Tag Archives: drones

Stephen Mather: “The best way to predict the future is to stake a claim in it and make it happen”

Stephen Mather
Stephen Mather

Stephen Mather has been working in GIS, planning, and related fields since 1998, working for the last 7 years as the GIS Manager for Cleveland Metroparks. He has been interested in the application of computer vision to geospatial analyses since 2004, and has recently initiated the OpenDroneMap project — a project to bring together and extend a suite of open source computer vision software for use with UAS (drone) and street level images. He is also coauthor of the PostGIS Cookbook.

Stephen was interviewed for GeoHipster by Amy Smith at the recent FOSS4GNA conference in San Francisco, California.

Q: How have you been enjoying the conference so far?

A: It’s been consistently good! There were sometimes two or three sessions that I wanted to be in at a time, so I had to figure out if I could clone myself.

Q: Clone yourself?

A: Yeah, well it would make it so much easier (well, probably the easier thing is to watch the video afterwards).

Q: Let me know if you figure out the cloning thing.

A: Oh, I’ll share it. It’ll be on Github.

Q: Awesome. Have you been to this conference before?

A: I went to variants on FOSS4G in DC, Denver, Portland, and Seoul.

Q: Wow, what was Seoul like?

A: That was FOSS4G Korea. It was awesome. The hospitality was amazing, the conference was really interesting. It’s a beautiful city, and it was lots of fun.

Q: Do you speak Korean?

A: Not adequately, no. (*laughs*). Not at all.

Q: You presented at this year’s conference. How did it go?

A: It was really fun. It was similar to a presentation I gave at North Carolina GIS a couple of weeks ago. The slides were already there, but it never ends up being the same presentation. OpenDroneMap is what I presented on, which started off as a GeoHipster joke at first, but then started to become a thing! People are excited about it, and are trying it out with their drones.

Amy and Steve
Amy and Steve at FOSS4GNA 2015

Q: Who started the joke?

A: Well, there was the GeoHipster artisanal vertices, and at the time I was thinking about computer vision and drones and where all that’s going, and the absence of an open source project that addresses that. When I made my prediction about 2014, I said it would be all about the artisanal pixel. We’d go from these global satellite images to these handcrafted satellite images effectively. Then I starting thinking, actually, that’s not a bad idea. The best way to predict the future is to stake a claim in it and make it happen.

Q: I definitely want to pick your brain about that later on in the interview. But before we get there, I wanted to ask you how you got started in the geospatial world.

A: I came from the biology side of things. As an undergrad I actually took a lot of music classes, and a lot of biology classes. At the time, a lot of biologists weren’t really thinking spatially. Everything was about static statistics, which assumes some normality that doesn’t really exist. There were people starting to pull on that thread, but it was the minority. My interest in GIS and the geospatial was applying it to understanding biology and ecology better, and then I never really got out of that rabbit hole.

Q: But you haven’t really left music either. You make custom guitars.

A: Very, very slowly. I’ve been making them for 12 or 13 years. I’m on guitar #2.

Q: That’s a really cool hobby.

A: It’s one of those things that seems like it should be harder than it really is. A lot of people think, “Oh, I couldn’t do that”, but actually it’s not that hard of a hobby, and for a woodworking hobby, it doesn’t require many tools. If you want to become a furniture maker, you need to invest a lot in tools just to start. The total cost for guitar-making is much smaller with a minimum viable set of tools, which is kind of cool. In that way, it’s kind of like open source. The barrier to entry for open source is just a laptop, which you may already have.

Q:  Totally. Let’s go back to drones for a minute. For those who might not be familiar with it, what is OpenDroneMap?

A: OpenDroneMap is an open source project for taking unreferenced images and turning them into geographic data. Maybe you have a balloon, kite, or drone, and you’ve taken some overlapping photos of an area, and you want to turn that into an orthophoto as a TIFF or PNG or a point cloud. It’s basically an extension of the photogrammetric techniques. Back in the day, you’d fly with a nice camera that was well parameterized so that you could correct for all of the optical distortion. You’d have a plane that was flying a known route with inertial navigation and GPS to help you know exactly where the plane is at any given point in time, and then you construct three-dimensional data from that, with contours and orthophotos. If you extend that concept, and instead of having two overlaps with lots of knowledge about your position, you have three overlaps, then you can write an equation that back-calculates where all of your camera positions are. In the process of doing that, you generate a point cloud of all of the features that match, which is something that you can derive other products from. You could create a mesh from that point cloud, then paint those photos back onto the mesh. Now you’ve got the geospatial information you need, and it can be turned into an orthophoto. When I first proposed the project, I thought, well we could license something like this, or we could start an open source project. I had a hunch there was enough existing computer vision code out there to get it 50, 60, or even 70% of the way there, just with the existing code. Fortunately my hunch was right. This leverages years of computer vision stuff done by people all over the world.

Q: It sounds like it was worthwhile to see what other people were doing, and build off of it.

A: Yeah, the stuff that people had been doing was absolutely brilliant, and allowed me to move whole hog and jump into the parts I was interested in.

Q: When I was in college I took some courses in remote sensing and did work with Synthetic Aperture Radar. I’m a little familiar with working with imagery. I’m guessing that working with imagery from drones is pretty different from working with aerial and satellite imagery. What are some of the differences you noticed in working with drone imagery versus something from an airplane or satellite?

A: A plane or a satellite gives you a nice synoptic view. There’s a usefulness, not in the specificity, but in the synopsis. If you think of the world as you view it from the ground, you can observe and make sense of the world; it’s what we’re most familiar with. There’s a wide gap between what’s happening in the plane or the satellite and the first-person view. Drones, balloons and kites fill that gap. Drones fill it particularly well because they can fill large areas. That’s what brought me into working with them altogether.

Q: Speaking of working, you work for the government. Could you tell us more about that?

A: I work for Cleveland Metroparks. We manage about 23,000 acres, which includes forests, wetlands, open areas for people to picnic, a zoo, lakefront parks, and really a whole range of interesting cultural and natural resources. We provide access for passive uses such as picnicking and hiking, and active uses such as events that draw people into those spaces. It’s a really cool park system with a lot of energy and a great history, as well as an amazing staff and a good vision for where we are now and where we’re going.

Q: How long have you worked there?

A: Seven years.

Q: I did some LinkedIn stalking, and I saw that you are a manager there. I’m sure that GIS manager can mean lots of different things depending on whether you’re with the government, a private company, or what industry you’re in. What are the things you think are common descriptors of GIS managers?

A: I’m relatively hands on. I’ll hack a code, I’ll work on data when I get the opportunity, but I also make sure to give a lot of freedom to the people that work with me, because they’re brilliant, and I don’t have to worry much.

Q: You sound like a great manager!

A: I’ve got great employees! There’s coordination and advocating for resources, ensuring that my employees have what they need. There’s also the aspect of ensuring that folks within the organization, as well as outside of the organization, understand what we do, so that they can value and take advantage of it. In addition to giving the degrees of freedom that people need in order to grow, we make sure they have educational opportunities and that they have challenges. There’s a lot of autonomy, which again links back to the open source community, where there’s a lot of autonomy.

Q: You’ve written a book on PostGIS. Can you tell us about the book and how it came about?

A: A couple years ago a publishing company discovered my blog and asked if I’d write an outline on PostGIS. I wrote them the outline, and they said “This is great, when can you start?” And I said, “I can’t, my daughter’s due in a few months, and there’s no way I can write a book.” They said, “Well, you could get a co-author”, and I said, “I can’t even write half a book!” Their response was “Well, you could do 60/40!”, and I said “Alright, but you’ve got to find the co-author”. They found Paolo Corti, who’s an excellent writer and knows his PostGIS stuff, and also knows the middleware level of that, and how to get it out to the web. That adds a nice element. Paolo and I started on that and we realized between the two of us, we weren’t going to get it all done. We found Bborie at the Boston code sprint, and Tom works with me and wrote a chapter. [Interviewer note: Bborie, Tom, and Paolo co-authored the book with Stephen.]

Q: Thanks so much! It’s been a lot of fun talking with you. I have one last question for you. Do you consider yourself a geohipster?

A: I’m a geohipster, absolutely! I’m the guy who predicted artisanal pixels. I don’t ride a fixie, but I do ride an e-bike. When I’m in sound health, I bicycle from 2-3 days a week, so I think I qualify.

Q: I think so, too.

Postscript: Steve gave me a signed copy of his book!
Post Postscript: Steve and I geeked out for a while about Synthetic Aperture Radar. We’ll spare you the nitty gritty details, but tweet at us if you ever want to talk SAR. We’ll talk your ear off. :)

Chris Bupp: “My favorite maps are less mappy, but still retain a map essence”

Chris Bupp
Chris Bupp

Chris Bupp is a Senior Geospatial Developer at GISi Indoors. He likes developing with new technologies and cooking with less new technologies. He made more maps working/volunteering in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina than he has since then. He’s created a Leap Motion interactive web map and when bored he tinkers with genetic algorithms.

Chris was interviewed for GeoHipster by Jonah Adkins (@jonahadkins) (Interviewer disclosure: Chris and I work for the same company, but we don’t work together.)

Q: Hey Chris. Tell us about your experiences with geo and what you’re working on now.

A: To start, I first fell in love with programming back in high school. I could make something new from nothing; it was exciting! Many developers have a hard time sharing what excites them; it can be hard for your friends to high five you when you’re talking about database indices. When I first started working with geo-enabled technologies, I was able to immediately share my excitement with others; it was energizing.

I got my start in geo during college. One of my very first projects was a Windows application that allowed you to share photos and journal entries on a map with your friends and family; in hindsight if it was a website instead of a Windows application, it would have been worth something! (Ed.: Indeed! This is what Flickr founder Caterina Fake’s third startup Findery does, which she launched in 2012.)

My most recent project, GeoMetri, is a suite of applications that work to solve problems in the indoor space. We’ve developed a WiFi tracking solution that allows store owners and event throwers to answer questions like: Did this banner or sign cause more people to stop by? Does having more on-floor staff increase (or decrease) visitor dwell times? We’ve also developed mobile indoor navigation apps to help visitors explore and navigate around large buildings or campuses.

Q: Indoor mapping seems to be an increasingly crowded space. Tell us about what you’re currently doing, and what sets your work apart from other companies.

A: It is! I guess that means it’s a good idea. When we first started getting into the indoor space two years ago, we did our research (and continue to research) the constantly growing techniques and tools available. Our goal has always been to provide tools that offer the best solution to a customer’s needs, which means we don’t always use a home-grown tool. There are a ton of smart folks in the indoors industry, we’ve positioned ourselves with several partners to allow us to meet more than just a specific type of solution.

It’s also important to realize that the indoor space [market] is very large, and there is no clear leader in the industry. Every week a few companies may start, and several others have been acquired. You just need to remain agile and ready to implement a solution with several choices of backing technology.

Q: You’ve worked with lots of technologies. I think the first time we met, you were talking about how awesome FORTRAN was compared to Python, or something like that. As a developer, what blossoming technologies do you have your eye on?

A: Wow. You have a good memory. At the time I was working a lot in FORTRAN on a real impressive software suite that created probabilistic danger zones for shooting ranges using Monte Carlo modeling of the projectiles. FORTRAN is above and beyond faster and a better choice for math-heavy applications (if you’re willing to undertake the extra effort of actually writing in FORTRAN).

Right now a lot of exciting things are happening with iBeacons (and several other beacon flavors), drones, and open source. These areas are going to get a lot more chaotic before the dust settles, but that doesn’t mean you have to wait for all the standards to be defined before building new things!

Q: Does that say “tinkers with genetic algorithms” in your bio? WAT?

A: You know how it is when you get bored: some people try to solve prime numbers; some people like to solve problems with genetic algorithms. Genetic algorithms have promised to solve np complex problems (when a “good enough” answer is better than the best answer in 500 years).

For instance, with a friend, we spent a few hours attempting to solve a traveling salesman problem where you had several salespeople instead of just one.

Q: You and I have spent some free time working on some open source projects like ALF. What part of open source, as a developer, is most rewarding to you?

A: I enjoy the social aspect of open source. In business, developers are constantly told to hide what they make. Open source allows me to share my creations with more than just my co-workers.

Another important aspect is realizing that all of the projects I create commercially or privately rely on at least one other open source project. So sharing back with the community makes me feel good, and when someone actually uses my projects, I feel great! If you ever need something from me and see that I’m in a sour mood, fork one of my repos.

Q: Cartographer to developer — your favorite map(s)?

A: My favorite maps are less mappy, but still retain a map essence — where the data is more important than its exact location. Examples of this are Minard’s map and more recently the Prison Map. Both of these maps demonstrate a map-like quality, but the data is what is powerfully shown. We see US maps all the time that struggle to showcase their data (and its meaning) because states are different sizes.

Q: You’ll be diving in head-first at FOSS4G this week, and you’ll no doubt interact with future and current GeoHipster alumni. What’s the term geohipster mean to you? What part of FOSS4G are you most looking forward to, and who are you looking to interact with?

A: To me, the term geohipster refers to an individual willing to explore, build, and perfect things outside of the normal geo universe. Geohipsters are fixers. A lot of times they’re the ones willing to do the work to build a solution (and sure, maybe their duct tape has little mustaches printed on it).

Like most of my adventures, I look forward to learning. I’m very new to FOSS4G and I have a lot to learn. As a hobbyist, I’m looking forward to the latest developments in FOSS4G (and super excited about all the drone sessions). As a representative for my company, I’m looking forward to see what types of businesses attend FOSS4G, and I’m interested in their business models, as well as their business goals.

One subset of FOSS4G participants I’m looking forward to meeting is other maptime-ers. I’ve only been to the first of the Atlanta chapter meetings, so it’ll be weird flying across the country to meet up with them, but fun nonetheless!

I’m also looking forward to meeting and interacting with anyone willing to share their experiences with FOSS4G. So, if you’re at FOSS4G and see someone with brown curly hair and a deer-in-the-headlights look, it’s probably me and I’d love to talk!

Srikant Panda: “The whole community of photogrammetry and GIS is a family”

Srikant Panda
Srikant Panda

Srikant Panda is a photogrammetrist, philosopher, friend, and owner of a brand new house.

Srikant was interviewed for GeoHipster by Randal Hale.

Many of you are going to be reading this and going "Who is Srikant Panda?" I said the same thing about a couple of years back when he randomly contacted me about photogrammetry work. GIS is boring these days -- but the stories... So we started talking. We talked about mapping. We talked about life. We talked about philosophy. He sent me pictures of India, and I suddenly realized that this man who lives half a world away isn't terribly different from myself. So I decided to tell you a little about Srikant, who studied geology, and who became involved in mapping… which incidentally is what I did. Our paths aren't terribly different, but where we live is quite different. Friends: Meet Srikant!

Q: Srikant, you’re not exactly a “typical” GIS person…

A: Well, there is a lot of difference between GIS work and photogrammetric work. Honestly, I am not much a GIS guy but a photogrammetric technologist. What we do here is tremendously used in GIS projects.

Q: We cover a lot of people from the GIS side of life on GeoHipster, but I don’t think we’ve covered your area of expertise.

A: In this generation everyone knows about maps and their use. Everyone is familiar with Google Maps. Hence most of the people know about GIS and its application. But few people have known and understood what is the science behind photogrammetry, and what exactly is done that makes it different from a normal map making/digitization.

Q: You do photogrammetry. How did you get your start doing it?

A: I am a graduate in Geology and completed my graduation from Berhampur University that is situated in the southern coastal belt of the state Orissa in India. I am a great lover of the subject Geology. The chapters of Geomorphology and Aerial Remote Sensing/Photo-Geology were my favourite subjects. After my final year exams were over in 2004, I came to Hyderabad — a city in South India — to explore more on my further studies on Aerial Remote sensing. There is an old photogrammetric institute named MapWorld Technologies, where I wanted to complete my photogrammetric courses. It took me 6 months to undergo a training on Aerial Remote Sensing. In the institute I used the Russian photogrammetric software named Photomod to learn aerial triangulation and stereo compilation.

After the training was over, I got a job in a well known photogrammetric firm named IIC Technologies. There I started my career.

Q: What do you do?

Before I answer what I do, it is necessary to understand what is the difference between a 2D map and a 3D map; the difference between an aerial image and aerial orthophoto.

Srikant at his work station
Srikant at his work station

A: I am a digital map maker. In my maps you will find the X, Y, and Z information of the terrain. The Z value in my map makes it special as I compile the map in 3D environment. I use aerial photographs as input, and use 3D mouse and 3D glasses to plot them. Unlike the traditional symbol-and-line map, we produce digital orthophotos, which are the real and scaled representation of the terrain. Orthophotos or orthomaps are one of the final outputs of my work. Apart from that, the two important outputs are planimetric maps and topographic maps.

Q: Where do you live in India?

A: My house is located in a small village at the hills of the southern coastal belt of Orissa. A small village named Badapada surrounded by green hills and with a population of around 2,500 is considered a remote tribal area. The nearest city is Berhampur, which is 120 km from the village. It takes 5 hours to travel from the village to the city. My parents live there. They love each other so much. My brother lives in New Delhi. My two sisters are married, and they live a few kilometers away from the village. My parents visit us at different time of the year, but they never leave the village in Spring and Rain. The village remains the most beautiful in this time. Once a year my company grants me a 10-days’ of leave to travel and stay with my family. It takes 35 hours to reach the village from Pune (30 hours of train journey and 5 hours of bus journey). We all siblings reach the village in Spring or Rain.

Q: Here in the United States there has been a ton of discussion on drones. Is there much talk in India about drones, and how do you think that will impact photogrammetry?

A: In India there are peculiar map-restriction policies. Private companies are restricted to execute aerial photography. The policies are slightly now changed, where the permission from NRSC and Defence are required. It is a challenge for the private companies (except a few) to invest in large format aerial cameras and an aircraft. So UAV and a medium format camera is a great alternative, and private companies are much excited to use the UAVs for large scale mapping, surveillance, videography etc., and other applications. Now the big problem in India is the repeated threats of jehadi militants. If UAVs are frequently used in India, they may be misused by the militants where a bomb can be dropped on a monument or building. So the Indian government has put restriction over the flying height of the UAVs. Lots of permissions are required for the use of drones.

There is too much of advertisement of drones in magazines, shows etc., but what I feel is, there are only few UAVs which can actually produce nadir/vertical aerial photos for the photogrammetric mapping. Yes, the UAVs will play a great role in the field of photogrammetry in the coming days. A small company can invest in a drone and a medium-format aerial camera for large scale mapping jobs, which can be a rail/road/river/transmission line/corridor mapping, or a golf course mapping, or a stockpile, or a volumetric calculation job.

What I feel is, it is difficult for the current photogrammetric software to do the aerial triangulation of the aerial photos which are taken by the UAVs. It is because of the shake in the camera due to the wind, and the photos are not vertical, or near vertical. Another challenge for the UAV user is to calibrate the medium- or small-format cameras. But I am sure there are many software companies who have almost developed their photogrammetric software, which can perform aerial triangulation using the photos taken from a UAV. Ortosky, developed by SRM Consulting, is a nice software which processes the UAV data very well. They are also working on their software which can calibrate the camera.

For Photogrammetric mapping, it requires not just a camera but a complete camera system. A gyro mount, a very good medium format camera, IMU GPS, good lenses. When you combine all these, the weight may vary from 2 kg to 5 kg. In such situation the payload and the endurance of the UAV should be good. 1 kg of payload and 15 min of endurance is not a good photogrammetric UAV.

Q: What does the future hold for you, career-wise?

A: I would like to start my own company where I can market interesting and efficient geospatial products. Along with that I would like to keep myself busy with photogrammetric mapping work. It is a challenge in India to start your own company, but there are a few companies who are willing to help me start my own unit. They have always encouraged me and ready to support me. I am really thankful for their trust in me. I may soon start working independently.

Q: Back in 2014 you told me you were in the middle of building a house. In the United States home-building is a huge endeavor. How close are you to being done, and overall how difficult was it?

A: You asked me the question at a good time. It took me around five years to complete the construction of my house in the village. Well, the only job I did was to send the money to my parents every month. My father worked hard and managed the construction. I prepared the design of the house in VrOne CAD software. It is very expensive to construct a house in India, and so I had to construct step by step. The construction work is just finished, and as per Hindu tradition, we make a celebration on the day of inauguration. This celebration will be on 16th of Feb 2015. It is a big achievement and a dream come true.

Q: So I leave the final question to you: Do you have anything you want to share with the worldwide good readers of GeoHipster on life, photogrammetry, and mapping?

A: One thing which I feel very important to mankind is to contact and communicate with others. It is a very strange world that we remain busy with our work and don’t even care knowing the rest of the world. Eight years back it was a challenge for me to learn photogrammetry when I was new in this field. I started contacting people on the Internet, and I was glad that they answered my questions. This way my friendship with dozens of people became intense. Being a stranger and remaining far far from each other, we discussed many things related to photogrammetry and the culture in their country. This way gradually I not only learned photogrammetry, GIS, LiDAR, but also the cultures in USA, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Poland, Mauritius, Africa, Latvia, Germany, the Netherlands, Canada, Russia, Alaska, Morocco, Tunisia, Spain, and Japan. For me the whole community of photogrammetry and GIS is a family, and we should communicate with each other, asking our doubts, and exchanging our ideas. I have not just received the answers to my questions from friends, but have also received a lot of love.

I love the words of Gandhi and would like to share them with all my friends and readers:

“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”