Let the Drone Mapping Race Begin

by Matt Ball on April 6, 2012

News today that Trimble has acquired Belgium-based unmanned aerial vehicle maker Gatewing marks an important milestone in the commercialization of drone-based map data collection. There’s a growing interest in these low-cost mapping platforms, particularly given the FAA’s relaxation of laws that have prohibited their expansion in the United States.

This continued industry consolidation by Trimble adds one more missing piece (the platform) to their continuously expanding set of capabilities. Over the years, we’ve seen Trimble add an increasing lineup of geospatial technologies that have pushed it far past surveying and positioning into data collection software (Tripod Data Systems and GeoNav GmbH), electronic guidance and control (with Caterpillar), inertial navigation systems (Applanix), 3D laser scanning (MENSI), wireless data systems (Pacific Crest), photogrammetry and modeling (INPHO), image analysis (Definiens), satellite-based position corrections (OmniSTAR), mobile handheld GPS (Ashtech), building information modeling (Tekla), and many others.

The company has put together a solid suite of solutions and tools for precision agriculture and construction markets, with key partnerships with industry leaders. These markets are both prime for low-cost aerial data capture in order to improve efficiency, speed workflow, and guide intelligent site-based decisions. One can see that technology could also be useful in mining, utility asset management, municipal public works, and other markets where Trimble has a strong presence. The alignment of Gatewing with fieldwork applications is certainly the strategy as the business will be reported as part of Trimble’s Engineering and Construction segment rather than their Survey & Infrastructure division or their Mapping & GIS division.

Gatewing has drawn great interest and attention for their mapping capabilities, acting as a strong exhibit floor draw at the Esri International User Conference last summer. Their premier platform is the X100, a 2 kg. (4.4 lbs.) drone that collects aerial imagery and digital surface models. The data capture capability is coupled with Stretchout desktop software that automates image processing and the delivery of georeferenced orthophotos and accurate digital terrain. The tool is ideal for novice users who don’t need any photogrammetric training to take advantage of the unique perspective provided by aerial imagery.

Gatewing is well poised for the collection of site-specific information, and should fit neatly and quickly into Trimble’s other offerings. Breaking down the barrier to ownership of an aerial imagery platform provides increased possibilities for aerial imagery that fit more neatly into day-to-day workflows of construction and agriculture. Whereas in the past, the cost of data capture meant that an aerial image would often be just a one-time thing if at all, this low cost provides the opportunity for ongoing data capture from above.

Gatewing also stands to benefit with tools that Trimble and its companies offer. The company could integrate Trimble aerial cameras, the Applanix precise aerial positioning, the eCognition automated imagery processing and change detection software, and the INPHO imagery geomodeling and digital terrain modeling tools. We might also expect to see a lidar sensor for 3D point cloud generation added to the platform, or maybe a photo-based pixel cloud stitching software for more rapid collection of 3D models.

“The Gatewing team is excited about the new ownership,” said Maarten Vandenbroucke, CEO and one of three founders of Gatewing. ”For Trimble to see the value in unmanned aerial systems for surveying and mapping applications means that the industry is truly ready for this exciting new technology. We are enthusiastic about how UAVs can revolutionize the landscape and open a complete new spectrum in remote sensing applications. I believe that being a part of Trimble will accelerate the pace in which UAVs will further be adopted by professionals.”

This acquisition is just the start of an interesting technology evolution that will surely see more acquisitions and technology development in the unmanned aerial vehicle area. This is particularly true at Trimble’s chief competitor Hexagon, where a similar integration of diverse geospatial technologies is taking place.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Gary Mortimer April 10, 2012 at 1:16 pm

The FAA has not relaxed the rules for UAS, and it seems unlikely to happen before 202 1 Detect sense and avoid has to be resolved first. Its also unlikely that the Gatewing will comply with ASTM F-38 airworthy standards.

We think Trimble have jumped the gun.

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