Drones are becoming a big enough business that the Federal Aviation Authority is considering requiring owners to register them. The FAA expects over a million drones to be sold by the end of 2015 in the US alone.
Clearly, drones are the latest must-have toy for kids of all ages. But what can you actually do with a drone?
Well, you can make some money from it. “One thing drones are good at is taking photos of the ground,” said Dror Ouzana, CEO of Israeli start-up Pixtier, which has some unique ideas on how to use drones. “Our technology lets users upload images their drones photographed and automatically turn them into 3D maps. Those maps are geotagged, so we know exactly what the geographical coordinates of each image is. When we crowdsource other images of adjacent areas, we can create a single 3D map that we can sell to real estate agents, city planners, researchers, or anyone else who needs it – and when we do that, we split the proceeds with the map’s owner.”
Pixtier has the potential to stir up the market for three dimensional maps and models used for a wide variety of purposes, such as oil and gas exploration (determining the most likely places to search based on topography), law enforcement and rescue services (mapping the best approach to entering a building or recording a crime scene), agriculture (evaluating crop growth, insect infestation patterns, etc.) and tourism (virtual tours, apps for travelers, etc.). Using extrapolated layers (classes of objects, like buildings, roads, etc., such as those rendered by Google Maps and other applications) the 3D maps enable users to isolate features they are interested in or see how they relate to other elements.
The problem, of course, is generating the maps – or rather the 2D images that are extrapolated into 3D maps using data about the surroundings (height of buildings, length and width of streets and sidewalks, etc.). Today, most of those maps are generated by airplanes and helicopters, which shoot footage from the air for analysis, while others (like Google) take a land-based approach, taking photos and recording data from the ground to build an aerial map,
Somehow, though, not many people have thought of using drones to take the images (although, said Ouzana, there are several companies in the US that have). Drones equipped with cameras like the GoPro camera are an excellent solution for recording images of the ground, said Ouzana; they’re low cost, fly high enough to get good images, and are small enough to be deployed anywhere. So, taking advantage of drone ubiquitousness, Pixtier collects images via drones, with a camera sending images to a cellphone via Bluetooth, and the image is then uploaded to the cloud.
Several other firms also use the idea to use drones to collect images. But any similarity between Pixtier and the others ends there. Once an image is uploaded, said Ouzana, the user doesn’t have to do anything else; Pixtier’s cloud-based analysis system automatically renders 3D maps and GIS (geographic information system) layers with information about objects, buildings, trees, fire pumps, and any other feature that shows up in the photo. Depending on how complicated a scene is, Pixtier’s system takes in Jpeg images or video (AVI, MP4), renders it, and outputs it as a full 3D image, and/or layers for use in a GIS platform.
And even if other 3D image generation systems exist – though not on the cloud as SaaS (software as a service), which is unique to Pixtier – there is no other service anywhere that crowdsources images to generate whole maps for commercial sale – and shares the profits with the users who uploaded the images.
“We’re operating on a freemium model, so the first 25 or so images are stored for free, with sliding scale fees for further storage,” said Ouzana. “The images are also geotagged, so we know exactly which images match with others in a geographical region, to create a single 3D image of an entire map. Businesses, governments, or individuals who need a 3D image or a layered 3D image can buy if, and we will kick back a relative portion of the income to each person or entity who uploaded images that were part of the map.” The maps dynamically expand, so a purchaser can get as much of a geographical spread as they need.
Call it crowdsourced crowd-mapping, said Ouzana – a novel idea that will allow any drone owner to monetize their device.
“What would owners do with their images otherwise? Probably just store them and forget about them, like most people do with digital photos,” said Ouzana. “With Pixtier, we give them the opportunity to help generate reasonably priced 3D maps – a lot more cheaply than with other methods – and make money off it.”
Pixtier, located in Ramat Gan, has been working on the technology for about a year, and is on the verge of going public with it; the cloud service will be ready for images by the beginning of next year. Formerly CTO of a company called DefenSoft, Ouzana and his cofounders Shai Onn and Iovav Cohen have had dozens of years of experience in 3D image rendering between them.
“We’ve gotten a lot of positive interest from investors as well as people in the industry, who feel that we are onto something big,” said Ouzana. “With the explosion of drone sales, I think we are tapping into what could be a very lucrative market.”