Talking eBee Plus With The Team Behind senseFly’s New Photogrammetry UAV

Earlier this month, at INTERGEO 2016 in Hamburg, senseFly announced its new fixed-wing UAV (or drone/UAS) for surveying and geospatial applications, called the eBee Plus. So what’s new about this automated photogrammetry system? And why is senseFly’s geospatial team so excited about its potential to drive professional drone use forwards? Waypoint caught up with these staff to learn more.

Hi folks and thanks for your time today. Let’s start with the basics: why did senseFly develop the eBee Plus?

Francois Gervaix (Product Manager, Surveying & Construction): Well, since the launch of the original eBee, in 2012, we’ve received a huge amount of feedback from thousands of customers right around the world. This feedback is why we launched our survey-grade eBee RTK in mid-2014, for example, to enhance the absolute accuracy our systems offer to professionals such as land surveyors. The eBee Plus that we’re launching now is a full survey-grade photogrammetric mapping system, including a new sensor and new software, that responds to all the customer feedback we’ve received to date and, we feel, exactly meets the needs of today’s geospatial professionals.

ebee_plus_drone_development_2 Brock Ryder and Francois Gervaix working on senseFly’s new eBee Plus photogrammetry UAV.

What are these needs specifically? What kind of features and innovations does the eBee Plus include?

Brock Ryder (Sales Director and an experienced land surveyor): In terms of the product’s absolute accuracy capability, this was actually a challenging question to address. We’d had a surprising number of potential senseFly operators struggling to decide between our eBee and eBee RTK systems: they’d be trying to work out if they could survive putting ground control points in, to obtain the absolute accuracies a project needed, or if they could justify the extra funds needed to purchase the eBee RTK. Or did they even need absolute accuracy for the type of projects they’d be completing?

In terms of the product’s absolute accuracy capability, this was a challenging question to address

That’s why, with the eBee Plus, we meet the needs of both types of customer, by going flexible: you have RTK and PPK upgradeability built-in, but this is a paid activation. We call it HPoD for High Precision on Demand. To explain it simply, a customer can start by purchasing (or leasing in the U.S.) a non-activated system, meaning a smaller initial investment. They can then kick off the product’s free 4-week RTK/PPK trial whenever they have the time or need to try this, to get familiar with how this functionality works. After that, they can choose to activate HPoD, meaning the system’s full RTK/PPK functionality, as and when it makes sense for their business.

Gervais: I would add that we saw in Hamburg, at Intergeo, that professionals really loved this idea. Which was great for us to hear, that we’d taken the right path there. What I particularly like, speaking as an ex drone service provider myself, is that having PPK included virtually guarantees that survey-grade accuracy, because it acts as a kind of failsafe in case the RTK link is lost for any reason during flight.

Ryder: Exactly. We knew from our experiences over the last couple of years that an RTK-only offer could, for some customers, actually be a little limiting; in some situations, the need for a constant link between the ground station and drone was a constraint in terms of the size and logistics of a project. Basically, it could add stress, knowing that this RTK link had to be retained and strong at all times. The eBee Plus’ PPK option adds a safety net: the PPK option is always there as a constant fall-back.

It could add stress, knowing that this RTK link had to be retained and strong at all times. The eBee Plus’ PPK option adds a safety net

Aside from the system’s accuracy benefit, just like with the eBee SQ for agriculture, we’ve responded to client demands for a longer flying, higher coverage system by enlarging the airframe to increase the eBee Plus’ wingspan. The result is that the eBee SQ has a reliable flight time of 59 minutes.

Gervaix:  We’ve obviously done a lot of pre-launch testing—including projects with Esri and flying the Aletsch glacier—and I’m delighted to say that we’re achieving this flight time, or very close to it, above 55 minutes, very consistently, even at altitude in the Alps and even in daytime temperatures of over 30° C in Africa.

Ryder: To put that into another context, what this means for real world operations is that flying at 120 metres, or 400 feet, above ground level, you can expect to cover 220 hectares, or 540 acres, in a single flight. Compare that to taking measurements on the ground—that’s really efficient!

photogrammetry_UAV_Francois_Gervaix_eBee_Plus Francois Gervaix, the lead product manager behind senseFly’s eBee Plus, launches the drone during a joint Esri project in Valais, Switzerland (see the project’s story map).

Gervaix: Another reason why coverage is becoming more and more important is that that we see clients using photogrammetry UAVs to fly larger and larger projects—such as a 39 square kilometre feasibility study in Ecuador or a monster 250 kilometre corridor mapping project in the Australian outback. At the same time, these operator projects are also trending towards higher resolutions—we see three or five centimetres per pixel much more than the ten cm of just a couple of few years ago—which is due to more countries putting in place regulatory limits on how high you can fly, which of course means flying at lower altitudes and covering less ground as a result. On the plus side, lower altitudes equal lower GSDs. But on the downside, it means more flight hours to cover the same area. Therefore, anything we can do as a manufacturer to bring single flight coverage back up—to claw back efficiency—such as longer flight times that minimise battery changes and downtime, then operators really appreciate that.

Another reason why coverage is becoming more and more important is that that we see clients using photogrammetry UAVs to fly larger and larger projects

Of course, efficiency is not only about flight time, but also about optimising a drone operator’s overall workflow. Haven’t you also built some new innovations in to the drone’s ground station software too?

Alexis Roze (product lead, eMotion): I can answer that one! Yes, that’s right. The eBee Plus will, later this month, be the first drone to ship with our third generation of eMotion, which is senseFly’s flight and data management software. This is supplied free with the drone. And a key feature within eMotion that relates to efficiency is multi-flight missions.

ebee_plus_uav_photogrammetry2 Alexis Roze, the product owner behind eMotion 3, explaining some of the tool’s new functionalities.

With multi-flight missions there’s no need to create and fly a new flight plan when a battery is depleted and the drone lands. You can create one flight plan for your entire project, whatever its size, and then, at the end of the UAV’s flight, just swap out its battery and re-launch (still by hand). The drone then continues on its existing flight plan from the last photo capture point. So it’s a quick battery change and then you’re off again immediately, collecting more of the data you need.

emotion3_screenshot_glacier Planning a flight over the Aletsch glacier in eMotion 3.

We’ve also built into eMotion 3 a multi-zone mission feature, where you can plan a flight that will map different local sites within the same flight plan. And for the first time, eMotion 3 is designed to support all senseFly eBee and albris platforms, along with all their sensors.

Gervaix: All of this functionality is provided within a full 3D control environment—there’s no more swapping over to Google Earth to double check flight plans in 3D. With a 3D view you can more accurately plan, simulate and control your UAV’s trajectory, which means safer flights, more consistent performance and improved data quality.

With a 3D view you can more accurately plan, simulate and control your UAV’s trajectory, which means safer flights, more consistent performance and improved data quality

Roze: You also now plan your missions using pre-programmed mission blocks­, so you might use the Horizontal Mapping mission block for a survey, but when flying your albris inspection UAV in future you might instead load up the Cylinder mapping block, for example to automatically map a GSM tower.

Does this software also handle the geotagging and RTK/PPK processing side of things?

Roze: Yes, that’s right. It’s all done in eMotion. The little-known feature gem of this software is its Flight Data Manager or FDM. From when the drone lands to exploiting the final data in your GIS software, the FDM flies you through the few steps of GNSS processing required—grabbing the raw data from the drone, downloading the reference data from your base station or CORS, differential GNSS post processing, and precise geotagging.

The third, main USP of the eBee Plus’ offer is, we understand, its supplied RGB sensor. Can you tell us what’s special about that new camera, compared to senseFly payloads of the past?

Gervaix: The eBee Plus is designed from the ground up to be a professional photogrammetry UAV. And now, for the first time, that includes the sensor provided too, which we call the senseFly S.O.D.A. This stands for: Sensor Optimised for Drone Applications. With senseFly fixed-wing UAVs, up to now we’ve adapted standard consumer or prosumer cameras because these were compact and light enough to help us still produce a very safe system. That worked and it was an efficient, logical way of working. But the dream in the long term, in terms of flexibility and customisability—and a dream that’s been backed  up by what we’ve learned from over 300,000 customer flights to date—was a more specific sensor, a dedicated RGB camera that has been fully optimised for photogrammetry with UAVs.

The dream in the long term, in terms of flexibility and customisability, was a more specific sensor, a dedicated RGB camera that has been fully optimised for photogrammetry with UAVs

Ryder: Yes, it’s true that the sensors we offered with our drones in the past did the job fine, they just weren’t necessarily one of the main selling points of our UAVs (that has typically been the drones’ ease of use, their eMotion software, and their safety offer). However the senseFly S.O.D.A. changes that. It’s the first time senseFly has ever developed its own sensor. We worked with a leading camera manufacturer to build from scratch an RGB camera that is specified exactly for drone photogrammetry. And the results we’ve seen from all our pre-launch test projects have been fantastic.

yannick_sensefly_rgn_sensor Yannick Gasser, the lead R&D engineer behind senseFly’s first proprietary photogrammetry sensor.

Gervaix: That’s because size is everything! The senseFly S.O.D.A. is tiny and super compact, when small is good, but it includes a one-inch sensor, which is really important. That size gives you consistently excellent quality images across a range of different lighting conditions. Plus you have a global shutter and through the experiences of clients in places like Africa and Australia, we knew that we needed to build in dirt and sand protection. So we did that too.

Roze: Within the drone’s eMotion 3 software, a more expert operator can also fully configure this camera—they can change its ISO setting and exposure time for example—to better suit the conditions on the day they fly.

Gervaix: With this sensor we are basically putting photography, specifically image quality, front and centre of our fixed-wing UAV offer.

Is this new sensor only for the eBee Plus or can other eBee operators also buy that to upgrade their imagery?

Ryder: Yes, they can. The senseFly S.O.D.A. is provided, like eMotion 3, with the eBee Plus as standard. But since the eBee Plus also features the same camera bay as our existing fixed-wing UAVs, then users of our existing eBee, eBee RTK and eBee Ag systems can also bring this camera on-board for an instant, cost-effective upgrade. The only system not compatible with the senseFly S.O.D.A. is the eBee SQ, which is purely designed to house the Parrot Sequoia.

What are the eBee Plus’ target applications? Who do you imagine profiting the most from this particular drone?

In terms of vertical markets, this UAV is targeted across all geospatial applications where photogrammetry is of value. In other words, land surveying and GIS, construction, mining, environmental and research applications, humanitarian aid, disaster response and so on. It’s a pure remote sensing offer whereby, by way of photogrammetry, you are sensing the ground without needing to even touch the site. It’s a great way of replacing or supplementing lower resolution satellite imagery and complementing existing surveying instruments for hard-to-access sites.

Ryder: And then in terms of the types of individual user of this system, we’re talking about surveyors, geomatic and civil engineers, mining engineers, GIS specialists, geologists, glaciologists, conservationists, foresters etc. As we’ve learned since we launched the original eBee, the list just goes on and on.

Once of senseFly’s USPs has always been the light weight, and therefore the inherent safety, of its drones. However, the larger eBee Plus must now be heavier than the standard eBee. What’s the weight difference and what effect does this difference have on the drone’s launch procedure and safety?

Gervaix: Thanks to the drone’s EPP construction, which is safe and durable, we managed to keep the eBee Plus’ weight down to just 1.1 kilograms or 2.4 pounds. That’s a ready to fly figure, which includes the senseFly S.O.D.A. and the UAV’s battery. Of course, you’re right that this is heavier than today’s existing 700 gram, 1.5 pound eBee, but 1.1 kg still makes the new platform one of the lightest in its class.

Crucially, it’s still a weight that you can easily hand-launch—so we avoid customers needing to carry around and assemble accessories like catapults

Ryder: And crucially, it’s still a weight that you can easily hand-launch, so we avoid customers needing to carry around and assemble accessories like catapults, and the system’s kinetic energy is still low, which is down not only to the system’s low weight but also its similar shock-absorbent construction.

And to clarify this exactly for Waypoint readers, how is the eBee Plus different to the recently launched eBee SQ?

Ryder: The eBee SQ [interview]is a dedicated drone for agriculture that is built around Parrot’s multispectral Sequoia camera. By contrast, the eBee Plus is a multi-application system, with multiple payload options (including supporting existing eBee cameras), RTK/PPK upgradeability or HPoD built in, and our full new eMotion 3 software rather than the eBee SQ’s dedicated eBee Ag program.

Gervaix: The two systems are specified very differently, as they are aimed at completely different end users. Virtually no agronomists, for example, are concerned about the high absolute accuracy of their index maps, whereas in the geospatial world, this precision is key. Like the eBee SQ is optimised for agriculture, the eBee Plus is optimised for geospatial specialists, for whom geometric accuracy matters first.

Lastly, how affordable is this system? What kind of price point are we talking about?

Ryder: The recommended retail price of the eBee Plus, without RTK/PPK activated, is approximately $18,000 US (which does not include any import duties/taxes). That includes the case, batteries, eMotion software and the senseFly S.O.D.A. With HPoD pre-activated out of the box, the system costs $27,000 US. Or if you upgrade later on, that’s a one-off lifetime $10,500 US charge. Although don’t forget though that the base 17k system does include a four-week RTK/PPK trial.

Thanks for your time guys.

You’re welcome!

Learn more about the eBee Plus photogrammetry UAV.


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