In a span of three years, Pix4D has made its presence felt worldwide by coupling its solutions with UAV hardware manufacturers. CEO Christoph Strecha shares his thoughts on the global UAV market and his vision for the company
Pix4D is a spin-off of a research institute in Switzerland. How did it all start?
Pix4D is a spin-off of a research institute in Switzerland. How did it all start? We started from a university project more than 10 years ago. I was doing research on how to fully automate photogrammetric image processing workflows but with the same survey-grade accuracy. The existing workflow at that time was manual, time consuming and specialised, which meant only specialists could do it. I met a group working on computer vision and it was one of the leading groups looking at this technology from a computer vision point of view. So the idea was to combine computer vision techniques with photogrammetry. We developed software that automatically processes images into 3D models at survey-grade accuracy and, in 2011, we officially started Pix4D to sell our solution.
What are the focus areas of your applications?
Our biggest focus is to provide solutions for UAV images, which we believe is a big market. UAV images are not of the best quality because a UAV needs to be light and safe, and the camera used is usually a consumer-grade camera. The focus of our software is to use the survey- and consumer-grade cameras with a high redundancy in order to have results that are comparable
Big companies like Trimble, Leica and Topcon have realised that UAVs are important for mapping purposes.
to HD cameras flying on manned aircraft. Since UAVs fly much lower, the image quality is not so good, but with the redundancy we can take images of a small area with the same accuracy as an HD camera on a manned aircraft. This is very interesting, especially for smaller areas like farming, because the cost of data acquisition, processing and time is substantially reduced. Other than UAVs, we are also working in the general image reconstruction sector. We have solutions based on ground-based cameras that one can put on a vehicle.
What is your business model?
We sell software, both to UAV and camera manufacturers. We also sell to the end customers directly or through our global network of resellers. Services are something that we are also looking at but right now we are making easy solutions that are usually coupled with hardware — that is, UAVs. Most of our current revenue comes from coupling our software with UAVs. Pix4D also provides solutions for surveyors to survey small areas such as construction sites. We partner with UAV companies that focus on surveying or agriculture for instance. Then, together with them, we provide end-customer solutions.
Big companies like Trimble now have their own UAV and software divisions. Where do you see yourself in the market among big companies?
Trimble was the first of the big companies to acquire a UAV company — Gatewing, a Belgian company. Big companies like Trimble, Leica and Topcon have realised that UAVs are important for mapping purposes; they have acquired hardware solutions for this and our software is also partially used for these UAVs. The importance given by these companies to UAVs has given a push to the market which is still at a very early stage. This is a good sign for the overall market and we all need to work on making people see UAVs as a mapping tool just like they see laser scanners as a mapping tool.
Do you think the market is big enough for the big players and SMEs to co-exist?
Of course. Trimble has a software division that focuses on software for traditional photogrammetry. This is a very complex software, made for professionals, where you need to have a very good understanding of the software to get good results. Our focus is more on making it possible for the software to be used by anybody in the company, not just professionals. This is the advantage that Pix4D has and this is what contributes to its current success. I believe the three big companies will also work in this direction. I think we are in a good place in the overall market structure. If you look at Leica and Topcon, they do not have software solutions to process those images, so we are also collaborating with the big players to couple our software with their hardware.
Which verticals and geographies do you mainly cater to?
Our main clients are surveying companies, working for the mining, cadastre and natural resources management sectors. More and more agronomists and farmers are also using Pix4D, especially in USA. So this is a big market for us and is the area where we provide end-customer solutions. Our technology is also gaining importance for archaeology and cultural heritage. We operate worldwide. Typically, regions where we have most of our success are the regions where it is easy to fly UAVs. Some countries already have a more liberal legislation than other countries. We have good business in Europe, Canada, South America, Australia, Japan, and China.
What are your diversification plans?
Our software’s main function is turning images into 3D models in an automated way and focusing on survey-grade accuracy. We want to have a surveying product which is highly automated. That means that we can basically produce 3D models from any camera as soon as they have sufficient overlap. It could be consumer camera put on any UAVs with GPS tags. We have now launched a new product that can process 180 degrees fisheye cameras, which are really interesting for indoors where you do not have any GPS and you cannot easily geotag your images. But with this product, you can use ground control points to georeference the models that come out of the computation. General Canon or Sony cameras with fisheye lenses can also be used. They are very interesting in the urban environment. When you walk through cities, you do not have a wide possibility to place your camera where you want because you are restricted by the space. The fisheye lenses will give you a full overview and we can get highly accurate 3D models from them. So this is one thing where I believe we will have more business in the future — computing orthomosaics of facades and making building models inside and outside, etc.
Since we have strong knowledge in image processing and this is our main competence, whenever we are looking to diversify, it will be in this direction. Now that we already cover lightweight UAV imagery as well as ground-based imagery without geotags, we are looking into new solutions that are more based on time modelling. Pix4D will be analysing 3D models over time.
Is there any plan to buy a UAV company or manufacture your own UAV?
We have been thinking about this but what we are really looking for is to keep our focus on the software and have good partners to manufacture hardware. We are partnering with them to offer the end-customers fully integrated solutions by combining both hardware and software.
Where do you see Pix4D five years from now?
There are 40 people working in Pix4D now. Two years ago we were only a team of five people. We have opened an office in Shanghai (China) and San Francisco (USA) this year, mainly for business development but also for dedicated solutions for farming, construction, etc. So I believe in the next two years, Pix4D will be a lot different than what it is today. In five years I hope we become a leading software provider for photogrammetry image processing. That is our goal.