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Subscription Service Offers Government High-Res Aerial Pics

The Colorado-based company Vexcel Imaging is flying proprietary cameras across the U.S. to create visualizations and data for planimetrics, mapping and zoning, property appraisal, emergency response and other uses.

At a time when short-range drones and satellite birds-eye views are commonplace, one Colorado-based company, Vexcel Imaging, is putting its proprietary cameras on airplanes to capture ultra-high-resolution data of the United States for sale by subscription to state and local governments.

In an announcement this week, Vexcel described its new cloud-based offering as geospatial information-as-a-service, with the potential to save governments time and money on up-to-date visual data without needing to manage their own storage and hardware.

Rob Carroll, director of the National Data Program at Vexcel Imaging, said the company was founded in 1992 and was known for its UltraCam systems before Microsoft bought it in 2006 to populate the Bing Maps platform. Vexcel spun off into a private company again in 2016, then designed a subscription image service in collaboration with the National Insurance Crime Bureau as part of the Geospatial Intelligence Center, originally for the purposes of property and casualty insurance.

Vexcel has been selling cameras to various aerial survey companies for years. In return, Carroll said, they fly small, twin-engine aircraft between 5,000 and 15,000 feet above the ground, collecting tens of thousands of image clips which populate a mapping product with ground-control points and a higher level of spatial accuracy than satellite photos. The subscription includes 3-inch vertical, orthorectified images — in which one pixel is about 3 inches wide — as well as near-infrared nadirs, terrain models, surface models and point clouds.

Carroll described three tiers to the subscription service: an entry-level product that city, county or state governments could purchase at a low cost; a higher-level product with more analytics, such as for emergency dispatch or property assessment; and an option for generating 3-D images and other data. He said these could be useful for planimetrics, mapping and zoning, property appraisal and even emergency response.

“What we are capable of doing is using our imagery as a visual triangulation, so the dispatchers will ask for reference points: Can you see a sign, a steeple, other types of landmarks? And from our imagery, the person in a dispatch center will be able to triangulate some of those locations as to where the actual event is occurring,” he said. “They’ll also be able to tell, as a dispatch, the proper equipment to send out. Do they need a ladder, is there a fire hydrant nearby, is it uphill or downhill, are they going to be working with hazardous materials? All those pieces they’ll know before they arrive, because they’ll have a high-resolution, quality viewpoint.”

In an emailed statement about the aftermath of a tornado, Ken Busby, the GIS coordinator of Lee County, Ala., attested to the usefulness of this function of Vexcel’s service.

“It put the information in front of the people who needed it and gave them an understanding in great detail of what’s happening in the field without having to go out there,” he said. “They see from the office the full picture of the damage — where it is and where to send people.”

To date, Carroll said Vexcel has generated hundreds of petabytes of data online, supported by Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Microsoft Azure clouds, as well as file systems, processing and hosting servers that Vexcel runs across those platforms.

He likened the company’s business model to Henry Ford’s approach with the Model T, making everything to an exact specification: Vexcel handles the hardware, data collection, hosting and storage, so the only thing the customer does is pay for access. The company is already mapping the entire U.S., creating a higher-resolution product for populated areas and a slightly coarser one for national coverage.

“Waiting for customers and then flying is kind of the old model that’s been around for a couple decades now. We’re doing it on a much larger scale,” he said. “From our experience working with Bing, we understand how to do large, national mapping products. We do, at 8-inch resolution, all of the U.S. We break it up: the eastern half this year, western half next year, so that’s roughly 8 million square kilometers. Where the majority of the people live is about 500,000 square kilometers. We refresh that on a yearly basis, and we have a 3-inch resolution on that product.”

Carroll doesn’t see privacy as a concern. He said the cameras can’t see into homes or structures, and courts have decided that people do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their yards because of the view from a plane flying overhead or high-rise buildings nearby. And even at 3-inch resolution, the cameras can make out a human figure but not identify people.

He also hasn’t seen a real competitor in the industry in terms of a mapping-grade product, as opposed to simple aerial visualization one can find on websites such as Google Maps. He noted that while drones can produce highly detailed data in small areas of interest, and satellites cover broad areas with coarse resolution, Vexcel covers broad areas with ultra-high resolution.

He said Vexcel is talking now to prospective state and local government customers.

Andrew Westrope is managing editor of the Center for Digital Education. Before that, he was a staff writer for Government Technology, and previously was a reporter and editor at community newspapers. He has a bachelor’s degree in physiology from Michigan State University and lives in Northern California.