Drone LIDAR - Return On Investment

Published On: June 04, 2020


Analyzing Drone LIDAR ROI 

The note this week is aimed at mapping and survey service providers. Even so, government users would do the same computations, but with a proxy for profit such as "Does this make things better, faster, cheaper for my stakeholders?"

The very first question when considering drone (UAS, UAV) LIDAR as a new business area is "Can I make any money doing this?"  The computations is, in principal, easy; "gross revenue minus cost of goods sold" where the "goods sold" is whatever you are providing to your customer such as gridded elevation models, volumetric analysis, profiles and so forth.

"Goods Sold" is the right place to start the math.  But a bit of an aside first. GeoCue's True View sensors that include a LIDAR are called "3D Imaging Sensors" (3DIS) because they include integrated camera systems designed to co-collect LIDAR and image data. This is very important because some of the products that you can deliver as "goods sold" will be imagery products; the most common request being, of course, a digital orthophoto mosaic.  Our True View series of 3DIS also allow you to deliver gorgeous 3D colorized point clouds as a standard deliverable to your customer (see Figure 1).

Colorized 3D Point Cloud From A True View 620 LIDAR Imaging System

Figure 1 :Colorize 3D point cloud from a True View 620 LIDAR/Imager System

Examine Past Projects

I think it is most useful to do an exercise in which you examine some past projects and see what drone LIDAR and Imagery products would have fit the product needs. Quite often, the LIDAR data are fundamental to the job.  A classic example is moving from using a ground-based GNSS and/or total station for topography collection to airborne sensors.  We recently worked with a customer who determined that a single 100 acre project per month would more than pay for the subscription charge of our True View 410 LIDAR/Imager. 

I cannot help you very much on figuring out what to charge for drone mapping/surveying work.  My advice is to figure your projects as usual and substitute the airborne data for ground data.  As a back of the envelope idea on efficiency, I would say to figure 1 man-day with a True View sensor to collect and process a 100 acres site (ground classified, contours, gridded elevation model and perhaps 50 stockpile volumes) in one 8 person-day.  For our aforementioned example, our customer discovered they could do in one day with the True View 410 what required 2 weeks on the ground with a three person crew; remote sensing can truly have a profound positive impact on your life! 

When you look at the cost of goods, I recommend that you amortize a "Utility" grade system such as the True View 410 over an 18 month period. For a True View 615/620 survey grade system, you should use 36 months. This, of course, does not mean your system is shot after this period of time; you just want to make sure you do not stretch the useful life beyond a reasonable number. Don't forget to include software and hardware maintenance for the period beyond what might be bundled with the system.

Invest In The Right Software

Speaking of software, make certain you have what you need to produce all outputs that form your portfolio of deliverable products.  For this you might simply write these down and ask your prospective system suppliers to write down flow charts of the steps necessary to produce each desired product type. Make sure to also discuss the exact workflow needed to achieve the advertised accuracy as well as how you are expected to measure accuracy on a project by project basis. 

I want to point out that processing software is a real Achilles heal for most adopters of drone mapping tools.  Most sensors include only the software necessary to get to a geocoded point cloud.  If cameras have been added to the LIDAR system, they will usually require that you purchase third party tools to try to colorize the cloud.  It is a real mess.  Since we understand the pain of this, our True View sensors include all the software that you need to perform the basic sensor post-processing (e.g. to get to a geocoded, colorized point cloud) as well as a plethora of tools for creating "derivative products" and performing analysis.  Of course, you can figure out the holes by making sure your potential system vendor has completed the product creation flow charts we previously discussed.

Stock Up on Equipment

Finally, do not forget to figure in the surround technology that you will need to perform data collection.  Obviously you will need an adequate drone (such as the DJI M600 Pro).  Be sure to add a few extra sets of batteries and common spares such as propellers.  If you are a surveyor, you will already own a base station suitable for the positioning system GNSS setup.  You'll also want a rover to measure checkpoints.  

Training is Key

A critical part of surround technology is training.  If you are already processing LIDAR data, you will be able to easily accommodate drone-collected LIDAR.  If this is your first experience with LIDAR, be certain to have your supplier map out a training program.  Don't expect downstream production generation workflows to be included in the basic LIDAR training.  Of course, you will also need an FAA certificated Part 107 pilot.  This is a very small hurdle; about 20 hours of self-study will be sufficient for a novice to pass this exam.

I think our subscription model for the True View 410 is an excellent way to enter this business.   This subscription is available for periods as short as one month so it is a low risk to dip your toe in the waters!  GeoCue will, of course, be more than happy to work with you on developing a detailed ROI build-up.  We are in this for the long term; we cannot be successful if you aren't.