#9 – Matt LaLuzerne and Ravi Soneja

McKim & Creed is an engineering and surveying firm with 24 offices in the southeastern US. In this episode, Matt LaLuzerne, National Director of BD & Geospatial Services, and Ravi Soneja, UAS Program Manager, talk about their careers and why they joined McKim & Creed. We discuss the firm’s characteristics, capabilities and approach to project management. The conversation broadens to consider the evolution of the industry and how it has been influenced by the high cost of sensors mounted in crewed aircraft and the arrival of highly performant UAV-photogrammetry and UAV-lidar systems.

Episode Transcript:

#9 – Matt LaLuzerne and Ravi Soneja

June 3rd, 2024

Announcer:           Welcome to the LIDAR Magazine Podcast, bringing measurement, positioning and imaging technologies to light. This event was made possible thanks to the generous support of rapidlasso, producer of the LAStools software suite.

Dr. Stewart Walker: Welcome to the LIDAR Magazine podcasts. My name is Stewart Walker and I’m the Managing Editor of LIDAR Magazine. As we do more and more podcasts, we naturally find ourselves involved with the large geospatial services companies and the large equipment suppliers.

So, today we’re featuring a well-known geospatial services company, McKim & Creed, and I’m delighted to welcome two members of its leadership to talk about the firm and what it’s doing.

Now, McKim & Creed is a company of engineers, surveyors and planners that covers the southeast of the USA. Matt LaLuzerne is National Director of Business Development and Geospatial Services. He’s based in the firm’s office in Winter Park in Florida. Ravi Soneja is the UAS Program Manager and he works out of the firm’s Raleigh office in North Carolina.

Now, both of you gentlemen have come to McKim & Creed from other geospatial services companies, both of you serve ASPRS at the regional level so you obviously are well-informed about this industry and I’m sure listeners are keen to learn your opinions. So, Matt LaLuzerne and Ravi Soneja, welcome to the LIDAR Magazine podcasts.

Matt LaLuzerne: Thanks, Stewart.

Ravi Soneja: Thank you, Stewart.

Dr. Stewart Walker: So, Matt, let’s start with you. As I said a moment ago, you’re well-known in the Florida geospatial world, you’ve been with McKim & Creed for about wo years. Please tell us a little bit about yourself and how you came to be in your present position.

Matt LaLuzerne: Yes, thanks, Stewart. I appreciate the nice, warm introduction. So, I’m a born-and-raised Floridian, Florida is my home, probably don’t plan on leaving it anytime soon and went to school at University of Florida to get my geomatics degree.

So, went straight into surveying and mapping and that was the early 2000’s, so the geospatial component wasn’t as robust as it is now. So, in the traditional surveying and mapping; did that for 10 years doing underground utilities, boundary surveys, transportation topography.

And then aerial mapping was starting to really take hold with aerial lidar, the camera sensors were starting to transition more heavily from – into digital where that was widely accepted. Especially on the DOT side, that was really starting to come into a larger order of magnitude.

And as I saw this stuff developed, I really – it piqued my interest, “Okay, this is the future, all the different lidar imagery sensors coming to market, I need to learn more about that.” So, I joined a small aerial mapping firm, they were a small business, did a lot of helicopter-based photogrammetry on the transportation side.

I love transportation. Ever since I was a kid loved bridges and roads and maps so I wanted to learn the mapping side of it, the aerial mapping side of that and the mobile mapping side of that and see how we could go ahead and broaden that.

In Florida, that practice for that small firm, we just about doubled our revenue in just a few years while I was there and really pushed the boundaries of transportation mapping by being the first one to introduce aerial lidar to FDOT and working on some pilot projects with central office to identify best practices, workflows and push the limits of what the technology could do while also making sure we stayed within acceptable practice for design; it goes straight to construction to building roads based on this data, so with lots of checks and balances.

And through there I fell in love with both operations and business development, growing a business. And after about seven years with my previous firm I came to a point where I was looking for a bigger footprint.

McKim & Creed has a very, very large footprint. We’re in our ranked #1 in the southeast for surveying and mapping and so it gives me an opportunity to work from areas from Texas to Florida up into Virginia and New York, so covering the whole East Coast and really just like focusing on growing the business aspect of it and then creating operational improvements overseeing our geospatial services.

Dr. Stewart Walker: Yes, an interesting career and I noticed also just reading your LinkedIn page that you also earned an MBA from Rollins College. Did you do that after you’d been working for a few years and do you find it useful?

Matt LaLuzerne: Great question. A lot of people ask me about this and I did, I waited about four years after I graduated with my bachelor’s and I was fulltime in a career and I noticed that a lot of the technical professionals didn’t have a great grasp of business concepts, accounting and financial planning, things like that for a business.

So, Rollins College is a private university here in Orlando, Florida. They had night school for professionals. So, this was a two-and-a-half year program that really focused on balancing your current career and introducing a lot of business practices.

I have found it incredibly useful, not just from a business applications perspective, but they really honed in on the leadership foundation in building the team and collaborating and working with people and those people skills and mixed with the business acumen have really propelled my career. I would highly recommend anybody that has interest in learning more about the business side of things to go back to school and get their MBA.

It was worth every penny and I cherish my time there; made a lot of great friends that I’m still close family friends with and I still find myself being challenged from a business planning perspective, going back and looking at my notes, looking through old textbooks and learning how we can continue to growth the business and move it forward especially with the ever-changing economy, the changing technology, labor, challenges. I mean, it really helps you understand and provides a map, if you will, on how to navigate your company.

Dr. Stewart Walker: Yes, that’s reassuring. I did an MBA rather late in life, but I’m pleased that you recommend that course. I just warn listeners, the older you get the harder it is to remember stuff for writing and exams.

Matt LaLuzerne: Absolutely.

Dr. Stewart Walker: Ravi, you’re also a new employee having joined McKim & Creed last fall. So, tell us more about yourself. After your degree at North Carolina State, you worked for a number of geospatial services companies, I think with some emphasis on the UAV side. Is that right?

Ravi Soneja: Yes, Stewart, that’s correct. So, as you mentioned, I graduated from North Carolina State University. I actually had a bachelor’s in material science engineering and then decided it just wasn’t something I wanted do. I had an undergrad research tech position where I was spending 14 hours a day in a lab running GCMS equipment.

And then I always say I stumbled into the geospatial world completely by accident. I went to go work for a drone startup called PrecisionHawk and they were working with energy companies, engineering firms helping equip them with the technology to go out and do this type of work that we’re doing today.

But my background is actually in airborne lidar and so I’ve worked, as you mentioned, a lot of that has been with UAS lidar over the last six years here. But even with that I’ve got a lot of exposure into manned aircraft doing work on countywide mapping projects where we’re delivering data to the USGS 3D elevation program, so doing (inaudible) edits, building edits, writing metadata for those types of projects.

In my role today with McKim & Creed a lot of that is really focused with UAS lidar for a wide range of projects that we work on. But that is correct.

Dr. Stewart Walker: So, in preparation for this I did do some web research on McKim & Creed. It’s a family business founded in 1978, it’s got offices throughout North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia. There’s 24 of them on your website and I think Matt’s already just given a hint of how the firm’s efforts extend up the eastern seaboard of the US.

And also, as we already said, the company is much more broadly based than just geospatial services. So, gentlemen, please introduce us to McKim & Creed and try to summarize what makes the firm special.

Matt LaLuzerne: Yes, thanks, Stewart. I’ll go ahead and start and then I’ll let Ravi give his perspective. But we’re – our mantra is people helping people and that’s something we truly embrace in body and that’s through an employee-owned firm, so we’re an ESOP company. So, all of our employees are employee-owners.

And when we talk about employees, we mention employee-owners because every one of us is an owner. That is distributed without individuals having to put – pay for stock ownership; that is part of a benefit of a program that the company takes a large chunk of the profits and redistributes it to all of its employee-owners.

And what that does, it creates an atmosphere of wanting to help each other. There’s a lot of collaboration, a lot of partnership and it really brings out the best in people; they treat it as if it’s their own company. And when you do that you just have a higher attention to detail and to the collaboration. So, that’s what makes us special.

You highlighted our footprint; it’s a very large footprint. We’re a little over 800 staff members, more than half of that is actually on the geomatics side which includes traditional surveying and mapping, subservice utility engineering and then our geospatial footprint which is the aerial mobile static lidar and hydrographic mapping.

So, the firm has over half the revenue, half the employees on that geomatics side, so it’s not just an engineering firm, we’re – we like to brag that we’re a surveying company just because of that large presence as a part of the firm but there’s a lot of collaboration between the different service lines: you have your water design or electrical design, things like that. They collaborate with the geomatics group and vice versa. A lot of introductions to clients, potential clients recruiting for each other and it’s truly a people helping people company.

Ravi Soneja: Yes, I would echo what Matt said. I mean, I’ve worked for an ESOP in the past; that to me is huge for working for a firm, the fact that you have that ownership in the company and you can really impact and drive the direction that company goes in.

So, that is to me, I think, something that makes working for McKim & Creed as a company very special in that the effort and time that we put into the work that we do directly impacts the company and ensures the success of the company and our clients, for that matter.

Dr. Stewart Walker: Now that we’ve set a little bit of the background there and clearly with, as you just said, more than half of your 800 employees involved in geomatics, it’s clear that your practice, your geomatics practice covers pretty much the full spectrum of services: land surveying, photogrammetry, lidar, GIS, (cadastre), and so on.

So, let’s go into the airborne services a little more. Do you have your own crude aircraft and helicopters as well as UAVs? And do you have lidar sensors as well as cameras on these? It seems that you have.

Ravi Soneja: So, Stewart, this is long before my time. Back in the day we used to own manned helicopters and we had RIEGL systems that we operated on those helicopters and a number of years ago we got out of that for a number of reasons: from the liability side of it, the maintenance and just the technology was changing so quickly that we ended up moving away from that.

So, for a large majority of our aerial projects we work with a small handful of airborne firms that we know and trust. We’ve worked with them long enough that we know we’re going to get back from them when we bring them into a project.

From a UAV perspective, we’ve been operating UAVs for a number of years now. We’re actually one of the first companies to get a Section 333 exemption through the FFA to operate UAFs for commercial purposes and that was way, way back when UAVs started becoming a thing that, as Matt mentioned, a land surveying and aerial mapping firm started to incorporate there.

We spent a couple months here doing some testing with lidar systems on UAVs. We had not made the investment into it ourselves. For a while there we were utilizing subconsultants or renting equipment. But I’m very happy to say that in the last week we actually took delivery of our very first fixed-wing UAS lidar system. So, now we are – we do own and operate our own equipment from that perspective and that is lidar and imagery for that system.

Dr. Stewart Walker: So, you’re really on the cusp of something that could be a little bit of a change of direction and, indeed, using a fixed-wing UAV, that’s done all over the world but probably in the US is less common than rotor UAVs.

Ravi Soneja: That’s correct. In all of my experience working with airborne lidar from a UAS perspective, all of it has been with multirotor. Looking at some of the sensors that are available today that we can fit onto a fixed-wing UAS platform, this is my personal opinion: I don’t necessarily think that maybe three or so years ago that that was really possible. I think the sensors were just – they weren’t small enough, the actual laser head and the IMU component was not small enough to fit into a fixed-wing aircraft to give you a reasonable flight time.

And not only that, the UAS fix-winged platforms of past, they’re not easy to operate. There’s a lot of pieces that have to come together, the flight software has to work, so there were a lot of hurdles to that previously. But I think personally that we are in a different place now today than we were three or five years ago and I would be not surprised if more firms begin to adopt and move towards fixed-wing UAS lidar versus multirotor.

I think right now, as I understand it, we’re one of a handful, a very, very small handful in the US right now that has this equipment and even getting the equipment there were some – a couple weeks’ worth of waiting for that sensor to come in from Europe and take delivery of it.

So, I think right now we’re one of a handful but I imagine that will change here in the coming months and years.

Dr. Stewart Walker: So, the technology is now completely reliable in terms of taking off and landing with those expensive sensors onboard?

Ravi Soneja: Yes. So, the system that we have is what’s known as a vertical take-off and landing or VTOL. So, we’ll take off in a similar fashion to a multirotor and then it will transition into horizontal flight.

The upside to us is that we are able to achieve a 30-minute flight time in a single lift versus if we were trying to do some of the stuff still with multirotors, there’s not really a multirotor out there that’s a battery powered system that would give you a 30-minute airtime with actual flight time online versus what we’re seeing with the fixed-wing stuff.

I think the next component and what I’m really excited about is who’s going to be the first company to come up with a – between RIEGL and Teledyne Optech, who’s going to come up with that small form factor, high-pulse repetition rate, high number of returns per outgoing pulse with a very minimal beam divergence that can fit into a fixed-wing platform and give us flight time still?

Dr. Stewart Walker: What’s the compromise at the moment? That it’s not mounted very elegantly or you make sacrifices in terms of flight time?

Ravi Soneja: It’s not really the flight time or the mounting set up. It’s that sensors that are being integrated today are still those from the – they’ve been essentially adapted from an automotive self-driving environment to fit onto a multirotor or even onto a fixed-wing.

So, you’re not necessarily getting the same level of precision as you would from a RIEGL or a Teledyne Optech system, but the accuracies are very comparable and that’s where we spend a lot of time – because we realized it was such a big investment.

We spent probably on the order of two to three months and across that time period 40 to 50 man hours of time in the field setting control, acquiring the data and processing it to the same standards for best practices for aerial mapping that we would normally follow to really validate that data and ensure that the system that we are purchasing is going to give us data that’s meeting the accuracy requirements that we have for our projects so that we can actually utilize that equipment.

Dr. Stewart Walker: And do you have any aspirations with this system to fly beyond visible line of sight?

Ravi Soneja: That certainly would be something we’d be interested in. I don’t think that – just from a regulatory perspective I don’t know that we’re necessarily there today without some restrictions for beyond visual line of sight, but I think as the technology continues to advance and we see the regulations become more open towards that, I think we are going to be seeing that in the US more and more often, especially for those longer corridor projects and I’m thinking transportation or even transmission line projects where you’re covering multiple linear miles in a single flight without having to use visual observers spread across that linear route.

Dr. Stewart Walker: Yes, indeed. Well, changing the subject just a little bit, you presumably capture lidar not only from the air but from land vehicles and from instruments mounted in tripods.

Matt LaLuzerne: Yes, absolutely, Stewart. So, we do have your traditional tripod-mounted scanners, different Leica scanners as well as looking to some of the newer RIEGL scanners of 600i. Additional we use the NavVis backpack scanner quite a bit that uses the SLAM technology.

That’s more for our interior scanning. Our team’s done quite a bit of (inaudible) for airports, military facilities, commercial buildings, educational facilities, government buildings, things like that. So, there’s – looking for ways to integrate from airborne to land-based to interior-type scanning.

Additionally, we recently purchased a RIEGL VMX-2HA mobile mapping system. We also still have an older Optech system that’s been around for a little bit. So, those two scanning platforms really help out on our large roadway projects or any kind of very long, linear fiber networks, things like that, for our line replacement projects that sees a lot of (sounds like: drive) time.

Additionally, we’ve done quite a bit of testing and utilization of mounting the scanners on our hydroboats which is kind of a fun application where if you’re traveling through a channel underneath a bridge you can not only get the multibeam and side scan data for underneath the water, you could get all the substructure for the bridges above the water and bringing all that stuff together into a single point cloud.

There’s a really cool project we worked on for the Army Corps up in the Hudson River, the lock-and-dam system where we did utilize photogrammetry backpack-based lidar hydro (inaudible) and combined all that together into a single point cloud creating seamless integration between – above-the-water and below-water viewpoints.

And it’s amazing that it allows you to really do a lot of analysis and design from your desk and reduces the amount of field time engineers and designers have to spend doing any kind of inspection work out in the field.

So, it’s – I love it for the safety. As someone that has a traditional survey degree, spent a lot of years doing traditional surveys, the opportunity to remove the risk of having people exposed to traveling vehicles, high-speed vehicles, other potential safety hazards out in the field.

So, it’s a great tool and our goal is to have as many tools as possible to match the right tool for the right job. We’re not going to try to cram a square peg into a round hole; we want to make sure that our staff has what they need to be successful in their job and so with that, yes, we continue to invest in multiple types of lidar sensors and different platforms and including cameras as well; we want that imagery to come with it.

So, it’s fun and I’m excited to see where the technology is going to continue to take us because the sensors are getting faster and more robust.

Dr. Stewart Walker: Well, on that very subject, I happened to be reading a press release I think it was in Photonics Spectra the other day and I was just wondering, do you operate any of the sort of more exotic airborne sensors for detecting methane or other gases or is that a very, very specialist market that hardly any firms address?

Matt LaLuzerne: Yes. So, Stewart, we do actually have a certified thermographer on our stuff, Travis Pipoly out in our Texas office, and so we use some of those different cameras looking for leak detections, things like that. So, we do specialize in that.

It’s not as regular of a function as your topographic mapping so it’s something that we’ll just rent a sensor and add it on to one of our UAS platforms and go – practical-by-practical basis. But, yes, we’ll delve a little bit into the exotic stuff but nothing that we currently own until we see a larger influx of that kind of work.

Dr. Stewart Walker: Thank you. And now for a word from our sponsor, LAStools.

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Dr. Stewart Walker: I know from our preparatory conversations that you’re especially proud of the firm’s approach to projects. Now, these presumably begin either with a client making contact or with your business development team having success.

After you engage, you work with the client on the project design. So, what happens then? What’s special about your approach? And do you have to use complex, high-end project management software?

Ravi Soneja: Stewart, that’s a great question. So, a lot of that approach of working with clients working on projects for us, like you mentioned, begins with either that client reaching out to us or our business development team, making contact with them, identifying projects that they need support on.

I would say one of the things for us that’s really unique in our approach and what I think makes its special is—and Matt made this comment earlier—trying to take a solutions-based approach.

So, just because we own all these different types of tools and we have that equipment that we can utilize on a project, it doesn’t mean that we’re going to try to cram that piece of technology onto a project simply to utilize it with that client.

What we’re really looking to do is work with that client and I always try to frame it this way is the first thing I need to understand is the deliverables that you, the client, are asking for because once I understand those deliverables, I can work backwards to figure out what specifications do I need to meet with the project? What are my accuracy requirements? What deliverables are you looking for? Then I can work backwards to figure out what’s the best solution to fit that project and that client’s need.

And that may very well be a traditional boots-on-the-ground approach for survey. As much as we have the technology and we want to pull it out on the project and use it, we also have to be conscious about the client’s budget and what’s realistic for them to absorb into their project.

So, that’s a big part of it is just trying to make sure that we’re utilizing a solutions-based approach, understanding what the client’s really looking for and then fitting the right piece or right tool back to that project.

From a project management standpoint—and I’m even seeing this now on the airborne side—the number of projects are starting to stack up and it’s hard to manage all of that without having a tool to do that and, I guess, Matt, I’ll turn it over to you to answer that side of it. You’ve been more involved in that, really, than I have.

Matt LaLuzerne: Yes. So, we do like to use Microsoft Project as our project management software tool. From here we typically look at our proposed estimate, the number of man hours that we anticipate, and build a project schedule that’s aggressive, that meets the clients’ needs, but also reasonable. We want to make sure we don’t over-promise under-deliver so we want to align that as best as possible with expectations, our staff manpower as well as sensor and equipment availability.

So, we track all of – our mobile sensors, for example, we track where they’re going to be on the calendar format and the staff that does all the acquisitions. And then from a resource mapping, we have all of our staff, the geospatial staff plugged in and we can – you can tune in how much vacation time, when they’re going to take their vacation time, their capabilities.

So, let’s say you have a new person coming onboard and they’re operating at 75% to 80% level of what you would expect for that position because they’re still in training and they’re still learning, you could set those production results as part of your resource mapping and plan out all of your projects simultaneously. And what that allows us to do is it shows if we’re going to hit deadline, miss deadlines, if we’re having gaps or overlaps in our resourcing.

So, that’s something we use daily and it really helps us project where we’re going to have availability or if there’s center availability or staff availability, we’ve got to keep them busy and that’s what generates the revenue.

Covering such a large footprint with the multiple sensors, this has been a tremendous tool to allow us to proactively manage everything. And also communicate with our clients. We graphically present Gant charts with our proposals to make sure that they see the (inaudible) tasks, what are some of the critical tasks, critical paths and try to come up with a solution, like Ravi said, are solutions-based. Okay, where can we provide interim deliverables or a key data to keep them moving forward? And we’ll customize what that looks like.

And with the Microsoft Project you could also combine multiple projects into a same viewport. So, we have one master file with all the PMs projects and their schedules and Gant charts, resource mapping into one centralized hub location and it’s a tremendous tool to really see everything from a holistic view.

Dr. Stewart Walker: Along with that do you have to have some kind of portal or other means of your clients being able to look in and see how the project’s going?

Matt LaLuzerne: Yes, absolutely. So, we could set up customize portals where they’re either password protected. Some government agencies aren’t as keen on using those, so it will be a snapshot, we do a snapshot in time to showcase where we’re at with things.

But, yes, there’s multiple ways to let your clients peek behind the curtain, if you will, to see how things are progressing and that’s great for creating status reports that you tag that on to an invoice to have that transparency, the clients love that transparency. So that’s a very good point there.

Dr. Stewart Walker: Well, Ravi, you’ve already mentioned your work selecting, evaluating, testing UAV lidar, UAV photogrammetry solutions. So, you’re interested in that. I know that you’re also interested in getting things right in terms of the numbers of ground control points, independent checkpoints, use of the best targets or panels.

And, indeed, this was a theme that was – it came up in a number of different ways in a number of different sessions at the GeoWeek meeting in Denver back in February. Do you have any thoughts or comments on these areas of your work?

Ravi Soneja: So, we just talked about a couple of minutes ago with McKim & Creed getting our first airborne lidar system that would go on a UAS platform and you made the comment of “What is it with some of these other sensor manufacturers that does not allow them to fit into that?” and I talked a little bit about the precision of the laser systems.

But part of that still does translate back to some of those sensors are just too big to fit into that application and until they get smaller they are really not a viable option for certain UAS fixed-wing platforms.

But all those different things that you just mentioned as part of that question in terms of the number of ground controlled points, independent checkpoints and using the right targets or panels, that for me and for McKim & Creed translated much farther than just the testing that we were doing because part of that, yes, was let’s do our due diligence and understand where this sensor falls in terms of the accuracy that it’s able to achieve.

But a big part of that, it goes right back into our own projects is we need to understand the correct target size to use with that sensor. So, every sensor has its own nuances and characteristics and things about it that will make it work or perform differently from another sensor.

And so a big part of that for us was let’s understand what makes this sensor really tick, what things do we need to be taking account of so that as we’re working through that process to acquire the equipment we’re not getting to a production point and then having surprises in production where we’re seeing stuff that we don’t understand what’s going on or we don’t know – we set a panel but it was too small and now we can’t see it when we were reviewing data by intensity getting ready to calibrate it.

Like I said, that translates much further into the production side than I think a lot of people would think because if you’re going into projects and you have not done the due diligence with the equipment that you’re operating and you’re going into your first project or first handful of projects, there are going to be a lot of surprises for you, things that crop up that you did not expect or things that you didn’t feel or maybe you used the wrong target size, you got back to the office and now you can’t calibrate that data correctly. So you’re looking at mobilizing back out to the field to redo that collection.

But I think certainly for ourselves we’ve proven that the accuracy of the system we invested in meets our needs. A big part of that, like I said, is just trying to put that system through its paces and understand what its capabilities are, what it’s limitations are and where we can use that system on what types of projects.

Like I said, it’s a solutions-based approach for us so it’s – with any airborne system it may not always be the right system for the right job and so we’ve got to be able to look at that project objectively and adapt from there and say, “You know what? Maybe for this project unmanned aircraft approach with a Leica or RIEGL system would be better that what we were proposing here. So, let’s be open-minded enough to realize that we’re not going to be able to use this on every job and we are going to have to pivot and use our partners for those different types of projects where we’re running into some type of a limitation.”

Dr. Stewart Walker: You’ve really given us a fascinating insight into McKim & Creed, what you do, what you think you’re good at and so on. So, as we move towards the close of our conversation, I want to think a little bit more generally and it’s hard for me looking in from the outside in how the industry is evolving. I was involved 20 years ago with the introduction, more than 20 years ago with the introduction of airborne digital cameras that replaced the film cameras.

And one of the results of that was, I think, that smaller firms took a hit because it was very difficult to afford the new digital cameras which cost two or three times as much as a film camera.

And I was beginning to wonder whether you need to be in a situation like yours where you are of a large size because your firm encompasses not just geomatics but other service areas such as architecture, engineering, maybe conservation.

But on the other hand you just said a little while back, Matt, I think, that you use specialist subcontractors to do your flying. So, they’ve got aircraft and cameras, but not the whole setup of making geomatics deliverables that you have.

How do you think things – and then, I suppose, also as Ravi’s been telling us that many firms—if they’re careful and work professionally—can operate UAV systems so maybe that’s a redemocratization.

I don’t know, I’m just kind of speculating a little bit. What do you think about how the industry’s evolving?

Matt LaLuzerne: Yes, Stewart, that’s a great point and a nice observation and I do think that some of the challenges of the industry is that the rapid development of technology and especially some of these aerial sensors and cameras and really high-density lidar for fixed-wing applications, I mean, there’s a barrier to entry from a cost perspective. I mean, a lot of medium or smaller firms have a hard time spending $1,000,000 on a piece of equipment unless they have that platform or some special contracts to really generate an ROI on that investment.

So, it does create some limitations and that’s where I think the development of the UAS and the adoption of that as a platform to attach different kinds of sensors allows smaller firms to go in and provide similar capabilities. There’s going to be some limitations depending on the size of the project but it does provide that opportunity.

I also see the collaboration with firms getting better and better: attending the professional society events, Ravi and I are both very active in the ASPRS, we see a lot of partnership opportunities, there’s a lot of teaming, there’s a lot of support, especially geographically based.

Being in Florida, a lot of folks come to me for Florida work. From an aerial imagery perspective, it’s a very difficult area if you’re collecting large volumes of aerial imagery because of the clouds and the different weather and the climate.

So, it’s – the partnerships are beginning to really develop and get better and better each year which I think’s great.

On the software side, you’re right. I think the bigger firms have the availability to have a more intricate jigsaw of software application. Our – speaking for our firm, we have a very large, diverse range from different manufacturers, too. So, we’ll have firms that use a certain camera or a certain lidar sensor. We’ll carry the software just so they acquire for us and we do all the processing, post processing and final deliverables. But there’s a heavy cost to that, so that’s a burden.

And the other thing, I think, for some of the smaller firms as a huge burden is maybe they can make the upfront investments on the equipment but it’s the data management, I think sometimes it’s a little bit more than they anticipated: how do you handle that large volume?

And the nice thing is the cloud computing and some of that technology is alleviating the need for on-premise storage and processing capabilities. So, there’s some solutions that are helping to mitigate that that allows firms to start wedging their way into this more complex remote-sending environment.

So, there’s – I still think there’s going to be some mom-and-pop shops and there’s some programs by the government, small business initiatives that help them grown and help allocate funds for that development. So, it will still be there and the partnerships will continue to be strong and we do what we can to help out those firms.

Dr. Stewart Walker: It’s interesting and I like the way you made that point about collaboration. One of the memories that I have, it stuck with me. I think it was back around 2009 at the Photogrammetric Week in Stuttgart. I think it was the late Craig Molander who gave a presentation and it was about a number of firms collaborating to fly aerial photography for one of the government programs—NAP or NAPE or whatever it was called then—and they basically flew a whole state in one flying season and it was just tremendously impressive what had been accomplished.

But I think another aspect of this, we’ve talked about the expensive aerial sensors and aircraft, we’ve talked about the complexity of the software. But I think just the procurement procedure itself is complex. A number of firms like yours have quite high dependence on winning government contracts. But winning them is difficult in itself because of the complexity of the procurement procedure, the need for lobbying and so on and so forth. Is that a pretty challenging aspect of the work?

Matt LaLuzerne: Absolutely and I’m glad you bring that up because that’s a dialogue we have quite frequently because some folks will see an advertisement pop up on their search engine and, “Hey, let’s go chase this” and not realizing that it can cost upwards of tens of thousands of dollars if not more depending on the size of the contract and prepositioning to properly secure that kind of work from the business development side and getting all your marketing materials ready, spending time with the clients, understanding their needs and really holding together something that is special to them, very pinpointed.

It is a tremendous financial burden and it requires a lot of manpower to help put that together. A lot of marketing specialists, tools and software for designing things, taking the imagery that you have, taking lidar and making that stuff applicable and it’s a big lift, like you said. So, yes, those complex procurement procedures are very challenging for some of the smaller firms, 100%.

Dr. Stewart Walker: Well, your firm has more than 800 people and more than half of them on the geomatics side so you’re obviously succeeding in meeting many of those goals. It’s been a great pleasure to hear from both of you about some aspects of the work of McKim & Creed. So, Matt, Ravi, thank you very much indeed. I’ve enjoyed this conversation.

Matt LaLuzerne: Thank you, Stewart. We really appreciate the opportunity to speak with you and wish you the best of luck.

Dr. Stewart Walker: Well, I’m sure listeners will have thoroughly enjoyed your company and your comments. I hope we’ll be able to have more guests from McKim & Creed on the podcasts or maybe articles from you about some of your projects in the magazine.

So, I want to finish by underlining our gratitude to our sponsor, the popular LAStools lidar processing software. And we hope that you’ll join our forthcoming podcasts. We’re expecting some guests that we believe you’ll want to hear.

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