Disruptive Technologies and Disruptive Organizations

There has been a lot of talk about disruptive technologies in the tech media in the past two years, much of it revolving around the iPhone/iPad and the impact such devices will have on PC sales. The term, which was coined in the mid 90s, generally refers to an innovation that radically changes existing markets. Digital photography is often cited as one of the classic examples.

Photo caption: A portion of Pennsylvania’s statewide LiDAR data set acquired in 2006. Will the provider be Google or Microsoft next time?

At this years American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (ASPRS) conference a three wise man panel was convened on the second day. Three eminent figures in the remote sensing community whose careers started over five decades ago reflected on the radical changes in sensors, software and workflows that had occurred during their time in the industry.

Needless to say, there was a lot of talk about disruptive technologies, culminating with LiDAR. Terrence Keating from Aero-Metric concluded the session by mentioning that 50% of his companies work now involves LiDAR. What struck me is how well Aero-Metric and other remote sensing companies seem to have adapted to these disruptive technologies. A fact that is not at all surprising given that remote sensing was itself a disruptive technology at one point in time. After all, we tend to be an innovative bunch.

What did surprise me was the lack of any discussion about the potential disruptions certain companies may cause in the near future. When I walked into the exhibitor hall on the first day of the ASPRS 2011 conference I was amazed to see that the largest booth at one of the nations premiere remote sensing conference was occupied by Microsoft. Thats right, the same company that sells you Windows and Office has a booth that dwarfed well-established remote sensing companies, many of whom have been in the business for decades.

Microsoft got into the remote sensing business when it acquired Vexcel a few years ago, inheriting the UltraCam line of aerial imaging systems. The fact that Microsoft decided to buy a sensor company is interesting in itself, but what is more fascinating is the recent announcement of their Global Ortho Project. The Global Ortho Project will acquire 30cm imagery for the entirety of the US and Western Europe every three years, with the first delivery scheduled for 2012.

Aside from the obvious fact that the imagery will appear in Bing Maps, its not fully clear what sort of products will be made available, although press releases indicate that DigitalGlobe will handle the distribution. What is clear is that Microsofts actions will mean a major disruption in the orthophoto marketplace. When state governments are struggling with major budget shortfalls a low cost imagery as a service offering from Microsoft may cause many states to rethink their comparatively costly orthophoto programs.

What does this mean for the LiDAR industry? I think that we will see both Microsoft and Google offer, either free or though a paid service, LiDAR data for at least the major population centers in the US within the next five years. Both companies already have considerable expertise with LiDAR; Microsoft with their Kinect remote-less game controller and Google with their self-driving car. Google is one of the chief founders of the Point Cloud Library (PCL) and have included LiDAR as part of their Street View program.

We may very well be entering a new era in which the technology is not nearly as disruptive as the organizations. Google and Microsoft have entirely different business models as compared to practically every other remote sensing company. They can afford to devote massive human and technological resources to acquiring, processing, and extracting information from remotely sensed data sets.

Its not inconceivable to imagine a situation five years from now in which Microsoft declares that it will acquire nationwide LiDAR, or Google saying that it will make all of the LiDAR captured as part of the Street View project available for free. This would not kill every small- to medium-sized company currently involved in LiDAR acquisition, but it would radically change the LiDAR landscape.

One of the major challenges with LiDAR is the amount of data that is collected. One cannot help but wonder if those organizations, such as Microsoft and Google, who are unmatched in their ability to deal with large data sets, have an insurmountable advantage over anyone else.

Something to consider.

About the Author

Jarlath ONeil-Dunne

Jarlath O'Neil-Dunne ... Jarlath O'Neil-Dunne is a researcher with the University of Vermont's (UVM) Spatial Analysis Laboratory (SAL) and also holds a joint appointment with the USDA Forest Service's Northern Research Station. He has over 15 years experience with GIS and remote sensing and is recognized as a leading expert on the design and application of Object-Based Image Analysis Systems (OBIA) for automated land cover mapping. His team at the SAL has generated billions of pixels worth of high-resolution land cover data from a variety of aerial, satellite, and LiDAR sensors in support of urban forestry planning, ecosystem service estimation, and water quality modeling. In addition to his research duties he teaches introductory and advanced courses in GIS and remote sensing using ArcGIS, ERDAS IMAGINE, eCognition, and QT Modeler. He earned a Bachelor of Science in Forestry from the University of New Hampshire, a Masters of Science in Water Resources from the University of Vermont, and certificates in hyperspectral image exploitation and joint GIS operations from the National Geospatial Intelligence College. He is a former officer in the United States Marine Corps where commanded infantry, counter-terrorism, and geospatial intelligence units.
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