Meet a Dronepreneur: 5 questions for Kurtis Poettcker

We chat to the GIS Coordinator of Abacus Datagraphics, service provider to the Canadian energy industry and creators of the AbaData Internet Mapping Program, about his love of looking down, his project highlights, and why Abacus turned to flying robots to enhance its work.

1. Hi Kurtis. Why don’t you start by telling us a little about your journey into the world of drones? When, how and why did you first start using this technology?

I first started looking into drones in 2009 after an existing Abacus Datagraphics customer told us he was interested in the technology for doing wellsite reclamation. I started researching solutions and even got a quote from one manufacturer. At that time, drones weren’t really billed as a mapping tool though and the cost was just too high to justify a purchase without a defined practical application, so I tucked it away in the back of my head as a neat idea that I would pursue if the opportunity ever came up.

Fast forward to 2013 when I first saw the eBee when browsing a popular technology blog. After some initial research, I contacted senseFly’s Canadian dealer and got a quote. There was some discussion within the company, but eventually we were able to see the benefits that an eBee would have on our business, specifically our AbaDOC (Depth of Cover) inspections, as-built facility mapping and One-Call utility locating sketches.

A couple of months later we received the UAV, however we then had to wait another four painstaking months to get approval from Transport Canada to fly it. Once the data was processed from my first flight the potential of the technology was clear to everyone at Abacus. Since then, we have expanded into using other types of drones too and we now use them all on a regular basis.

Once the data was processed from my first flight the potential of the technology was clear to everyone at Abacus

gas-plant-orthomosaic-sensefly-ebee-drone-survey A high-resolution orthophoto of a gas plant, captured by Abacus’ eBee drone.

2. Can you tell us about one of your favorite or most challenging drone projects? What made this stand out and what did you learn?

Probably the most difficult drone-related challenge was my very first flight. At that time in Canada any commercial drone flight required a Special Flight Operation Certificate (SFOC) and the application process was not straightforward; there was no simple form to fill out and send off. Instead, an application needed to be developed from scratch with guidance from Transport Canada. Luckily, they were very good to deal with and after some back and forth I was able to get approved for my first test flight.

The flight itself went off without a hitch. It was winter, so the conditions were less than ideal—windy and well below zero—but the eBee was up to the challenge and performed as expected. After a successful landing, I then had to figure out how to process the data and finally, what to do with the outputs. There was quite a learning curve, but it was well worth it.

Since then, there have been a few close calls, like just clearing a power line on landing, landing minutes before a hail storm started, and losing the drone for about 15 minutes in tall pasture after landing, but we’ve been fortunate enough to avoid any major crashes and haven’t lost any equipment.

3. What impact would you say drone technology has had on your working life?

This may ‘out me’ as a bit of a nerd, but for as long as I can remember I’ve been fascinated with visualising the earth from above. I can’t walk past an air photo without stopping and have always enjoyed looking out the window when flying. There’s something almost magical about seeing the world from that perspective.

farm-photo-airphoto-satellite Kurtis’ favorite air photo is his family farm, shown here in Google earth (©2015 DigitalGlobe, Cnes/Spot Image, Google).

Part of it is the curiosity that is satisfied when you’re able to see places from above that you would never be able to access from ground level, but more than that I think it is the complete picture that aerial photography offers. Rather than viewing only 135° at a time, with trees and buildings obstructing your view, drone imagery is able to provide 360° of unobstructed imagery (except if obstructed from above).

With that in mind, I guess for me drone technology has increased my interest in my work. I always find processing the imagery fascinating, even if it is just a cultivated field.

Professionally, drone technology has really enhanced Abacus’ existing mapping services. We always receive very positive comments from our customers about how much value is added by having a current, high-resolution image added to one of our maps.

Previous to our adoption of drones, we were capturing very precise real world data and displaying it in line form on a map. While there was nothing wrong with this technique, there’s only so much you can tell from a line drawing. Once we started enhancing the maps with an aerial drone photo, at less than 5 cm/pixel resolution, our maps began telling a much more complete story.

Once we started enhancing the maps with an aerial drone photo, at less than 5 cm/pixel resolution, our maps began telling a much more complete story

line-drawing-orthophoto-drone-senseFly Prior to drones, Abacus Datagraphics was displaying precious real-world data on maps in in line form. Today it enhances these outputs with aerial drone photos featuring sub-5 cm/pixel resolutions.

4. What kind of role do you see drone tech playing in the future for companies such as yours? Can you imagine what your working life might look several years down the line?

While today we are mostly using drones to enhance our existing suite of services, I see us moving more towards offering it as a standalone service.

One area that I can see this developing already is in agriculture. Interest has grown in this area over the past several months, with some key articles being published on popular agriculture websites. More drone manufacturers are announcing agriculture-focused drones and there is a growing interest from the producers as well. I’m excited to dive deeper into this area of drone technology.

5. If you could give 3 tips to a budding dronepreneur, what would these be?

I am far from an expert, but these would be my top three tips:

  1. Make sure you know and abide by your local laws. Many countries have laws around the commercial use of drones and others are developing them. I hear of many companies operating outside of these laws, either knowingly or not. This not only puts them at risk of fines, but also hurts those of us who are operating within the laws.
  2. Find a practical application that people will be willing to pay for, with emphasis on the pay for. There’s a lot of interest in drones out there. They are billed by the news and other media as the technology of the future, even promising to deliver you your next pizza. Often I show someone a great photo or 3D model that I’ve flown and they think it’s really neat, which of course it is, but it needs to serve a practical purpose if you plan on getting someone to pay you for it.
  3. Have fun. While drones are capable of performing some very serious roles, they are also incredibly fun to fly.

Excellent, thanks so much for your time Kurtis!

You’re welcome.

Abacus Datagraphics


Industries served: oil and gas (case study), agriculture
Drones: senseFly eBee, DJI Phantom 2 Vision Plus, DJI Phantom 3 Professional, Nono Drone
Software: Pix4D, ArcGIS, AutoCAD Map 3D, Potree
Avg. flights per month: 5-6 (Kurtis), 100 (company-wide)
Total flight hours: 200 hours (Kurtis)
Dream robot(s): one that keeps you in shape while asleep & driverless cars
Website: www.abacusdatagraphics.com

Learn more about the eBee used by Abacus Datagraphics.