Imagine sending a drone to take pictures above your neighborhood, then compiling those photos into an extremely high-resolution, local map. A new piece of software, combined with improved drone technology, means this kind of arrangement is already cheaper than you may think.
Maps Made Easy recently completed their Kickstarter campaign, meaning their software for combining a massive number of aerial photos into a coherent whole will soon be a reality. When it’s ready, anyone will be able to launch a $2000 drone, or even a $600 remote-control plane, and create maps. Add GPS coordinates, and you can explore your own pictures the way you browse Google Maps right now.
This has any number of practical uses – from farmers wanting to monitor their crop yields to construction managers wanting an overview of their progress – but it’s also just cool. I sat down with Tudor Thomas, the CTO of Drones Made Easy, to talk about this software.
Watch the complete half-hour interview above, or subscribe to Technophilia Podcast for an audio download.
“We’ve been dealing with various forms of aerial imaging, from military platforms to commercial mapping, for going on 15 years now,” he tells me, before explaining what their latest software, Maps Made Easy, aims to do.
Turning Photos Into Maps
A high-desert region of New Mexico, see the full map.
Maps Made Easy, according to Thomas, is a piece of software that stitches images together. It’s not concerned with precise GPS location, making the process relatively simple.
Generally one of the biggest problems with creating stitched-map imagery is synchronizing where the picture is taken, as measured with the GPS, versus where the picture was taken of on the ground.
The alternative: leaving the defining of GPS coordinates until after the photo is compiled. Then all you need to focus on is stitching the images together.
We’re doing this based on the images. You take all of the images, you put it in, you don’t need to have any of the GPS data at all.
If you’re happy with just the photo, great. If you want GPS coordinates, you can add that after the fact.
You go out with a GPS, you find a rock, and mark it to a particular coordinate. Then you can go into the pictures, find that rock, and map the coordinate. So you’ll have the high-quality imagery without the need for a high-quality base map.
It’s an affordable alternative to traditional methods, which track GPS data while taking the photos. The result: merging the images required to map out a small farm costs only a couple of dollars. Users own the pictures when the process is completed, but they also have the option to share them.
Our site is going to have a gallery, where you can share the things you’ve made. That will be out there in the public. But we’re sensitive to having people’s data remain private if they want it to be private, but we make it easy for people to put their data out there if they don’t want to make it private.
What Would You Use A Drone For?
The main advantage of this over, say, Google Maps, is that you can control when the image is taken. Thomas outlined how his software could be useful for a variety of professions, starting with construction:
Take a map the day before construction starts, and then every week for the duration of construction. It turns into a map video clip of progress of what they’ve been building, what equipment was where during what times. You could have remote project managers look in, see what these guys are up to.
Another usage case: farming.
*A potato farm in Surrey, UK. Check out the full map here
A potato farm in the UK took one picture in early June, you can zoom in and almost see the leaves on each plant. A month and a half later, the exact same plants are now feet wide. You can do this to track the growth, to make sure that everything is okay, and to be able to estimate yields and things like that based on ground coverage.
Or, if you’re trying to sell a property, you could control when the picture is taken to show off the land at its best.
A real estate agent could, if there’s an old map on Google Maps that shows the house in the winter and it doesn’t look like an appealing place – this is the case with my mom’s house, it looks like the arctic tundra – you can take an up-to-date map. Take it in the summer, so it’s all nice and green and it looks nice.
Cheapest Drones For The Job
Okay, say you want to get started. How much would the equipment cost?
“You could probably get away with it for 600 bucks, but to have it be automated – for it to not be remote-controlled – is a bit more,” explains Thomas. “We sell a kit that’s $2000-ish dollars.”
It’s not a small amount of money, sure, but it’s low by historic standards. And there are other affordable drones out there.
“When this peaked my interest a couple of years ago, a company called Dragonfly was selling a starter drone for $25,000,” explains Thomas. “You had to go to them and take a class to learn how to fly it. This was four years ago.”
Drones today are cheaper and easier to use – an evolution similar to what we’ve seen with desktop computers. At this rate, it’s easy to imagine drone ownership being widespread just a few years from now.
We’ve talked about industries these drones could revolutionize, but won’t the sky fill up with drones pretty quickly?
Legal Issues Around Drones
That question leads to legal complexities – especially in America, Thomas explains. Property owners have the right to control the airspace up to 83 feet above the tallest structure on their property.
Why 83 feet? Because of chickens, Thomas explains.
83 feet was initially designed to keep airplanes from scaring some guy’s chickens, I believe his name was Thomas Causby. He sued the US government for almost putting him out of business, his chickens were dying of stress. The supreme court said.
So, who controls the airspace above 83 feet? It’s not clear.
Above 500 feet is FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) controlled airspace. They don’t control below 500 feet, so the question is who does. It’s kind of this no-man’s land. And that space is prime area for drones.
Thomas explains his drones operate best at around 150 feet. The legal issues surrounding the no-mans land needs to be worked out if drone usage is going to become widespread, but Thomas isn’t worried: there are lots of places his drones can be useful.
Other countries are the areas that are not served very well by Google Maps. Australia, Canada, Mexico. People from these places found our Kickstarter, and are very interested in augmenting the bad satellite imagery that exists in their region.
Crowed Sourced Google Maps Alternative?
Despite random emails from would-be investors, Thomas is not interested in turning this service into a crowd-sourced replacement for Google Maps.
Venture capitalists will talk to anybody, and all they want is your soul.”
If people want to use Maps Made Easy as a tool for building a crowd-sourced Google Maps alternative, they’re free to – but Thomas is focused on making their tool better.
We don’t need an extra open source project to babysit. That being said, our imagery as hosted by us, could easily be integrated into an open source map.
The Importance Of Batteries
How many are withing ten feet of you?” askes Thomas. I have to admit: it’s a lot.
Batteries are in everything, and the longer they last, the more useful a device is. Drones are no exception.
“The world will be better after Elon Musk’s gigafactory gets online and makes cheap batteries for everybody,” says Thomas, adding that batteries take up a lot of his time.
We spend so much time as engineers dealing with charging cycles and power densities and the mechanical aspects of it. And the chemicals that are in these batteries are not nice things a lot of the time, and are not thermally stable. So it’s certainly a very interesting topic, batteries. How many batteries are within 10 feet of you right now? You can’t even count them. Everybody hopes it gets better, but somebody has to research it.
What Would You Use A Drone To Map?
We want to know: if you had a drone, what would you map? I’d probably get a high-res image of my parent’s farm. Let me know what you’d map out in the comments below, okay?