume it through files we send to them offline. The beauty of this approach rests not only in image quality and coverage but also with how a customer works and their preferred approach for access.”
When we took a look at the company’s website, it reminded us of what a modern-day Google Maps or Google Earth.
We asked Agresta how this technology sets Nearmap apart from its competition, to which he provided a timeline dating back 12 years:
Grit Daily News: Can you provide a specific example?
Tony Agresta: A food truck will use Nearmap to identify construction sites and map the food truck route. This sort of insight isn’t what we built Nearmap to do specifically, but we love seeing how customers are using the technology to meet their needs.
Another example would be construction businesses. They rely on our aerial imagery to reduce site visits. They can inspect a site from their desktop and pretty much measure the lengths and heights of buildings and use specific features to plan where to place a crane.
Solar companies use our product to determine where they are going to place solar panels on a roof, how many they can fit, where the sun shines and how the shade affects the placement of panels. Nearmap aerial imagery helps maximize the use of the entire roof and without sending someone out to measure it.
Water and sewer districts precisely measure hard-surface areas, determine changes over time and calculate water run-off. They use these calculations for utility billing as well as infrastructure planning.
You can use the imagery inside of our cloud-based browser or export it for use in your preferred mapping, design, visualization or other industry tools. This flexibility opens up hundreds of new applications.
GD: When you are setting up an aerial imagery system, how does it work?
TA: Our system starts with patented cameras attached to the aircraft to capture the imagery. Then, we process all those photos using scalable services. We deliver much more than vertical (or top-down) imagery. We also provide oblique imagery (taken at a 45-degree angle) and many forms of 3-D, including textured mesh, point clouds, digital surface models and true ortho images on a uniform scale. That imagery becomes available in many ways, including the ability to export it. Users sign onto Nearmap, and they can view what we have just captured, or go back in time to see what was there beforehand.
Apple and Disneyland are some excellent examples. Say you are in construction, you can see the changes to the Apple campus they are building. Disneyland is always evolving so you can monitor changes there. Telephone companies are installing 5G and reviewing placement of antennas and transmission hardware. Using our software, they can locate their infrastructure and identify interference to optimize network transmissions.
Companies and individuals can depend on Nearmap to deliver up-to-date imagery at a superior resolution.
GD: Let’s talk about public safety and utility use cases.
TA: The public safety side has many users of aerial imagery, including law enforcement, event management, emergency dispatch, routing and logistics. Most of the public safety use cases come down to this—if you can see the detail in a 2-D and 3-D space, you can better plan and address the concerns of citizens—especially during an emergency. Planning large scale events involves location content in so many ways—for security, staff placement or deciding on access points. The USGA uses Nearmap for planning major golf tournaments. Our service is also used in more unpredictable occurrences such as natural disasters, flooding, power outages and more. When it comes to natural disasters, government agencies, cities and insurance companies need the imagery very quickly. We deliver on that promise—providing imagery within days of a disaster. Utility companies and telecommunications use Nearmap to do inventory and track assets, so they can dispatch service crews immediately to precise locations.
Dayton, Ohio, recently had 12 tornadoes strike the city. Whether it’s tornadoes, floods, fires, earthquakes or destruction, Nearmap will be there to capture the damage to aid in reconstruction. Recently, there was a massive hailstorm in Sydney at Christmastime. We flew the area the day after the hailstorm happened. We captured so much destruction of cars and houses. That’s how precise our resolution is. You can actually see the hail damage on cars.
Challenges Implementing Aerial Imagery
GD: In developing this aerial imagery system, what has been the biggest challenge up until now?
Tony Agresta: Nobody has delivered imagery to the scale and scope as Nearmap. There are millions of photos connected together to form a 3-D landscape. Without our technology, you would have to store, organize and manage all the images on a server.
GD: What about drone technology?
TA: Drone imagery is useful for viewing local areas and projects. Satellite covers a massive area without the depth or resolution you would get from a drone or aerial imagery. The patented system we’ve created combines both high-resolution with expansive areas. Our process involves attaching our camera systems onto planes, photographing multiple angles and capturing vast areas at very sharp resolution. Rather than commission a drone flight, process the imagery and then store it, users get instant access to aerials anywhere there is internet access. We do all the heavy lifting, so our customers don’t need to.
GD: What is the next step in the evolutionary process of imagery and analytics?
TA: The next evolution takes us beyond imagery to intelligence derived from imagery—using machine learning and AI. These technologies will give our customers a competitive advantage, opening new uses for aerial imagery. To this end, we have been hard at work to derive attributes from our imagery automatically. Those attributes will be delivered in many forms.
We solved the delivery of scalable 3-D faster than anyone. It was born from listening to our customers about what they need to transform their work and a significant investment in R&D. Accessing 3-D imagery has typically been a difficult, time-consuming and expensive process. But not anymore. Our new 3-D product represents the single largest, most frequently updated footprint of 3-D imagery accessible through a browser.
The ability to measure in 3-D and then export Nearmap 3-D for use in other platforms will transform the aerial imagery market.
Nearmap opened the doors to its Salt Lake City, Utah, office about five years ago, and we have continued to expand. This past April, the company opened its New York City office.
What’s next for the company?
Sue Steel: With such a dynamic and fast-growing technology and company, Nearmap functions at ‘sprint speed,’ and we need a culture and engagement process that matches that dynamic. About two years ago, I was brought in to help develop that workplace culture. I implemented a series of company-wide employee engagement initiatives, which included more consistent and clear communication throughout the organization and ongoing ‘health check’ engagement surveys.
Since we launched the program, our engagement results have dramatically improved, resulting in better communication across all departments along with initiatives to hear everyone’s voice. Even more importantly, we’ve established processes to respond to the input we receive. In fact, Nearmap’s CEO personally responds to the comments and questions from those surveys.
In June, the Gallup organization awarded Nearmap with a 2019 Great Workplace Award, validating the progress we’ve made in implementing improvements and seeing measurable results.
TA: AI analysis based on 3-D imagery is the future. Our AI capabilities are the result of more than two years of research and development with both data scientists and machine learning engineers. The team is using the petabytes of imagery captured during the past 10 years and creating a living data-set to identify changes or quantify attributes accurately via aerial images.
Nearmap has built highly accurate AI models and deployed them on a massive scale. Nearmap also applies the models to the latest surveys, generating new results with current imagery. What’s next really doesn’t have any limits.