Pix4D‘s first annual User Conference kicked off today at the beautiful McNichols Civic Center in Denver, CO. CEO and founder Dr. Christophe Strecha opened the conference by telling a packed auditorium just how far 3D mapping and modeling has come since he first worked on the problem as a PhD candidate in Switzerland in the early 2000’s.
With over 78,000 users, 200 employees, and 80 resellers in 2019, Pix4D has come a long way – and so has the technology. Strecha says the technology has been enabled by the development of cheaper, better drones and good sensors: he says its up to the users, however, to determine not only new uses for the technology – but how to make a business of it.
That’s when Chris Anderson, drone thought leader and the founder of 3DR, took the stage. Strecha and Anderson are old friends, having met in the drone space as collaborators, makers and scientists in 2013, when 3DR was still operating out of a garage and making drones. Now, focused on the commercial industry with their product SiteScan, 3DR is one of the best and most successful examples of building a commercially viable business in the drone space – and Anderson says that new breakthroughs will finally help the drone industry reach large scale productivity.
The 1:1 Ratio
“One human for every robot” is the root of our productivity problem, says Anderson. This is no longer an issue with the technology, Anderson points out – drones have become far more reliable since the early garage days, when he jokes that his team’s flight: craash ratio was probably close to 1:1. “I’m proud to say we’ve made drones boring,” says Anderson. “Great technology is like that. Electricity is boring. It just works.”
Anderson says that his company envisioned an extension of the internet into the air, with the belief that the act of measuring in the world would offer critical information to make the world better. They envisioned drones doing work everywhere, but as Anderson points out, “We’re not there yet. And one of the reasons is that we still require one pilot for one drone. That’s not a technology problem: it’s a problem with regulation.”
Anderson says that unleashing the productivity that automated drones promise will require several steps – and they’re in the works.
The first is the issue of streamline, performance based certification – something federally mandated and now in development. 3DR hopes to be one of the first recipients of a new certification based on test flight data that will allow for flight beyond visual line of site (BVLOS), over people, at night and, perhaps most importantly, with multiple vehicles per Pilot in Command.
That regulation and certification will allow for what Anderson says is the second step in the process to real productivity gains: modestly parallel operation. The certification that 3DR hopes to receive will allow for a drone to pilot in command (PIC) ratio of <20:1. “That’s all we need,” says Anderson. “That’s awesome.” With the new regulatory process which will allow for multiple drones: PIC, the U.S. is joining Switzerland to lead the world in breaking through this significant boundary.
Thirdly, explains Anderson, is making the process simple: “You don’t need robotic battery changing boxes,” says Anderson. “Changing batteries is just not that hard.” Anderson says that on the construction sites that 3DR works on, scanning a site at the beginning and end of every day is extremely useful for measuring progress and change. But they envision this as a very easy process. “You take the drone out of the box in the morning, and you change the battery. You have the drone scan every morning and at the end of every day. Then you put it back in the box,” he says. “Easy.”
Where Breaking the 1:1 Ratio Will Work Best
3DR plans to perform airport inspections as their first application. Anderson explains that airports need to be inspected every day for foreign objects, and periodically for infrastructure issues like cracks in the pavement. It’s something typically performed on foot – and the airport must be closed during the inspection, making the inspections extremely expensive as well as time consuming. 3DR will use 3 drones to inspect an airport in less than 15 minutes, which represents a huge gain in productivity for the airport.
“Routine, daily, hourly missions,” represent the ideal gains in productivity, says Anderson. “Inspections, agriculture missions like crop spraying – that’s a perfect example. Crops are big, drones are small – you need lots of them.”
Anderson says that the combination of drones and automation tools with innovative photogrammetry software like Pix4D’s represent the potential for the drone industry. “SiteScan and Pix4D collaborate to capture reality,” says Anderson. – “Anywhere, anytime, automatically.”