Industry Pioneers: Alastair Jenkins, CEO GeoDigital International

A 385Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine complete with images is available by clicking HERE

At 43 years of age Alastair Jenkins thought it might be time to retire. After all he had been on quite a roll. In the previous fifteen years he had taken two companies public and had just sold one of them– Mosaic Mapping which had its roots in a garage in Hamilton, Ontario Canada to their largest customer. He was in the process of building a new home, he and his wife were having twins–life was good, but it quickly became apparent to Alastair that retirement was not going to work for him; at least not at 43.

Nine months later, in January of 2005 Alastair would buy (essentially "sight unseen") GeoDigital, a small Californiabased company that was providing digital imagery to the powerline industry. A trusted colleague had done a fair amount of due diligence on the company, but he had decided to pass. Alastair exchanged a few faxes with GeoDigital and decided to take a chance. Eight years later GeoDigital International is one of the largest providers of LiDAR-derived, geospatial solutions in North America.

Alastair Jenkins graduated from the Imperial College of London with an Honors degree in physics and modern optics in 1977. That same year he also became an associate of the Royal College of Science. His course of study would certainly prove to be the right choice as he spent his first 13 years working essentially as a rocket scientist for Spar Aerospace, Canada’s leading space contractor. During his tenure he worked in remote sensing building infrared reconnaissance systems for military purposes. He also worked on the robotic arm for the Space Shuttle.

One of the more challenging remote sensing projects that Alastair became involved with would be his first connection with LiDAR technology. It seems that it was possible to detect the presence of a submarine from the disturbance its propeller caused to the ocean surface, but they needed a sensor to create the surface models. Alastair would help Optech build one of their first LiDAR sensors.

In 1990 Alastair decided the time was right to join a commercial start up. Alastair mortgaged his house and together with the founder Mark Chamberlain accelerated the growth of Wescam. The company began by offering stabilized camera platforms to the film and television industry but quickly grew beyond this market to be a leader in the production of gyro-stabilized, EO-IR (electro-optical infrared) imaging systems. In 1995 Wescam went public on the Toronto Stock Exchange and in 2002 it was sold to L-3 Communications, a top ten worldwide defense contractor.

In late 1997 Alastair saw a new business opportunity developing. The technology to support moving map displays–mainly GPS and relatively fast laptops, had progressed to the point where it was now possible to offer this real time navigation system to the commercial market. (Editor’s Note: I was involved in this market at that time. Today it is taken for granted, but in the late 1990’s it was revolutionary to see your location in real time on a moving map on your laptop.)

Alastair joined Navitrak, offering a knee pad–mounted, moving map display as their first product. They also produced handheld GPS units for the military. At the same time he formed Mosaic Mapping. When the military needed to map 2,000 miles of highway from the ground (helicopters were too risky) in Afghanistan Mosaic Mapping developed one of the first mobile LiDAR mapping systems. Then, leveraging his knowledge of gyro-stabilized platforms, they began offering a unique utility corridor inspection service that included the use of a new digital remote sensing technology–LiDAR.

Most LiDAR sensors at that time were designed for wide area mapping. They were not well suited to low flying, "tight" utility corridors. To solve this problem Alastair would work with Riegl to develop a gyro-stabilized LiDAR sensor system that was better suited to his utility customers. This would prove to be the foundation of his next venture–GeoDigital International, but first he would take Mosaic public in 2002 and then sell the company to their largest customer Pulse Data in 2004.

After his brief stint in retirement Alastair reconnected with his previous partner Mark Chamberlain to create a joint venture and holding company that included the recently acquired GeoDigital, which would focus on the utility market and a second company, PictorVision that would focus on the entertainment industry. Today the company has two Oscars for its work in the motion picture industry. Both companies are self-funded and are innovation leaders in their markets.

"It was the 2003 blackout that forced utilities to realize they would have to get serious about right-of-way management," noted Alastair. This provided the basis for what in effect became a mandate from the regulatory agencies to develop and maintain vegetation management strategies for their transmission and distribution corridors.

"GeoDigital is not simply a LiDAR data provider. We offer actionable information to smart devices via our turnkey systems," explained Alastair.

Those people who were influential in Alastair’s career include his partner Mark Chamberlain, Dr. Allen Carswell, the founder of Optech, Ted Knaak and Jim Van Rens at Riegl USA, who helped him to develop a smaller, loser cost LiDAR sensor for his helicopters.

Alastair’s assessment of the current state of the industry is that an increasing number of vendors are collecting data, but the real challenge is in transforming that data into information that has a useable, commercial value to customers. He noted, "It’s not the piano that makes the music." He sees the current regulatory environment related to FAA restrictions on the use of lasers and UAVs as a serious issue that is holding back the industry.

Looking to the future Alastair sees true 3D mapping emerging over the next 5 years. GeoDigital’s recent agreement with Google is a good indicator of how this might develop. He sees the fusion of satellite, marine, radar–you name it all coming together to provide seamless 3D models of the earth. In 2020 he thinks 3D will be the basis for everyday living. It will be seen in driverless vehicles, augmented reality glasses and scanners in smart phones leading to 3D search, where you can take a photo of something and search for similar items based on the 3D object you just captured.

If Alastair were to switch careers he would like to be in venture capital, perhaps as an angel investor. In his spare time Alastair likes to be outdoors, either skiing or anywhere near water. When asked whether he thought he would be where he is today Alastair jokes, "It’s taken me 25 years to become an overnight success. The journey is still in progress and I am behind schedule."

Gene Roe is the Managing Editor and Co-Founder of LiDAR Magazine.

A 385Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine complete with images is available by clicking HERE