How Digital Imagery Is Changing the Way Contractors Work
Advances in digital imagery have paralleled Moore’s law in microchip design. The result is a leap forward in the capacity of camera sensors at an increasingly lower cost.
When these improvements in image-capture technology are combined with computer vision and cloud computing, there are the makings of a visual revolution that’s changing the lives not just of those who capture and distribute high-resolution aerial images, but of those whose businesses depend on them—architects, real-estate developers, construction companies, governments and many others.
High-resolution aerial imagery applies in different industries, including architecture, construction, engineering, commercial and residential development, water treatment, roadway design, sewer management, traffic engineering, solar energy, government planning, roofing and other areas focused on location content.
The largest asphalt paving contractor in Pennsylvania integrates high-resolution, aerial captures into a field data collection app that was designed in-house. The map-based app lowers expenses, increases revenue and helps manage more than 400 projects completed in a single paving season. The browser app replaces reams of paper maps, spreadsheets and PDF files, while allowing planners and estimators to prepare for projects without physically going to the site.
Another example can be found in the success of a solar installation company headquartered in New Jersey. This growing solar installer has expanded its services nationwide by utilizing frequently updated, aerial imagery to accelerate initial assessments and get a complete view of properties that best qualify for solar panel systems. This reduced lead time has doubled the number of weekly qualifying contracts from 2,000 to between 3,000 and 5,000.
Aerial imagery has changed the way property assessments are conducted in Bexar County, Texas by the Bexar Appraisal District. The accuracy of appraisals has increased, and the time and liability concerns related to onsite assessments has decreased. This allows appraisers to conduct evaluations and appraisals without onsite visits. With $3.9 billion in new construction in the county each year, aerial captures enable Bexar to verify completion stages of new construction.
ACCESSIBILITY FOR BUSINESSES
How is this imagery accessed by businesses? The cloud efficiently stores and distributes the digital imagery. Data is posted online and made available to users through a map browser within minutes after it is processed. Cloud computing allows for tremendous scalability and cost savings for companies and customers. Thanks to enterprise systems like Amazon Web Services, businesses can use as little or as much computing capacity as needed, based on processing demand.
The technology doesn’t stop there. Computer vision, enabled by cloud computing, can also be used to create 3-D geospatial content at scale. It does so by identifying the Z value, or altitude above sea level, for every pixel in every image, fleshing out latitude and longitude locations by adding vertical height. This was once a hugely expensive process of manual interpolation of specially collected stereo image pairs.
UNDERSTANDING AERIAL PROGRESSION
While aerial imagery isn’t new, today it’s more accessible or affordable than ever.
The earliest photographs taken from above were a triumph of human ingenuity over the laws of physics. Starting in France in the late 1850s, intrepid individuals like Gaspard-Félix “Nadar” Tournachon ascended a few hundred feet in a tethered hot-air balloon, carrying in their baskets a complete darkroom. They used the wet-collodion process in which glass plates were coated, sensitized, exposed and developed while aloft.
That ordeal was simplified through the invention of dry plates in the 1870s, which also reduced the costs of photography. Still, a composite aerial view required a painstaking “mosaicking” of overlapping images, a process done by hand and imperfect at best. Over the next century-plus, there were vast improvements in cameras, to say nothing of the invention of the airplane.
Besides the enhancement in collecting high-resolution images, there have been enormous strides in processing and stitching those pictures together. Nowadays, computer vision algorithms can identify features and details—where the curb corner meets or the road centerline ends—find the tie points and create a much better model to bring all the components together into a seamless wide view at high resolution.
EMPOWERING EMPLOYEES AND IMPROVING PROCESSES
Easy-to-use aerial imagery software has empowered employees to invent their own solutions, making for more self-reliant, independent professionals and firms.
For example, a field engineer at the aforementioned paving company has developed a field app designed to increase efficiencies in communication and project management. The custom app shows active and archived projects on a map merged with aerial imagery that can be zoomed in and out as needed by the user. The company is working on technology that allows for calculations and drawing directly on the imagery to determine exactly where objects will go on any given project, which will help in developing estimates.
It’s hard to describe a definitive picture of just how far digital imagery has taken businesses. Maybe it’s easier to say it this way. Before those radical improvements, business was defined by technical capacity. Now, capability is driven solely by demand.
That’s what leaps in technology ought to do: improve the lives of everyone.