‘Aerial survey market in Africa is set to grow substantially’

‘Aerial survey market in Africa is set to grow substantially’

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Norman Banks, Southern Mapping Company, South Africa
Norman Banks
CEO, Southern Mapping Company, South Africa

As one of the foremost aerial surveying companies in Africa, Southern Mapping Company offers its services to a wide variety of industries and sectors including civil engineering and infrastructure development, mineral explorations and mine management, environmental planning and rehabilitation etc. Norman Banks, CEO talks about the future of Africa’s aerial survey market, the company’s plans and more…

Tell us about Southern Mapping and its services.

Southern Mapping is a company that has been around since 2006. The staff members of the company have been involved in LiDAR surveying since the mid 90s. Since we acquired our first LiDAR system back in 1997, the company has witnessed steady growth and has now become a full service geospatial company, offering a variety of products derived from satellite and airborne sensors. Amongst our primary offerings are LiDAR and imagery services, hyperspectral services, and information capture using thermal and multispectral sensors. In addition, we act as agents for a number of different satellite service providers, in the optical sphere from Landsat and Aster to Digital Globe and Astrium products, and on the radar side we provide services for the various providers of radar imagery. In addition to collecting that imagery, we provide interpretation services and produce information sets such as mineral maps for exploration purposes.

Tell us something about your ongoing/recently completed projects.

One of the most interesting projects that we are working on at the moment is a project for the World Wildlife Fund, which involves capturing 212 two thousand hectare plots and fitting those into a carbon mapping project being carried out. We are working with staff members on the ground, who are capturing information about the biomass of the tropical jungle in the Congo. These ground teams are involved in collecting specific information about tree density, tree types etc and using that to calculate biomass of a one hectare plot. The LiDAR technology that we are providing is being used to extrapolate that. Over every one hectare plot, we are providing an additional 2000 hectares of information, which would be used as truthing information for satellite radar information that is being collected to generate a biomass map of the entire DOC tropical jungle.

Amongst other projects that we are doing is a soil mapping project in Tanzania where we have completed a LiDAR project over the area and are now working with a team of pedologists to produce soil maps. The soil maps would be used to determine agricultural suitability for the area and find out whether the area is suitable for cropping and which type of crops are most applicable to that area. We are also working on infrastructure and mining projects with conventional LiDAR surveys around the continent, right from West Africa and East Africa down to South Africa.

How do you see the demand for LiDAR and other airborne survey technologies in Africa? Which industries are mostly driving this demand?

The demand for LiDAR will continue to grow. According to a recent report, Africa’s population is expected to quadruple over the next seventy years, from around 1 billion at present to 4 billion people. Thus, it goes without saying that in order to sustain such a huge increase in population requires infrastructure, mining, provision of electricity, utilities, dams etc. With this kind of an increase, all other sectors of the marketplace are going to be demanding additional and more and more detailed information from a geospatial point of view. So, there is only one way for the geospatial industry in Africa and that is steadily increasing demand. As geospatial companies, we would have to provide more and more of these services efficiently.

Which according to you have been the biggest technological breakthroughs in the field of aerial surveying?

Over the course of the last two decades, one of the biggest technological breakthroughs has been LiDAR during the early to mid 90s, which really shook up the photogrammetry industry and reached a stage where analog and even the early digital aerial cameras were being superseded by LiDAR technology. Another major change during the early to mid 2000s was the development of technologies such as Semi-Global Matching where conventional imagery or digital imagery is being used with very efficient, large scale software to generate point densities or point clouds that match or even exceed that of LiDAR. The two different technologies have very different strengths and weaknesses but without a doubt they are the technologies that have driven the aerial survey over the last 20 years, and have dramatically enhanced the efficiency of delivery of aerial survey.

LiDAR survey has been a significant technological change in the recent past. How do you see the aerial survey market changing in the future?

What we are going to see is a continuous demand for more and more rapid delivery. While the clients are going to remain largely the same, for example there would be more demand from the mining industry and the infrastructure industry, but we are going to see continuous pressure from the satellite service providers. All this will have a huge impact on the delivery of conventional aerial survey. On the other side, we are also witnessing an explosion in the provision of services such as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, which is again having an impact on the conventional aerial survey market. Due to the efficient software, the ability to do small areas very cheaply and the lower barrier to entry, a UAV has its own advantage as compared to a LiDAR system mounted on an aircraft, which costs significantly more. Thus, there is definitely going to be pressure from the drone market on one side and satellite imagery market on the other.

With so much competition in the market, what are the major areas that you focus on for your growth?

Southern Mapping has always stood for quality and guarantees. We are well known in the industry for our ability to fulfil the client’s requirements even if something goes wrong. We are a service oriented organisation and our prime driver is to make sure that our clients are happy with the product that they receive. In addition, we are actively moving away from being a data supplier and are moving towards providing solutions to the client, which fuse data from our variety of sensors, such as multispectral, hyperspectral, LiDAR, conventional, optical imagery radar or thermal. We can put these together to produce a product which solves the problems rather than just providing a set of data.

What are your views on the geospatial market in Africa, South Africa in particular? Where do you see things heading in the near future?

What we have is an interesting two-tier service provider market developing in the region. On one side, there are the service providers who have become established over the past two decades, and are providing services based on helicopter or airborne platforms. On the other hand, we have an absolute proliferation of conventional surveyors and non-surveyors who have acquired a drone and are now setting themselves up as aerial survey suppliers. We are currently in a situation where there is a lot of flux with the new technologies. We are witnessing poor information being delivered to clients and also very good information being delivered to clients. Over the next 24 months, there is going to be a shakeup and settling down of this market, and we will see a set of service providers that offer UAVs, conventional aircraft mounted products and satellite imagery. While some suppliers will offer just one, others will offer a combination of all the three. In terms of the market, it is going to continue to grow as population pressure puts huge demand on the suppliers.

How do you see your company positioned five years down the line?

Southern Mapping is well positioned to take advantage of the growth in the demand and with the variety of options that we provide in terms of data capture and the ability to provide solutions to our clients, we are well positioned to be at the front of the service provision market for geospatial products in the next five years. We have a variety of technical abilities within our company including people who are qualified in survey in GIS, geology, hyperspectral technology, vegetation and ecology etc. Thus, we are a diversified geospatial company that is able to provide services to a wide variety of market sectors and clients.