What Imagery Source is Best for Your Business?

GIS Contributor


Aerial photography for commercial use is transforming industries of all types by saving time and cutting costs. Nearly every company can benefit from aerial imagery, but how to get it is the big question. What’s better for businesses—aerial imagery content providers or in-house drones? Erin Jepperson, Technical Sales Engineer at Nearmap, outlines how to weigh the pros and cons of both.  

Until a few years ago, aerial photography was primarily limited to the military, hobbyists, and those with aircrafts at their disposal. Of course, there was satellite imagery, and there still is, but the images often appear blurred and outdated. Today, consumers and businesses have access to crystal clear aerial captures like never before.

Ease-of-access and adoption of aerial photography for commercial use is transforming industries of all types by saving time and cutting costs. This includes applications for real estate brokers, city planners, solar installers, landscape architects, contractors, engineers, and utilities and telecom professionals, to name a few.

Benefits of Aerial Imagery in General

Integration and Data Analysis- One of the most significant advantages of aerial imagery for commercial use is its integration as a base layer into GIS, CAD and 3rd-party OGC compliant applications to work cheaper, smarter and faster.

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For instance, aerial content providers often provide web-based platforms that allow users to measure, annotate and save edits from within the platform. Nearmap imagery, for example, can be accessed instantly right from the Esri® and Autodesk interfaces. The imagery can be used to create 2D and 3D models.

Marketing and Presentations—With lifelike, high-definition visuals, clients and prospects are impressed and can envision the goal and result, and board members and investors can be informed and educated.

Nearly every company can benefit from aerial imagery, but how to get it is the big question. There are several ways to obtain aerial imagery, but let’s focus on the two common sources—aerial imagery content providers and in-house drones.

Benefits of Aerial Imagery-As-A-Service

Cloud-Based—For years, consumers of aerial imagery have been accustomed to waiting for long periods of time to receive hard-copy delivery of imagery on physical media (i.e. hard drives). Today’s leading location content providers are cloud-based, providing imagery to a desktop or mobile device. This eliminates the need to store and manage large files.

Remote Access—Through the location content providers platform, users can search a location by address, latitude/longitude or dropping a pin to share with colleagues. This ensures all parties are examining the same area without ever having to go onsite to fly a drone. This is critical for out-of-state projects, so employees don’t have to travel to the location to monitor the site.

Large Database—Users have access to current and historical imagery covering 72 percent of the United States with 68 metro areas updated two to three times a year and 350+ urban areas once a year.

Advanced Capabilities—Web-based platforms provide smooth, unrestricted panning and zooming of photomaps with full on-screen image rotation and views from all cardinal directions.

Saves Time—With aerial imagery as a service, you save the time it would take to fly, process and distribute drone imagery captured in-house.

Ideal For Small Businesses—Because images can be accessed through the cloud, small businesses can obtain imagery at a very low cost compared to flying it on their own or even hiring someone to fly the area with a drone.

Nearmap high-resolution aerial image of downtown Carmel, IN - photographed Feb. 7, 2018
Nearmap high-resolution aerial image of downtown Carmel, IN – photographed Feb. 7, 2018

Benefits of In-House Drone Imagery

Adaptability—Drones are intended for capturing small areas — typically individual project sites — with highly customized specifications. As such, investment in the type of sensors mounted in the drone is an important consideration.

Flexibility— Drone users have full control of the imagery they capture, but usually require additional tools and resources to process, manage, and store the imagery. Importantly, not all drones are ready-built with GPS technology or control points that are required for geo-referencing datasets. This is especially critical if the imagery needs to be integrated with GIS and mapping applications.

With that being said, if you plan on making money with a drone, you must be FAA compliant. In June 2016, the FAA finalized new regulations for small unmanned aerial vehicles for commercial drone pilots, titled Part 107, including requirements such as:

  • Pass a basic aeronautical knowledge test (followed by recurrent testing every two years.) This test is administered through the Computer Assisted Testing Service (CATS), and PSI / LaserGrade Computer Testing. The cost of the aeronautical knowledge exam is $150.
  • Receive clearance from the Transportation Security Administration
  • Obtain a Remote Pilot Certificate with a small UAS rating using the FAA’s online IACRA system.
  • Register the drone by obtaining a $5 commercial sUAS registration number (valid for three years)

Failure to comply with Part 107 could result in criminal penalties including fines of up to $250,000 and or even imprisonment for up to three years.

Many states have specific drone policies outside of federal regulation. Drone operators should be aware of these laws to avoid fines and other penalties.

Legally, commercial unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) insurance is not required for commercial drone users, but operators should still consider a commercial UAV insurance policy. A policy will protect the businesses’ assets if the drone damages property or injures someone. In addition, it will protect the drone itself if it is damaged or broken. Also, consider invasion of privacy claims, which will only become more prevalent as drone use increases.

On-Demand Flights—Imagery frequency and subject matter is entirely up to the drone operator. When the need for imagery of a specific location arises, a drone provides the flexibility to fly that area whenever and as much as desired— weekly or even daily if the project calls for it.

Video—Many drones come with camera systems that capture video.

Intended For Large Enterprises—For companies with big projects and budgets—drone footage might be a good way to supplement larger imagery datasets with customized imagery in the timeframe they want. Large companies are more likely to have the resources it takes to plan a flight, travel to the site, fly, process and distribute the imagery.

Deciding Between Aerial or Drone Imagery

When deciding between an aerial location content provider and an in-house drone, it comes down to three main factors—frequency, time and location.

  • If your business is pressed for time and can’t plan, fly and process imagery consistently, a location content provider is an excellent solution.
  • If your business needs imagery from wide-spread locations and managing a drone is a logistical headache, a location content provider is the right solution.
  • If your business needs imagery with customized specs that is updated more frequently than every three to four months, then a drone is may be a good option to consider.

Whatever option is a fit for your business, aerial views are transforming businesses of all types by reaching both figurative and literal places that were once unattainable.

About the Author

Erin Jepperson is Technical Sales Engineer for Nearmap, and has advanced experience as a civil engineer in the mechanical services and petroleum utilities markets.

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