For the past year, Airbus has mapped the sky with an army of drones, satellites and planes, all thanks to its company, Airbus Aerial. The technology is useful for the industry, but also key to help rebuild areas struck by disaster.
A photographer from the sky
Airbus doesn’t just manufacture planes. It also creates drones to transport us to urban areas, out of traffic jams, to inspect its devices… and also to take pictures from the sky.
It all began in May 2017. The French aeronautic constructor launched Airbus Aerial: a company, then based in Atlanta in the US, that supplied “commercial drone services.” The mission of this startup, introduced in Dallas at the AUVSI Xponential UAV World Show, was to develop imaging services by “merging drones, satellite images and software to bring more in-depth information to customers,” while simultaneously saving them time and gaining precision.
Specifically, the idea was to take advantage of the data and pictures taken by the drones (such as the Zephyr, a device that flies at over 21 kilometers in altitude), observation satellites (of which Airbus is the largest operator, globally), and also high-altitude aircrafts, and bring all of these together in a “common software infrastructure” in the “cloud.”
Airbus focused its industrial and commercial applications on agriculture, oil and gas, insurance, public services, and local and national government. In order to supply its “big data” services, Airbus brings together aircraft manufacturers, companies specializing in data analysis, as well as service providers.
A “new vision of the world”
As Les Echos stated, “Airbus’ goal is also to participate in all potential developments that will come to fruition once civil drones really enter our lives, since the group believes drones will become an ordinary tool in our daily lives, if only to help monitor natural disasters, agriculture or the exchange of data and images.” The publication adds that according to the American institute Teal Group, the production of commercial drones should explode by 2025, globally, at a value of 10.9 billion dollars (or 9.3 billion euros), compared to 2.6 billion in 2006 (or 2.2 billion euros).
A year later, Airbus Aerial appears to have found its customers – so much so that Wired wrote about a “new vision of the world” brought on by this system, which combines satellites, planes and drones. Will this technology change the way we see the sky? The Atlanta-based startup now not only supplies farmers pictures taken from on high, but also planners and engineers who “need a specific view of the world.”
In addition to the images taken by Airbus Defense & Space’s Earth observation satellites, Airbus Aerial collects data obtained via manned planes and drones that can reach places “that others cannot reach.” In 2017, after Hurricane Harvey ravaged Houston and forest fires swept through California, Airbus’ young subsidiary provided photos taken from its multimodal system to insurance companies to help them assess the damage on entire neighborhoods and respond more quickly to compensation claims. Drones can zoom in on homes and detect details with a high degree of precision, and satellite images can determine the extent of damage via “before / after” shots.
More humans on the blacktop
According to Wired, in a single year, Airbus Aerial has also already supplied “macro and micro” images taken by its observation satellites Pleiades and SPOT, as well as by its planes and drones – manned by its partner DroneBase, an international network of pilotes and drone professionals – to several clients who wanted to check the state of isolated railways.
The company has also mapped the runways of Atlanta’s airport – the world’s busiest – using autonomous medium-altitude drones, in the form of 3D and 3D maps, combined with GPS data. By avoiding human intervention on the blacktop as much as possible, the objective is to help airport officials identify if debris is likely to damage an aircraft, to inspect light beacons and signaling, and to stop flights if necessary.
Focusing on Asia and “catastrophe-prone” areas
Airbus Aerial doesn’t lack projects. The company just expanded to Asia with a Singapore office (after Atlanta and Munich). It’s near Australian, Indian, Japanese and Chinese markets. Its intention is to use its drones as “tech for good,” meaning by mapping out disaster-struck zones and supply important data during potential reconstruction phases.
“During its first year of operations, Airbus Aerial played an essential role in the US by helping a number of important insurance companies assess damages and process claims faster than ever before,” the startup explains on its site. The Singapore Airbus Aerial team intends to “collect information to provide relief and reconstruction assistance in disaster-prone areas.”
But Airbus Aerial’s objectives don’t stop there. “Over the next few years,” the young company intends to offer “drone cargo” services, most likely to deliver packages, medication or blood to hospitals in isolated areas in developing countries, just like Zipline International is doing in Rwanda.