Drone Data Software for the Most Challenging…
Developing World Class Drone Data Collection Software for the Most Challenging Projects
By Alexey Dobrovolsky, CTO SPH Engineering
Editor’s Note: This article is being reported as a narrative as told by the author.
Please provide a brief bio and overview of your history with SPH Engineering
Before SPH Engineering, I spent 20+ years in the IT/software industry. My profession is software developer, and my career has been pretty successful. I started as junior software developer when I was a student in university and finished my IT journey as the head of a software team with 450 developers. We worked on custom software development for corporate customers, with the systems ranging from dozens to tens of thousands of users.
At some moment I realized that these projects are not exciting for me anymore, and thanks to my hobby (radio-controlled helicopters, I still have a few in my house) I decided to drill deeper into the new industry – civilian unmanned vehicles. Most interesting for me were multirotor systems – because in a nutshell they are just computers with a few sensors and motors.
What we quickly found with my companion, Alexey Yankelevich, who is now is in charge of all software development at SPH Engineering – there are multiple flying “vehicles” on the market, with much less sensors for them, and almost no good software to plan and fly missions to deliver useful results.
That was 2012, and the obvious idea that drones by themselves do not have any value was not very well known in the market. The value comes from having the data collected using the drones (of course after processing), and from the flight planning software which will allow you to plan something useful (photogrammetry, laser scanning, geophysical surveys, etc.). This can have its niche in the market.
So, we came to the idea of UgCS – universal – meaning all drone manufacturers-independent software – to plan photogrammetry, LIDAR, magnetic and more surveys for popular drones present in the market. And with that in mind we started SPH Engineering in 2013.
How is UgCS connected with SPH Engineering? What are the benefits of this.
The answer is very simple. UgCS (Universal Ground Control Software) is the name of our very first flagship product. SPH Engineering is the name of the company.
At the early stages of our company, we didn’t have plans to have more products or business lines than UgCS. SPH Engineering name was hidden behind the brand of the product.
Now we have more products and 4 business lines (we call them UgCS Core, Drone Show Software, Integrated Systems, and Consulting & Development), so to tie them all together we mention the company’s name SPH Engineering in all our communications.
Can you provide your insights on the early days of the development of the software? What
were the driving forces for developing this type of product and for the final design?
We started development with few “uber-ideas”. Many of them didn’t survive the reality of the marketplace which is very common for most of start-ups.
In short – we wanted to develop software which will allow customer to plan missions in rough terrain, in a 3D environment (as we crashed our very first drone in hills), support most popular drones on the market (interesting, that in 2012 DJI and Pixhawk-based drones were not in the list), and support typical missions. As we were very experienced software experts for corporate systems, we decided to implement from the beginning support for network deployment, multi-drone, and multi-user scenarios. This is typical over-engineering, but in 2013 we (and many start-ups) dreamed with the idea that in a few years the sky will be full of drones doing surveys, delivery, and much more.
We started the attempts to sell UgCS licenses right in 2013, and at first potential customer’s opinions sometimes were a “cold shower” for us. Actually, UgCS was almost fully re-written at least 2 times to get to the current state. Customers helped us to discard our fantasies and make a useful product So, regarding the driving forces – what we have now is mostly the result of feedback from our users.
What are the primary capabilities of the software and how are these different from your
First of all, who are our competitors? We don’t feel serious competition from other providers of paid flight planning/mission control software. In our opinion we are simply the best😊. Our main competitors are free software – DJI Pilot/GO for DJI drones, Mission Planner/QGround Control in Pixhawk/ArduCopter/PX4 world.
The worst thing for us, but good for customers, is that these free software packages became better and better with every release, and they are better integrated with corresponding drone’s hardware.
Our estimate that for more than 90% of the types of missions/surveys the free software is adequate. There is no need to pay for flight planning software if your mission is to fly at 100m altitude over the mostly flat farm field.
But there are maybe 5% to 10% of drone operators, who work on more challenging projects. They fly in mountains, without internet, plan huge missions consisting of hundreds of survey lines and waypoints. Here UgCS is very valuable, and we concentrate on this sector of the market.
Actually, we don’t plan or manage the flights. Flights are useless. The value of the flight itself is zero. We plan the data collection using different sensors in any possible conditions. That’s our key point. We don’t concentrate on the flight plan, or other flight management aspects. We focus on the quality of the collected data, and all our efforts are in data collection in a most efficient and safe way.
Sometimes (very often 😊) we receive the requests to make a pure mobile version of UgCS. It is understandable. People don’t want to bring additional equipment (laptop and sometimes Wi-Fi router) to the field. This may not satisfy some potential customers who may only need DJI pilot, but when the job is more complex, we believe UgCS is the best solution.
The benefits of UgCS at the function level include:
– Flight planning from desktop, local installation
– Ability to fly over highly complex areas and to fly large missions
– Offline maps
– Terrain following
– Ability to import custom DEM / DSM data
– Map customization, ability to import map overlays
– Ability to scan vertical surfaces
– LiDAR flight planning tools of UgCS EXPERT
– Live video streaming of UgCS ENTERPRISE
Can you provide more detail on the lidar toolset? What were some of the reasons that you
added this functionality?
Actually, we had users with LIDAR starting from the pretty early stages of our development. RIELG, manufacturer of hi-end LIDAR systems, became our technological partner back in 2015 as I remember. For a long time, we didn’t have any specific tools for LIDARs, as users were satisfied to use the existing capabilities of UgCS such as 2x combined circle patterns that allow them o calibrate the IMU, AreaScan (a tool to plan grid with set altitude, distance between lines and speed).
But one year ago, the LIDAR market exploded. Prices have fallen from >$100K for the sensor to less than 10K for entry-level models, and hundreds of users started to pressure us to make UgCS more convenient for LIDAR scans. They asked the same level of support for that type of missions as we have, for example, for photogrammetry.
So, in short, the LIDAR tools in UgCS include:
- Build-in patterns for IMU calibration.
- New LIDAR Area Scan and LIDAR Corridor Mapping tools to raise probability to collect high-quality data using LIDAR and minimize time required for the mission planning in any complex environment.
Can you explain the integration of UgCS mission planning software and GreenValley’s
Lidar360 data processing technology? Are there examples of customers benefiting from this?
Actually, we don’t have any technical integration. Integration is in workflow – for every type of job or survey we want to provide an end-to end software solution – from initial mission planning to the data processing and report generation. As we can’t develop everything in-house, we are looking for data processing partners for every type of sensor which we support.
We found that LiDAR360 is a good fit for having that full tool set for LIDAR surveys. LiDAR360 is actually a vendor –independent tool – it can process point clouds gathered by any type of LIDAR sensor, including stripes alignment.
At the moment we have dozens of customers who use UgCS for flight planning and LiDAR360 to process collected data.
What are some of the primary types of customer solutions that you are focusing on?
Historically most of our customers are from the construction and surveying industries. They use cameras and LIDAR to generate maps, elevation, and 3D models.
One more not so large but very interesting group of customers do geophysical surveys, mostly with magnetometers. We may be the world leader here as we were the first (and it seems the only) who implemented direct support for the flight with geophysical sensors. For them LIDAR can be a supplementary tool since planning the mission with the magnetometer it is necessary to have precise DEM/DSM data.
Can you provide any insight on the UgCS product road map?
Yes, in the near term our plans are:
- We are working on new DJI drone support – DJI M30 and Mavic 3 Enterprise.
- We will add LIDAR tools for Pixhawk-based drones. Currently LIDAR-related functions are available for DJI drones only, but since our customers demand that for Pixhawk, we decided to implement them.
- We plan to further improve terrain-following functionality in UgCS, meaning flight plan generation according to DEM/DSM models. UgCS was the first software on the market with that functionality (thanks to our very first test drone crashed in the hills 😊). We are still holding the leading position here, but we have an idea what we can do better, especially for LIDARs and geophysical sensors which require not only precise but smooth flight to collect good data.
- Adding support for the modern cameras with extremely high resolution, like PhaseOne P3.
- We will implement full route export for DJI Pilot app. Many customers want to use UgCS as a planner app. They want to use a big screen, mouse, etc., but want to use a native application for the flights. Currently we can export KML file with flight route but without some important details like camera control commands. We will export full flight information.
- Lots of more small enhancements to help our user collect best possible data.
SPH Engineering corporate site: https://sph-engineering.com
For more about UgCS LIDAR Tools: https://www.ugcs.com/lidar
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