Ricoh GRIII

I’ve waxed lyrical about the Ricoh GR being a great UAV camera before - well the long awaited successor has been announced (but hasn’t yet landed) and summarised over at DPReview. The interesting aspects of the uprated specs are IIS (inbody image stabilisation), 24MP sensor and touchscreen. The resolution boost and IIS will be of significant interest to UAV users so it will be interesting to see how it performs out in the field.

You’re Waiting For a bus… and a SenseFly Comes Along

I commented late last year about DJI becoming a camera manufacturer… this is an interesting and exciting move simply because the quality of imagery from drones has lagged significantly behind the rest of the camera industry. So whilst there are clearly regulatory challenges that need to be overcome through hardware and software engineering, the end-user is interested in the best visual imagery possible and drone manufacturers are starting to wake up to this fact.

So I was surprised to see that SeneseFly had announced back in 2016 its (then new) eBee Plus offered an hour of flight time within a ~1kg airframe that can incorporate RTK/PPK positioning (forget those ground control points!) and multi-spectral/thermal. But… they have also introduced their own homegrown air camera dubbed SODA (Sensor Optimised for Drone Applications). It is extremely light on specification however their website notes its a 20MP 1” fixed lens camera. This that likely utilises Sony’s standard 1” sensor, although it would be useful to clarify the exact size. Is it genuinely 13.2x8.8mm? Taking their GSD example figures, that breaks down to a 10mm focal length lens, equivalent 27mm on a full-frame camera. Interesting there is a single global electronic shutter which is a good thing for a fixed-wing aircraft: it should stop the problem of a rolling-shutter.

Fascinating to see the drone-camera market develop and it’d be great to see some results from this baby.

Zenmuse X7 DxOMark Tests

DPReview report report on DxOMark’s tests of the Zenmuse X7 and it makes for some impressive reading… it’s a quality sensor that has nearly 14 stops of dynamic range with good low-light performance. This line from the review pretty much sums things up:

it delivers results that compete closely with those from a high-scoring APS-C format DSLR, despite being housed in a camera that’s mounted in a stabilized gimbal and specifically designed for aerial photography.

DJI is a camera company

Two years ago I blogged about the introduction of a micro four thirds camera by DJI, followed last year by the Phantom 4 which allowed RAW capture. These are giant strides by a drone company trying to get better image capture - but the capabilities of the cameras still lagged significantly behind COTS (commercial off the shelf) systems.

One of the big drives for DJI has been the film industry and so there has been some buzz on the wires with the announcement of the Zenmuse X7, a camera built by DJI rather than using a partner’s system that has some interesting specs (see DP Review). This is primarily aimed at cinematographers, but as DP Review note this is actually a highly disruptive move by the company. It marks their entry into camera manufacture and introduces an APS-C sensor (24 MP), with a new lens mount and suite of lenses. So a larger sensor size but at a dramatically lower weight and smaller dimensions - the flange distance is a tiny 16.84mm with a minimum weight (including lens) of 630g.

So, let’s say it, this is a camera (and integrated into a system) that is destined for photogrammetry. Watch this space, disruption is coming!

Photogrammetry Round Up

With being fresh back from EGU, it seemed an appropriate moment to provide a few brief links to things relevant:

1. UAV PICO: I was the lead convener for the “Unmanned Aerial Systems: Platforms, Sensors and Applications in Soil, Agriculture and Geosciences” which was again hugely successful. There were 14 presentations, everyone turned up and delivered sharp and punchy talks in the 2 minute madness. All were excellent, so its well worth taking a look at he abstracts.

2. Cameras and settings for optimal image capture from UAVs: my own talk went down well with plenty of questions in the interactive session afterwards. This is material that has recently been published in our Progress in Physical Geography paper, so take a look at that for a more detailed exposition.

3. James presented on his PhD work looking at the impact of image quality on 3D reconstruction using SfM. This went down well, generated much discussion and drove some more people to the (full) PICO. Take a look at his synopsis of EGU and read the poster (take a look at the full High Resolution Topography in the Geosciences: Methods and Applications session).

4. As a result of all this work, James has produced a nice summary of Photogrammetry rules of thumb which can be read in conjunction with the PiPG paper noted above.

Canon is droning on….

Industrial drones are it… whilst the media spotlight has been firmly on cheap and cheerful like the DJI Phantoms delivering drugs to prisons or involved in near misses with commercial aircraft, the heavy lifting (literally) is being done by commercial drones in the industrial sector. You only have to visit something like the Commercial UAV Show to get a real sense of the breadth of application from behemoths produced by Lockheed-Martin, to the full range of DJI products and then a massive influx of products from China, including the impressive range from Yuneec.

The commercial sector is vibrant and it’s notable that drone manufacturers realise they need suitable cameras to hook up to their systems which means increasingly close ties between the sectors. We’ve seen Hasselblad tie up with DJI (flying on their industrial Matrice range), whilst Phase One have a range of cameras dedicated to commercial use. And this is invading a space traditionally held by aerial cameras (e.g. Vexcel).

So it’s no surprise to see Canon looking to move into this space and the (just rolling off the tongue) PD6E2000-AW-CJ1 is just that, as reported by DPReview. The drone itself is produced by Prodrone, a company Canon has invested in, and is not too dissimilar to the DJI Matrice 600, but kitted out with Canon’s ME20F-SH. This is firmly targeted at the disaster relief sector - the camera has an ISO of 4 million (yes, you read that right!) which will allow it to capture video in near-darkness.

The drone space continues to accelerate in terms of innovation, so expect to see an interesting and exciting roadmap of products appearing at breakneck speed!

Uber Drone?

Is this the next Uber Drone, coming to some skies near you? As the article says, would like to see 1000 hours of safe flight time first and the ability to fly with only two motors by feathering then should there be a failure. Exciting times though - I get a sense of scenes from The Fifth Element coming true (that would be Ruby Rhod first maybe)!!

Dronebase

And the cost of hiring a UAV is being driven down…. Dronebase is your AirBnB of UAV operators. Don’t pay over the top and go to one site to find them. The growth has been extremely rapid - see what their investors think. Its a great idea and, well, a very useful resource.

Don’t just fly a drone… BE THE DRONE!

We’ve long been able to view remote video footage from a remote camera - when I was developing the kite aerial photography workflow I currently use, I experimented with a small spy camera that transmitted video footage back to an analogue LCD TV. It worked quite well and the intention was to use it to determine camera attitude and so allow use to remotely rotate the camera. Except for one BIG problem - when you are imaging the natural environment from relatively close range (60m), one piece of grass looks EXACTLY like another!!! In the end it was a pointless exercise.

Anyway, things move on and the next obvious way to integrate video was via AR (augmented reality) through a video overly in glasses. And true to form, DJI have announced another tie up, this time with Epson and their Moverio BT-300. See the announcement and some commentary on it over at DPReview. For consumer drones these make more sense as you tend to be viewing obliquely from (very) close range so positioning is important. Of course the glasses cost as much as the drone (!) but expect these products to become more prevalent.

DJI-Blad

DPReview report on a new DJI/Hasselblad tie up that sees Hasselblad bundle their A5D (see my earlier post) medium format camera with DJI’s industrial Matrice 600 drone. The drone has a flight time of ~20mins with the 6kg payload, whilst the A5D ranges up to 60 MP and weighs 1.3kg (body only). This is clearly targeted at the professional aerial imaging sector so expect to see more tie ups on this front.

I’ve not blogged on it yet, but Hasselblad have also recently announced their new X1D, the first mirrorless medium format camera which has a 50MP (43.8x32.9mm) sensor but only weighs 725g (body). Expect to these this making its way into drones pretty shortly! Well… if you have the 7,188 asking price to hand.

Olympus NIR Sensor

An interesting article over at Amateur Photographer which picks up an Olympus press release about the development of an RGB/NIR sensor for use in consumer grade cameras. The use of digital cameras for NIR imaging (e.g. my dead leaf photo) has been common for many years and is achieved by having a longer exposure (as the sensor is less sensitive to NIR) and placing a NIR cut filter in front of the lens (e.g. Hoya 720). Specialists such as Advanced Camera Services will even convert your camera to IR by removing the internal IR filter. Sensefly use a modified Canon S110 for the eBee UAV which can image in RGB, NIR or red edge. Which is why the Olympus announcement is interesting (for the light weight/low cost UAV sector) as I’m not aware of a major manufacturer developing a single sensor for imaging 4 bands. A traditional approach is to use a bayer array over a sensor sensitive to RGB and then interpolate (demosaic) the image to three RGB layers. Olympus appear to have extended this to 4 bands by developing realtime demosaicing to support it. The sensor is probably a standard one, albeit perhaps more sensitive to NIR. Lead time could be awhile as this is in development but it clearly shows the direction of travel.

Olympus NIROlympus NIR

Ultra lightweight KAP cameras?

I briefly commented on KAP cameras when looking at the PhaseOne iXU180 - a great medium format camera for medium weight UAV use. But at the lighter end of the market, for use on quadcopters, small fixed wing and kites, what to use?? The key to answering this question is what are the parameters for the camera. For me, they boil down to this:

-low weight
-wide field of view
-big sensor


Low weight is obvious - small UAVs have a relatively low lifting capacity. Wide FoV is generally good as these devices are often relatively low to the ground. And even at a drones maximum licenseable limit in the UK (~120m), that still limits what is visible. So wide is good, as long as the lens is of good quality and minimises distortions. As bigger sensor as is practicable - this maximises light capturing capabilities and so means you’ve got great latitude when flying and specifically, working at an aperture of f8 with as fast a shutter speed as possible.

So what’s around? Well, when I last looked a few years ago there was actually very little choice and somewhat surprisingly that remains the case. For a lightweight camera, fixed lenses (rather than interchangeable) are the best route to go, which means a camera designed for street photography. The limiting factor here being focal length. In terms of sensor there are options around both APS-C and full frame. So my short list currently is:

Ricoh GR2: an APS-C sensor (16MP), extremely light (250g) and a fixed focal length is equivalent to 27mm (for a full frame camera). This is ideal for aerial work. It has an intervalometer which means you can set it to take photos at regular intervals, but no IR port for remote control.

Nikon Coolpix A: also APS-C (16MP), light weight (290g) and wide angle 28mm equivalent lens (this does have an IR port but no intervalometer).

Fuji X70: very new, APS-C 16MP X-Trans sensor (not a Bayer colour filter array and so generally better colour reproduction), 28mm equivalent focal length, weighing in a 340g.

Sony RX1: 24MP full frame sensor with fixed 35mm lens. Its expensive, slightly heavier at 480g but offers significantly better optics, resolution, dynamic range and sensitivity. At a price!!

A conclusion?? Well the comparative review by DPReview finished with a great quote:

a considerable portion of its [Coolpix A] thunder is stolen by the Ricoh GR - a camera that achieves the unusual trick of being a touch better in almost every respect while also being significantly cheaper

DJI Phantom 4

The rapid development roadmap for DJI continues (see Phantom 3 camera review). Camera improvements continue abate and onboard you’ll find a 12MP stills camera with a 1/2.3-inch (8.8x6.6mm) sensor. ISO goes up to of 1600 for photos and, crucially, records Adobe DNG RAW. This is a BIG step forward for a drone camera as it allows much greater headroom in post processing. The field of view is 94 which is about equivalent to an 18mm lens on a full frame camera (which means wide and with lots of distortion).

Digital preservation

What do you do when an artifact you have is in danger of loss or destruction?? Preserve it of course! And that’s the role of archivists in terms of valuable items. Preference is given for physical preservation (we want to keep to “original”) but digital preservation (not withstanding the problem of maintaining access to data) is often sought after as it allows universal access and preservation of the data used to record the “presence” of the object (sound, radiation etc). This whole topic came to fore with ISIS’s destruction of buildings in Palmyra. Whilst there has been some effort to smuggle smaller artifacts out of Syria, it’s not easy to do this for whole buildings! Which makes digital preservation paramount. Obviously there are many photos of Palmyra itself, but archivists (and archaeologists) want to take this one step further and generate 3D models and collate detailed imagery of buildings before they are destroyed.

And this is of course where photogrammetry (and more specifically Structure from Motion) comes in - by deploying a range of low cost cameras the expectation is that a large number of images can be used to create a virtual model of current buildings before they suffer destruction. The Million Image Database has probably had more publicity but New Palmyra (and backstory) is also working with similar aims and has current models hosted on Github for download. Both are light on methods so it’ll be interesting to see, technically, how these develop.

SkyTech Event (and Commercial UAV Show Report)

I attended the Commcerical UAV Show last month at the Excel Centre, sharing a slice of the vast area with the Robotics Show. Last year the show was upstairs at Olympia and whilst relatively small there was quite a buzz with mixing between the seminars, the conference and the trade floor. There was also a very wide range of exhibitors with some really big UAV manufacturers and smaller players, as well as software and services. Its an exciting sector and you couldnt fail to walk away not feeling the palpable excitement.

This year my overall takeaway was one of disappointment. The show seemed smaller and there were certainly fewer major operators there. That said they had a live demo area which was impressive and the stands were generally bigger with more space between them. Yuneec continued the impressive showing from the Chinese manufacturer whilst there were an innumerable number of insurance services… we can see where that one is headed! This year also saw DJI - its consumer drones becoming good enough for a range of commercial applications outside photography. There was also a surprising number of empty stalls and those which were unmanned which made for a poor impression.

Perhaps the one stand that sticks in my mind was the French manufacturer Delair-Tech. This is the first (and I believe only manufacturer) to have government approval (in France) for “beyond line of sight” (BLOS) operations. This is something that brings palpitations to any FAA executive but that Amazon (amongst others) is really pushing for. For regulated airspace this is really moving the potential for UAVs in geoscience much further.

An upcoming rival to the Commercial UAV Show is the SkyTech Event at the Business Design Centre 27-28 January 2016. This is a great space for a show so it’ll be really interesting to see what this is like. Tickets are free so no excuse not to book up!

DJI announce micro four thirds camera

DJI have announced a micro four thirds camera for their drones which seems to be specifically targeted at the film industry but has important implications for photogrammetry. In the past the GoPro3 (6.2x4.7mm) has been used which is generally poor for 3D reconstruction with a (very) small sensor and wide field of view. The Phantom 3 has significantly improved the camera quality by using a higher resolution 2/3” sensor (8.8x6.6mm), but this is still fairly small by SLR standards. The introduction of the X5 is a big improvement again at 18mmx13.5mm with, crucially, interchangeable lenses meaning you can go wide angle but have less compromise on the optics. This part of the consumer market is a very interesting space to watch.

Commercial UAV Operators Double

An interesting summary piece over at Amateur Photographer…. and particularly noting that

“The number of CAA-approved commercial operators now stands as 862, compared to 549 in April and a reported 359 in October 2014.”

Of course from this headline figure its hard to gauge the volume increase of flights (and their distance/duration), although I guess that could be the subject of an FoI request, however the increase in operators does show the burgeoning of a new market. At some point in the next few years we’ll see this mature as survey requirements are operationalised and the size of operators increase with companies merging.

Perhaps of more interest will be the consumer market…. this is where there will be a significant increase in flights and probably the highest safety risk as well. This is what will drive both innovation and legislation. Its worth noting (from the article)

“According to Forbes business magazine, the world’s largest consumer drone maker, DJI, is now worth $10 billion.” Now thats food for thought…

Dronecode

With the press reporting on UAV near misses in the UK there is increasing pressure on how to effectively deal with drones encroaching on airspace and a rational approach to safety. Clearly you DON’T want drones anywhere near commercial aircraft or over sensitive areas (e.g. nuclear power plants). That said - what exactly is a drone and at the very small end of the spectrum do you want to be criminalising children. Hoisting cameras on to drones (for example the very popular DJI Phantom series) adds an extra layer of complexity to negotiating the ramifications of low altitude, high resolution, cameras within personal spaces. From the perspective of an Earth scientist, these are wonderful ways of obtaining high resolution data of of the Earth’s surface. And for professional use you clearly do want some kind of licensing (see EuroUSC) and code of conduct that includes liability insurance for when things go wrong. And that’s before you even think about using that part of the airspace for automated deliveries.

With all this mind what’s the way forward? There’s no easy answer to that one and education seems to be a starting point. So the Civil Aviation Authority, the pilots union BALPA and air traffic control company NATS have launched a campaign call Dronecode to make people aware of the main issues which can be summarised as:

-Make sure you can see your drone at all times and don’t fly higher than 400 feet
-Always keep your drone away from aircraft, helicopters, airports and airfields
-Use your common sense and fly safely; you could be prosecuted if you don’t.

Drones fitted with cameras must not be flown:
-within 50 metres of people, vehicles, buildings or structures
-over congested areas or large gatherings such as concerts and sports events

These are eminently sensible - and remember that if you are taking photos, like any kind of photography you need a signed release form to use photos of people and buildings commercially. It will be interesting to see how UAV regulations develop in different countries.

Drone Rangers

Great short “Future Works” film from The Economist on the Drone Rangers….. very nicely researched and presented looking at monitoring poaching in South Africa, to disaster response in the USA and then construction site monitoring. Lots of nice examples (thanks to Paolo for passing on).

Be bold, Be Blad

DPReview report on the latest aerial camera range from Hasselblad, the A5D. These are medium format cameras that compete directly with the Phase Range range I reported on earlier (the 80MP iXU180). Three models at 40, 50 and 60 MP, with up to 14 stops dynamic range with a 53x40 or 44x33mm sensor (technical specs here). Weighting in at 1.3kg (body only) its slightly heavier as well.

Clearly the medium format aerial imaging space is heating up a lot - sales are likely much higher than bespoke large format cameras and used across a range of platforms including UAVs. Expect this to get better and cheaper with the competitive drive. Exciting times!