Stuart Blundell, Director of Strategy and Business Development, Harris Geospatial Solutions, foresees that in the future, pixels will become a commodity, and information will drive everyone in the competitive market place
Harris took over Exelis over a year ago. How have you benefited from the acquisition?
Exelis and Harris are quite complementary in terms of technology portfolios. We are very well integrated right now in terms of both leadership and technology. Harris has a very strong position in antennas, communications and secure network, and Exelis has brought us space technology from telescopes, weather satellites, GPS, and ground processing software. So, now, we are able to take what is happening in the satellite platforms and bring it together with our critical ground processing networks to provide complete solutions for our biggest customers, such as, the US government.
You have ventured into the LiDAR space with the Geiger-mode sensor. What prompted this move?
Wide-area mapping is one of our focus areas. Moreover, we could see that the commercial growth in LiDAR and 3D information across the geospatial market place was going up significantly. And the advantage of the Geiger-mode collection approach is that we fly twice as high, and twice as fast, as standard linear collection modes. We collect over a 100 points per square meter, as compared to one to two to four points per square meter. With such kind of data collection, when people see the detail in the 3D information, it makes them rethink the types of applications they can use. For example, we are doing a lot of flying for electrical utilities, helping them map out their transmission quarters and distribution assets. We are also mapping for civil customers who want to understand things like flood mapping, elevations for train networks and urban planning. We are also flying projects for the US Geological Survey to get precise elevation data. This would help the government to be better prepared for event like Hurricane Sandy.
Have you considered having a UAV version of this Geiger-mode LiDAR?
The Geiger-mode is too big an instrument to be mounted on an unmanned aerial vehicle, but LiDAR sensors on UAVs can really add to the offering in terms of full information collection. For example, several of our customers want to be able to go underneath bridges and trees, and go through areas where you might be blocked. So, whether it is in the form of typical LiDAR collection or typical aerial imagery collection, we see drones as an important part of the equation for a complete picture of what’s going on in the ground.
The capacity to move beyond policymaking and begin managing the resources of the city to achieve ‘more with less’ is a goal worth pursuing through smart geospatial technologies
Like other geospatial companies, is Harris also taking up the trend of providing not just data, but analytics and solutions as well?
When we decided to introduce a commercial wide-area LiDAR mapping service, the complementary idea was to essentially sell information products from the data we collect. So, we concurrently acquired a small e-commerce site in Colorado called MapMart. We expect to be able to offer 3D products into the commercial markets based on the commercial mode LiDAR data directly through that portal out on the Web.
We already know how to process the data. So, we basically made investments both in the collection of the data, and having a portal where people can come and buy the products they are looking for. It is a really interesting time to be in this market. There are excellent margins in business in geospatial information market on the commercial side.
And when there is so much information and capacity involved, you want to be able to leverage other people’s expertise. By combining the right set of ingredients, you can actually bring value to the market place. For instance, we have partnerships with Esri and DigitalGlobe because we complement each other’s business models. By working together, we can increase our footprint in the market.
Both Esri and DigitalGlobe have an online market place for data and maps. Are you participating in their efforts as well?
We are definitely contributing to it. For example, our ENVI image analysis software is being used by DigitalGlobe in its geospatial Big Data platform. And I am really excited about the tremendous infrastructure Esri has built with its Web GIS platform. We need to take advantage of that in such a manner that we are able to leverage content on both ArcGIS platform and MapMart.
It doesn’t matter whether you are a small organization or a large business. Today, the key to success is in recognizing the relationship between people, building trust, understanding how you complement each other, and clearly communicating about what you can do in the market together.
What industry trends are shaping the remote sensing ecosystem today?
The first would be UAVs — it takes away the cost factor from young entrepreneurs, and opens up a world of different applications for older entrepreneurs. Another major trend is that of the small satellites. Instead of taking years to develop and launch, we are now seeing people go from concept designs to launch within months. Also, 10 years ago, you could not have imagined precision remote sensing at the prices of today — in terms of launch cost, manufacturing cost, data acquisition and storage cost. There’s a lot of venture capital money driving the UAS and the small sat business. The third big equalizer out there right now is the Cloud services revolution, such as, DigitalGlobe’s Big Data platform.
How do you see the small sat industry panning out in the next three or four years, when many small sat constellations actually get active?
I remember reading a paper put out by the United States Air Force couple of years ago. It talks about layered remote sensing — an approach that I really endorse. Layered remote sensing essentially means that at different orbits around the earth, you have large satellites, small satellites, fixed-wing aircrafts and UAS. Cloud and network technologies are already making machine-to-machine communication better and complementary to each other. In the future, we would witness a very fast pace in terms of how you get from pixels to information. Pixels will become a commodity, and information will be the driver for everyone in the competitive market place. It’s a very exciting time to be in the business because the only thing that can limit us now is our imagination — in terms of collaboration, interoperability of data, open data standards, and the ability to essentially see everything that you want to see.
You talked about the creative destruction of this technology. Do you see this actually democratizing the market place and also increasing the penetration at the bottom of the pyramid?
I do. Over the last 10 years, we have seen companies outside the United States rapidly evolve. Earlier, Europe or the US would lead the world in remote sensing satellites. Now, countries like Saudi Arabia and Nigeria — countries that you wouldn’t have expected to be operating satellites or paying for capacity on satellites a decade ago — are also a part of space. And nations want to do this because they want a persistent eye on information about the planet, be it for forecasting, food security, national security, or any other trend. So, that is something at the higher end in terms of nations getting access to global information about the earth at the lower level. If I talk about drones, it fascinates me how this technology has become a part of not just earth sciences, but also journalism. People would go out, fly those drones, take pictures of something, report on it, and then get it out on the Web. This technology has the power of stirring up national debates on varied issues.
With so many developments happening around, what is it that excites you the most?
The thing that excites me the most is the concept of persistent imaging of the earth, so we can really understand changes that are going on at a much deeper level. It allows us to be anticipatory about what’s going to happen in the important places of the world. It allows us to improve humanitarian conditions, achieve food security, improve the way the environment is being managed by people, et al. I am talking not only as a professional, but also as a parent because I am concerned about all these things. I am concerned about how the world will look like for my daughter. I think that persistent remote sensing, Cloud services, and the ability to share information with open data standards are going to make things transparent, and deliver a better world for us.