How AeroPoints is Changing Drones in the Construction Industry – Interview with Francis Vierboom

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AeroPoints, developed by Propeller Aero, are the only ground control points designed specifically for use with drones. AeroPoints allow drone hobbyists and commercial operators to capture survey-grade data. The Propeller team had a successful time exhibiting AeroPoints at Interdrone this past week, with three full days meeting with happy customers, explaining to experienced surveyors how AeroPoints work, and outlining the importance of ground control points to amateur UAV operators.

I had a chance to hear from CEO, Francis Vierboom, a little bit more detail on Propeller, and more specifically on the new release of AeroPoints to see how they’re adding value to drones in construction and mining industries.

Tell us a little about yourself and your background. How did you get into the drone industry?

I had a pretty good career going in enterprise IT architecture, which is mostly getting paid to draw lines between boxes on whiteboards.

In late 2013 I read a news story about a team doing drone deliveries, and I’d been thinking about starting a business myself, so I sent an email, and a few weeks later was my first day on the job at a drone delivery startup! We learned a lot about the technology, and we decided quickly that drones were more likely to ‘grow up’ commercially in heavy industries, so my co-founder Rory and I started Propeller in mid 2014 to work on making that happen.

At the start we were working on our own drone hardware, but we realised quickly we could have more impact by focusing on the software tools to help people deliver and use the results.

What is Propeller Aero? Who is it for and how does it work? 

Propeller is all about helping people on worksites connect and collaborate to get the most out of drone data.

Lots of people have realised the safety and efficiency benefits of replacing traditional survey processes with drone-based aerial surveys, but we help people do that and more. There’s two key technologies involved.

Propeller’s AeroPoints and processing engine are about creating accurate, trustworthy data: they’re an easy, robust way to get precision results without complicated or expensive drone hardware. If your data isn’t accurate, it’s worse than useless – it could actually cost your business to rely on it – so that’s a critical part of the solution.

Propeller’s Site Intelligence platform is a unique 3D cloud tool for worksite teams to get instant results from that data – accurate earthworks progress and inventory reporting, blast and pit planning and road safety.

Engineer Working On Computer in his Office.

What problem in the drone (or – construction, mining, etc.?) industry are you a solution for? What advantages do you offer compared to other competitors?

We’re all about worksite teams. That means our solution gets used across civil construction, mining, quarrying and waste management, who all realise similar benefits.

Our real advantage is our cloud platform. We take things beyond a typical flat GIS platform and really let you analyse and work with the data in 3D. You can bring in design surfaces to show cut and fill progress, get stockpile reports and reconciliations straight out to Excel, or just use the visual tools to show cross-section comparisons and activity areas to your team. Because the data is so visual, it’s much more intuitive to use. It opens up information that used to be understood only by survey professionals. It means when someone wants to know where a site is up to, everyone’s working off the same baseline. The company boardroom is looking at the same data the subcontractor’s drivers are.

The AeroPoints are also a massive leg-up for the industry as a whole. They’re smart, solar powered, GNSS-inside ground control points that provide an easy way for anyone to get accurate results over time, and we’re finding it’s making it much easier for worksites and drone teams to get results they trust.

Our partnership with Trimble is really exciting. They’re the recognised global leaders in accuracy and positioning technology, and their endorsement of our products is something we’re really proud of. We’re already working with them so that our data integrates even better with the site survey tools people are already using.

Propeller is actually from Australia, and as a country with large, high-productivity mining and infrastructure sectors, it’s actually home to some of the smartest people in GPS technology and surveying analytics. I think that’s helped Propeller to find and solve some of the most important problems and opportunities first, and part of what makes our products so advanced.

You’ve recently introduced AeroPoints. What is that, and how does it work? How does that add value to your product?

AeroPoints are smart ground control points that you lay down around a site during an aerial survey. They do two things at once: they record a high-accuracy position using the GNSS antenna inside, and they provide a big visual target in your imagery. After your survey, they upload for precision PPK processing, and a few minutes later you can download your ground control points.

You can also upload your imagery through Propeller’s processing engine and have your results online in the Site Intelligence cloud platform – or you can also use the points results with desktop-based processing like Pix4D or Agisoft Photoscan.

They work with local site calibrations and known points, so you can line up your drone data with the existing survey information on your site.

What is your vision for your company over the next 1-2 years? How do you plan to keep reaching forward in meeting the needs of commercial drone users?

It’s all about getting the worksites that already use Propeller to get more data that they trust, and get more results from that data faster. It’s really getting clear of the drone hype-cycle – thankfully that’s basically over now – and much more into the real work of making them a normal part of worksite operations.

We’re focusing on our core technologies and building our distribution and reseller programs. As a company that started out as a drone team ourselves, we’ve always loved to work with people who are engaging these worksites to help them adopt drones, and we’re investing a lot in training and enabling teams so they can add our solutions to what they offer.

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