Industry Pioneers: Lewis Graham, President/CTO, GeoCue Group

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I guess I am the exception to the rule. My father was in the construction business, among many othershowever he could make a buck, so it was never a question for me. I was always wanted to be a civil engineer. My mother used to have a copy of my eighth grade guidance report where I indicated that my career goal was, you guessed it, to become a civil engineer. Some might say that’s rather boring, but I love it. Just lucky I guess.

Enough about me, in his early 20’s Lewis Graham was not working in photogrammetry, remote sensing and certainly not LiDAR. He was working on trucks and tugboats as a diesel mechanichard to imagine. As Lewis says, "I was a bit non-traditional. In my youth I liked to tinker with electronics, but that’s about as far as it went. I guess I am truly an accidental mapper."

At the time his career goal was to work his way up to be able to repair the tugboat radars so he was going to school at night to become an electronics technician. Luckily for all of us, Lewis had a mentor-like instructor who encouraged him to aim higher by pursuing a degree in electrical engineering. Since his local college didn’t offer EE he was forced to study Physics. It would take another 10 years but he would eventually get his Masters in EE.

Once he completed his degree in Physics in the early 80’s Lewis entered the Navy where has a Lieutenant he soon found himself teaching physics at the Navy Nuclear Power School. That was certainly a major difference from being a diesel mechanic; and no, he never did get to work on a radar.

After four years in the Navy, a friend recommended Lewis for a job with the Intergraph Corporation. This would be the first of two stints with this major geospatial/CAD player which would total more than 15 years. In his first position he was a missile ground equipment test program certifier, but he would eventually move on to a massive Defense Mapping Agency program for map modernization. Lewis notes, "I have been involved in photogrammetry and mapping ever since."

In the early 1990’s Lewis was managing the commercial photogrammetry and civil engineering divisions of Intergraph. He remembers, "We did a lot of development of software that automatically extracted elevation data from stereo imagery, as well as interactive edit tools and surface modeling algorithms. During the second half of the 1990’s, we teamed with several companies to bring point cloud data from airborne laser scanners into our software. In fact, one of these collaborations led to the formation of the original group that defined the LAS point cloud format. This was a private effort centered on some work that the team was doing for the US Army Corps of Engineers."

After leaving Intergraph in 2002, Lewis and Jim Meadlock (his business partner) founded the GeoCue Corporation. The initial goal was to build an end-to-end elevation processing workflow using both LIDAR and photogrammetric data. Although their focus expanded to include generalized base mapping production workflows, LIDAR has remained their core business since the formation of the company.

As we have heard from many of the previous industry pioneers that run their own business they have very little time outside of work. I can attest to the fact that Lewis has a killer travel schedule. When he can he retreats with his family to a summer home where he enjoys boating on the Tennessee River.

When asked about people who have influenced him Lewis noted, "First would be my Dad who was never afraid to attempt to repair anything. He really gave me the courage to tackle hard problems, even if I was clueless about the solution! My Mom is an author with this incredible persistence. I think persistence is probably the most important attribute one can have for achieving success. Finally, is my wife Nancy who has this belief that I am going to be successful and really helps me stay the course in difficult business times. "

On the professional side Lewis notes, "I had the very good fortune to get to know Jim Meadlock in the late 1980’s. He reminds me a lot of my Dad in that he would give me assignments at Intergraph that I had no idea how to address. His confidence in my ability to solve difficult problems really forced me to stretch my horizons."

As far as his assessment of the current state of the laser scanning/LiDAR industry is concerned Lewis pointed out that in kinematic applications which his area of expertise they are continuing to see a high rate of investment in research and development. He points out, "This has the benefit of dramatically improving the data that are being collected while simultaneously keeping costs either constant or decreasing. I don’t see a letup in the R&D investments being made by hardware and software vendors. Therefore, I think it is safe to anticipate a near doubling of capabilities on an approximate two year frequency for the next few cycles of hardware and software."

The market development that is the most surprising to him is what he calls "consumer LiDAR". To cover that base Lewis acquired a small company (QCoherent Software, LLC) who was developing software tools for exploiting LIDAR in an ArcGIS Desktop environment. He noted, "My motivation for this was a trend in the industry of end-users of LIDAR doing more value-add processing. Whereas in the early 2000’s, a lot of LIDAR was sitting on the shelf in ASCII format, by 2008 or so, end-users began realizing the value that could be extracted beyond simple elevation files."

The two key events that Lewis believes have shaped the LiDAR industry over the past 10 to 15 years are the development by the military of positioning/orientation (POS) technology which really enabled precision remote sensing; and second the recognition by major agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) that LIDAR was a much better source of base elevation information than elevation extraction from photogrammetric techniques (due primarily to the inability of image-based systems to penetrate vegetation canopy and deep urban canyons).

Lewis’ most important concern in order for the LiDAR industry to continue to grow and prosper is the current death spiral of pricing by the LIDAR collection contractors. He points out, "There is probably overcapacity of sensors in North America at the moment and this is driving down the price of acquisition (both in airborne and mobile laser scanning). At the same time, we are not seeing a dramatic drop in acquisition costs such as aviation fuel, aviation maintenance, system costs and salaries. This is causing some collects at pricing (meaning on the low side) that is not sustainable. I think this may result in some shake-out in the industry. It certainly causes the major acquisition players to hold back on new system purchases. This, in turn, slows the R&D spend rate of the manufacturers."

Looking to the future Lewis sees LIDAR as a stepping stone to ubiquitous 3D imaging. He thinks, "The wide variety of disparate imaging techniques that we see today will coalesce to a richly attributed 3D point model of some sort. I see things such as oblique image data sets being replaced by 3D point clouds with advanced viewing methods that provide a much richer visualization experience with a common and (hopefully) open data structure for exploitation."

When asked if he has ever considered switching careers Lewis says he thought about going into academia before he started GeoCue. He says he is past that now, but his love of the marine environment makes him think about perhaps a small hydro surveying business. If that were to happen I am sure he would be a success because Lewis has what he says are the two most valuable qualities needed in embarking on any endeavorpersistence and optimism.

In support of this philosophy Lewis predicts, "I think those companies who tough out this current period and continue to invest in improving their capabilities will be amply rewarded over the next few years."

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

A 324Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine complete with images is available by clicking HERE