Bringing small mapping collection operators into the digital age armando guevara
“Bringing Small Mapping Collection Operators into the Digital Age”
By Dr. Armando Guevara
To borrow a phrase from Mark Twain: reports of the demise of aerial film in our industry are greatly
exaggerated. The transition to digital imaging technologies in the geospatial industry may seem
ubiquitous, but the numbers tell a very different story. Film is very much alive, and numerous base
mapping collection firms have not yet made the transition to the digital age- to digital geoimaging.
I can see some of you shaking your heads as if to say, “Armando, you’re crazy. I don’t know anyone
who’s used film for mapping projects, much less for ubiquitous geoimaging, since 1990-something.” That
may be true for you and for other people who work for larger companies involved in geoimaging and
geospatial services. But there is a large segment of smaller collection companies that continue to use film
every day and who haven’t yet entered the digital age. They haven’t yet, but they will and when they do it
will drive new revenue streams for them while also lowering costs and increasing their profitability. It
will also deliver a lot of value up the food chain to everyone that uses that imagery.
Who is still using film? They tend to be small, regional geoimaging companies that typically have a
single aircraft. Calling them “mom & pop” companies is actually very apt because so many of them are
literally teams composed of: a husband and wife, father and son, brother and brother, or just comrades
that like to fly and want to make money while doing it; they all typically have an aviation background and
who now do collection mapping projects (“geoimaging”) as either their primary income or supplemental
revenue. There are hundreds of these small companies across North America and Worldwide, and most of
them have their roots back in the analog days when all aerial imagery was taken with and processed as
I have seen an estimate that at one point, there were around 2,000 film cameras in use around the world
by aerial mapping collection companies. Those film-centric operations are far from extinct, though.
Today, there are at least 900 film cameras used to do geoimaging projects (overall in developing
countries), and we estimate that there are still at least 125 operating today in Mexico and the United
States alone. They send their airplanes up for the project at hand, take images with the film equipment
they have used forever, land the plan, deliver the negatives to a film processing lab, have those photos
scanned into a digital format so it is usable by their clients, zap that to their clients, and then move on to
the next project.
These companies are doing just fine, thank you. They make money and keep their clients happy, so a
transition to digital technology probably feels like an it-might-be-nice-to-have-some-day situation rather
than a we-need-to-do-this-right-away-to-stay-in-business situation. But the truth of the matter is that these
companies who are still using film are missing an opportunity. They could be making a lot more money
and delivering much more valuable imagery and derivative products (with simple to use and fully
automated delivery) if they would make the transition to digital.
Transitioning to digital geoimaging sensors would dramatically streamline the workflow of the projects
by removing the need for film processing and then digital scanning- not to mention the high cost and time
of retake if something goes wrong. This would lower costs and remove headaches for the firms capturing
the imagery. Digital sensors would also provide their clients with imagery that is higher in precision and
quality as well as optimized for the digital GIS systems their customers are using to work with the
images. Most importantly for the small firms, it would enable them to graduate up from just selling raw
imagery to selling value-added imagery (with the help of geoimaging processing and production toolswhere most of the basic products now have a fairly automated production) that earns them more money
and makes them a more helpful vendor for their clients. This would be a significant win-win not only for
these small firms but also for our industry as a whole.
What will it take to bring that kind of digital transition to fruition? Awareness is a huge part of it and for
certain lower cost of entry. Many of these firms are comfortable doing things the way they have done
them for the past 10, 20 or 30 years, and they don’t realize the additional revenue, cost savings, and time
savings that digital sensors would provide. Compounding that inertia has been the high-cost of digital
sensor solutions, which traditionally have had a price tag that is beyond the budget of smaller firms. The
digital price obstacle is disappearing, though, with next-generation, multi-function sensors that, while
having the highest quality and performance, dramatically lower costs thanks to the use of open
architecture and COTS components. These lower costs will turn the cost-benefit analysis on its head for
Another driver for this adoption of digital, multi-function sensors is consolidation in the geospatial
industry. Larger companies in our industry are migrating to business models that focus on higher-level,
higher-margin geospatial services, and moving away from basic services like collection that they perceive
as having lower margins. Some people are concerned about the level of consolidation that is happening,
but one thing that isn’t debatable is that small collection companies will have a lot of new business
opportunities as the large companies shift focus away from collection tasks. Collection companies will
need to scale their operations to take on this additional work, and film-based systems simply won’t cut it
for the reasons I discussed above.
Another reason why I think this transition to digital will finally happen in this segment of the geoimaging
industry is the way client expectations are changing. Clients are setting a higher bar for the imagery they
buy from collection companies, forcing them to produce imagery that has higher precision, higher quality
and faster delivery. This trend is on an upward trajectory and will compel film-based collection
companies to make the digital transition in order to meet those project specifications.
Another driver for these companies’ adoption of digital sensors will be the proliferation of UAVs. When
UAVs are approved for broader civilian use in the United States and worldwide, these vehicles will be
able to capture imagery at much lower costs than traditional aircraft. These vehicles will also enable small
collection companies to scale up the volume of projects they do since they can have multiple UAVs
instead of a single plane. Traditional sensors do not work with in a UAV for a variety of reasons, so
collection companies that want to take advantage of UAVS will need to transition to digital metric sensors
that are smaller, multi-functional and optimized for UAVS- with similar or superior performance and
quality, at a smaller scale, to the “big monolithic sensors”.
Change is hard, but sometimes change is very good…and that will definitely be true for small firms using
film cameras that make the transition. They will not merely survive. They will thrive thanks to the kind of
growth and efficiencies that digital technology will deliver. Film is very much alive today, but broader
adoption of digital sensors will ensure that our industry as a whole starts to reap the full benefits of the
digital age. So welcome my dear “Mom & Pops” to the era of “DigitalFilm”.
About the Author:
Dr. Armando Guevara is the President and CEO of Visual Intelligence (www.visualintell.com), which provides
geoimaging solutions for airborne, terrestrial and mobile applications including the iOne family of sensors. Prior to
Visual Intelligence, Guevara held leadership positions at many of the most influential companies in the geospatial
industry, including ESRI, Intergraph and Gtt NetCorp. He has long been a respected thought leader and technology
innovator in the geospatial industry, and he has written a number of significant papers that have been landmarks in
the industry, including: “On the Spatial Enabling of Information”, “Adaptable-Scalable Spatial Architectures”, “The
Science of Where”, and “Geoimaging the World Online”.