Is the aerial imagery industry doomed?

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?

Image by Squiggle (Flickr Creative Commons)

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?


6 thoughts on “Is the aerial imagery industry doomed?

  1. I would imagine there will still be a requirement within Local Government for the procurment of regular aerial photography, departments within my organisation find the information vital to help in legal challenges as to ownership of land and the dates of the creation of properties/boundaries etc. So from this position it is very important that some system is in place where this information is captured. Admittedly the frequency may change or it is more likely that future purchases may be driven by a number of authorities putting forward a joint request to cover larger areas ie at County or Regional Level, in an attempt to drive the price down when purchasing.

    I would imagine that at some point the likes of Google et al would investigate the possiblity of updating their aerial photography, as their users would surely demand improved information or go to a competitors site instead if they do not feel there is any value in the information, irrespective of it being free. But you are right to suggest that these will be ‘one off’ purchases that can’t be relied upon as who is to say when they will do this.

    Nevertheless, Remote sensing of this kind is a technique that has been valuable ever since it was pioneered and it may just be that the industry will have to look at ways of capturing more information during each flight to make them more cost effective (whilst not the same, some companies are capturing night time imagery at the same time as capturing thermal readings – 2 datasets from 1 flight).

    It will be interesting to see how this develops over the coming years.

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  3. could this be the future?

    currently being trialled in Australia.
    From my limited understanding of the project:
    Free tile service, pay for wms and download services. Monthly updates. The main difference being that it does not require specialist aircraft, a clever bit of software meshes images together and gets better at doing it the more it does the same area. Specific small areas can be flown at short notice very cheaply

  4. Hi Thierry,

    I was googeling the Survey industry and found this interesting post made my you in 2010. I*m working for a consultancy firm and I am trying to understand the market dynamics on the aerial photography market, with the aim of understanding the trends in what camera systems that are used.

    From reading your blog, I understand you have experience from this industry, hence it would be interesting to ask you a couple of questions?

  5. A very interesting and funny blog post – thank you, Thierry!

    From my point of view, the industry of aerial imagery will also develop – it just will adapt to specific needs of potential users.

    Satellite images are great, surely, but if you would like to examine a specific building to confirm damage for your insurance agent, or if you need to get a clear picture of some large territory to confirm the number of animals or trees on it – you would not rely on Google Maps, I guess 🙂 – just because their data may be very outdated and not focused at the details you need!

    More likely, you will find a local provider of aerial photography that will help you for some affordable price – and here is the future of the aerial photography! I.e. I mean that the future of aerial photography may lay in providing commercial photo services to private users and companies for their specific requests. And this is what drones actually do now – just look through the list of industries they provide imagery for and you will be more optimistic for the future 🙂

    Drones have taken over from planes and this opens great perspectives for the aerial photography – with all the technical possibilities and challenges that those new photographers provide:

    – fling and levitating on the same place without damage for the photo precision
    – great camera resolutions
    – very flexible route of flight
    – possibility to get images right away on your device
    – flights in dangerous zones and at night
    and many others.

    So drones are really the horse to bet on in this case! 🙂
    You may read more about drone photography here:

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