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January 20th, 2014
What will the proliferation of earth observation mean for improved automation?

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We are on the cusp of a massive proliferation of aerial and satellite earth observation inputs — from new commercial satellite constellations, to government sponsored satellites that offer their images free for use via online download, and unmanned aerial systems that are due to gain the air in the coming year. With all these inputs, and daily revisits of every place on the planet, the integration of earth observation into everyday business workflows is happening with increasing frequency.

Just this past week, an interesting development took place with the acquisition of EagleView and its Pictometry oblique imagery platform and service by Verisk Analytics, a larger firm that supplies information about risk to the property/casualty insurance market. Eagle View has been taking Pictometry imagery and creating meaningful and automated data products for some time, and the innovation and insight will now fuel a new line of business for a larger business player. This trend of deriving intelligence from imagery, and selling that insight as a service, is at its early stages.

Straight to Solutions

The EagleView and Pictometry offering is worth expanding upon as one of the products that they sell is the remote means to measure the area of a roof, and its condition, for both contractors and insurers. Here, the solution makes a lot of sense as it eliminates the need for anyone to visit the site, climb up on a ladder and measure the roof themselves. The data product from imagery is sufficiently accurate, saves a great deal of time and effort, increases safety, and removes redundant work in the case where several contractors may need to measure in order to place a bid on work.

Taking imagery and moving directly to this type of solution is helpful in a whole manner of businesses that have an on-site or inspection element. Expanding this remote home measurement and inspection further, one could imagine services tied to finding the right contractors and the right materials at a home improvement store. It’s not a far-fetched future to imagine receiving designs and bids for work that are informed by a detailed understanding of your site and with details on both material costs and labor. With detailed remote modeling, you could have a drawing of what the finished project would look like before you’ve even picked your contractor and materials. These are the kinds of time savings and automation that we can expect given a greater remotely sensed understanding of homes and infrastructure.

Insight Advantage

With increased competition amongst commercial imagery providers, there’s bound to be a move for more easy integration into existing systems and workflows as well as the sale of change alerts. Imagine if you could set parameters for the outlook of change and sell that based upon how fresh you want the alerts. Those paying the highest rates would gain their insight for business benefit, and likely recoup that investment rapidly based upon the business edge that it affords. In turn, those at the top of this value chain help subsidize more frequent and higher resolution imagery and insights for others in the chain so that insights and accuracy continue to improve.

Selling on the basis of insight advantage will become the norm, just as our go-to search engine in chosen based on the speed and accuracy with which it returns answers. We can expect to see these data brands as a prominent display alongside the brands of the solution, just as chips within computers became a mark of quality.

Filling Gaps

The business model for this added automation falls flat wherever there are data gaps, so it may take some time for some providers to build an adequate archive to offer such services. The advent of unmanned aerial vehicles could be a game changer in this regard however, as they can be deployed locally and in a low-cost and automated fashion to fill in where gaps from satellite orbits exist. Any gap-filling measure will be much more expensive than the remotely viewed and aggregated imagery, but UAVs are a game changer because of the ability to operate autonomously and remotely.

Just as we’re seeing the rise of more robotic floor cleaning devices, the nascent UAV market is already hard at work to ultimately create the autonomous surveying and mapping robot. The level of automation could easily include surveying and stakeout of property boundaries and proposed new construction footprints, leading to many advantages in project work.

Automation, where our processes and systems, and even our vehicles, operate automatically depends on up-to-date information. The proliferation of earth observation is a key input to this more timely and accurate information. It will be interesting to see what kind of coupling of imagery information with algorithms, processes and systems will yield for widespread improvements of efficiency.

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