Despite the obvious pleasures of Google Earth and Bing Maps, I still love hardcopy atlases. The centre piece of my bookshelf is the 5kg edition of The Times World Atlas. My favourite however is still Getmapping’s photographic atlas. In this atlas, all you see is aerial imagery of every square foot in the country – nothing else. It hasn’t even got place labels, so you’ve got to read the landscape and guess for yourself what places you’re looking at. Not everybody’s cup of tea, but utterly brilliant.
The aerial survey industry is at the core of everything geo but seems to be going through a tough time. Is it in terminal decline?
Think about it:
First, aerial companies were laughing all the way to the bank when they sold their imagery to Google and Bing, not least because the rivalry between the two mega-companies sparked a bidding war for imagery. But that was a one-off windfall and now the horse has bolted. Everyone has got used to free aerial imagery (free at the point of use, that is), and the profitability of putting a plane in the sky to collect data and sell it on has taken a hammering. And looking at the vintage of the imagery in both Google and Bing, they seem to be quite selective at commissioning updates.
Second, space satellites are delivering increasingly good resolution, at increasingly competitive prices. Just look at the latest elevation models created by the dual TanDEM-X and TerraSAR-X satellites – approaching metre-level accuracy even in 3 dimensions. For standard photo-reality imagery, sub-metre resolution has already been available for years.
Third, aerial imagery is increasingly competing with terrestrial alternatives, e.g. survey cars such as those used by Navteq or Google Street View. They don’t produce the same thing but the result is often usable for the same purposes. And there is the so-called terrestrial aerial survey: not a contradiction in terms, but simply a camera attached to a (very) long vertical pole on a moving vehicle.
Fourth, in temperate latitudes (such as the UK) the weather often prevents you from flying decent imagery, which can be problematic particularly when you also need to coordinate your flight with air traffic control in a busy air space. Much easier to stay on the ground if you can collect the data there – or from space, if you use weather-insensitive sensors like Radar, or simply wait for the next satellite pass to get a cloud-free view.
Finally, legal disputes such as the latest between Pictometry and Blom certainly don’t help the industry as a whole, as customers might end up in the cross-fire and look elsewhere for solutions. Okay these days lawsuits seem like a badge of honour for any self-respecting tech company, but still.
Are aerial survey companies being squeezed out of the geo-game, from space and from the ground? Perhaps there will remain lucrative niche areas for site-specific aerial surveys? But even there the game is changing with inexpensive unmanned drones.
I don’t have a very good feeling for the aerial industry. It only seems like a matter of time until someone reaches the end of the road in this space. I really hope I’m wrong because they deserve better. But in a commoditised world, life is tough and cost is everything.
On the upside, markets inevitably adapt, and hopefully so will the aerial players. Any views?