What does a ‘traditional’ surveyor do?

It’s a simple question that professionals will talk through with different levels of detail and insight, but the answer will ultimately explain that surveyors aren’t going to measure a point every centimeter or inch on a project. They’ll look around, scan the area with their eyes, and will model the topography by capturing only the points and lines that matter. This approach creates a lightweight but accurate model that can be loaded in CAD by the design engineers.

Virtual Surveyor delivers that same experience but in a virtual environment. Designed to create surveys efficiently from drone data, Virtual Surveyor creates a replica of the real world constructed with the photogrammetry outputs. A surveyor must still capture the significant points and lines, and that’s what Virtual Surveyor delivers. Simply put, Virtual Surveyor allows surveyors to focus on what they do best, which is surveying.

We wanted to further explore that concept, and to do so we connected with Tom Op 't Eyndt, Managing Director for Virtual Surveyor. Attendees of the upcoming Commercial UAV Expo will be able to ask Tom their own questions at the Virtual Surveyor booth (#634), but until then, we discussed the business value his product creates, whether or not we’ll see a great deal of consolidation in the future, what advice he has for anyone who sees the potential in the technology and much more.


Jeremiah Karpowicz: Can you tell us a little bit about Virtual Surveyor’s genesis and how that does or doesn’t continue to impact the future of the product?

Tom Op 't Eyndt: I built my vision on Virtual Surveyor in early 2013. An important inspiration was a talk I had with a surveyor that was one of the first customers of Gatewing. At that time, I had a service company and after I delivered him gigabytes of data, he told me: “Tom, this really looks nice, but I need a CAD file”. I couldn’t find a product that could do that well and I decided to build our own. That day Virtual Surveyor was born, and the child didn’t grow up yet. I will keep on evangelizing this vision.


What’s one of the big misunderstandings that surveyors have about drone surveying software?

That you don’t need it.

Surprising to me, surveyors often stop surveying when they start working with drones. They become a pixel factory instead and focus on photogrammetry only. Someone told me once: “The mesh is the survey!” and he was really convinced about that. But to me, that is the same as saying that a satellite image is a cadastral vector map. The former is data, the latter is structured information. The drone is just a tool that allows us to capture the data. The real work still must be done.

This is because many people look at the drone as a ‘toy’, and not at the process as a whole, with a mindset on optimizing the surveying process and saving 80% of costs compared to a traditional job.


What can you tell us about your Smart Drone Surveying Software? How does it address or simplify the challenges that surveyors often run into when utilizing survey drones?

The challenge with drones is that people must handle gigabytes of pixels, point clouds or meshes while their customers are used to receive lightweight CAD models. So, the challenge is not only handling the data volume but also the nature of the data itself.

Virtual Surveyor offers the tools to view those huge data files in an interactive viewing environment. It gives users an experience as if they were on site, boots on the ground.

Of course, just viewing info like this has limited value. That would just be a virtual copy of the real world. So, we also include the tools that align well with a traditional survey workflow. These tools allow surveyors to capture the points and lines that really matter, enriched with a layer structure, descriptor and number that are needed to make quality CAD file.


What would you say is the main business value that Virtual Surveyor brings to your customer base?

Don’t replace your company’s surveyors with photogrammetrists. The learning curve is rather flat. You don’t need to learn surveying, you already know what points and lines matter. You do need to understand what it’s going to mean to integrate a new piece of software into your established workflows, and explore how it’s going to change those workflows for the better. Essentially you can just place points only but when you dig deeper and explore some workflows you’ll see that the saved time can be tremendous.


Based on your tutorial that explains the typical surveying workflow, it sounds like Virtual Surveyor is designed to be a bridge between the surveyor and engineer. What kind of feedback have you gotten from users about it?

Virtual Surveyor is an essential component to make or break a drone program in any surveying or engineering organization that wants to do land surveying with drones. I’ve seen people throw the data away and start all over again. One person, who was not using Virtual Surveyor, told me: “I wish I would have done a normal survey, I would have done it all a lot faster”. I also had people telling me: “If I had known about Virtual Surveyor before, it would have saved me so much time”.


What does it mean for surveyors to be able to use the photogrammetry outputs such as orthophotos and point clouds that can be produced by drones as their starting place? What kind of a difference can Virtual Surveyor deliverables make to their workflow and/or process?

Modern photogrammetry outputs are intermediate products and have limited direct value for engineers besides situational awareness. Virtual Surveyor starts where modern photogrammetry stops and allows a surveyor to run his last mile. Virtual Surveyor contains the tools to convert the pixels to a lightweight CAD model.

I tend to see it as a symbiosis. We need the photogrammetry as inputs, and the photogrammetry engine needs Virtual Surveyor to create what the engineers need. Our current strategy is to develop tools to enable a smooth transition between these different software programs.


Quantity surveyors generate complex reference surfaces to assess stocks in an accurate and repetitive way.

Does the essential difference that Virtual Surveyor represents come down to the time that can be saved by both surveyors and engineers? Or is it more about the deliverables themselves?

Both. It’s about time saved to produce these deliverables at a high-quality standard.

Drawing points and lines is not rocket science. There are even free products out there that allow you to do that. For example, you can load an orthophoto in QGIS and draw the breakline on the edge as you see it in the orthophoto. Then you can add the elevations from the DSM to the polyline vertices. You typically will have a lot of errors, lines that just missed breaks, points on a small rock… and you won’t even know about them. You don’t have any means of verifying how well the resulting triangulation/surface fits the model.

In Virtual Surveyor, you can view the terrain from any angle and distance. So, you really have a very good view and control of where you create your survey points. Then you can also generate a surface and verify how well the triangles fit with the DSM. Large triangles for flat areas or regular slopes; more triangles where the topography is more pronounced. When you find areas that don’t match properly, you can just add more points and triangulate again.

You can’t even execute such an iterative approach with traditional surveying. When you create the model from the surveying points in the office, that model would become the truth. You wouldn’t have any means of verifying that model except when going back to the terrain. In Virtual Surveyor, you can do such a validation and improvement in a matter of seconds and create a superior topographic model.


What can you tell us about the Virtual Surveyor productivity tools that create a synergy between the human brain (interpretation of data) and computer power (speed)? How do these tools work?

The key advantage is conceptual. We allow for a quick switching between an algorithm and a user who can quickly correct and give new input to the algorithm.

These days, a lot of people talk about Artificial Intelligence (AI) but that just doesn’t work for land surveying. Typically, you spend more time in correcting the outputs from AI. Correcting mistakes is also a task people don’t like. It is much more fun to create good things. With the Virtual Surveyor productivity tools, you can do that in a very comfortable way: fast, minimal editing and you stay perfectly in control of your produced line work or surfaces.

For example, you can simply draw one segment of a breakline. That first segment tells the algorithm something about the form of the break, the place and direction to search and the length of the segments that you want to create. Then it is up to the algorithm which will create the next segments of that breakline. When it doesn’t find a good solution anymore, it stops, and it is up to the (virtual) surveyor to give input again by drawing another line segment. This approach is so much more effective.


A line survey created on a motorway interchange

Looking ahead, how do you see the market as a whole reacting to the various drone software options that are available? Will we see a great deal of consolidation in the near future?

I don’t expect to see a consolidation in the near future. It is too early for that. It will happen when the market stops growing which will not be very soon.

Often a consolidation is done because vendors want to deliver a one-stop-shop. But this typically leads to more expensive products with less quality.

I believe the value we can bring to customers is to make efficient workflows. This doesn’t mean that you need to work with a product that is a one-stop-shop. You take a product that is really good for each part of the job. The key thing is that you can switch smoothly from one product to the other, a so-called integration. For example, you upload your picture to a cloud photogrammetry software. They have the CPU power and minimal interaction with the user is needed. Then you download seamlessly into Virtual Surveyor, produce your surface and seamlessly upload to a CAD collaboration environment. As a user, you should be able to easily go from data production to surveying to design.

What makes such an approach very powerful for the user is that you can replace any component in this chain very easily. You don’t get locked in, which means you can keep the suppliers sharp and fit.


What would you say to a surveyor who told you they saw the potential of drones, but thinks that adopting them is going to be too much of a challenge for their workflow or organization?

When you see a technology that can help you save 80% of your cost then you must go ahead. There is no doubt about that. If you don’t, you’ll probably be out of business in the coming years.

But you must do it right. When you just buy a drone and start uploading pictures to a free photogrammetry plan and then you deliver a GB dataset to the user in your organization, you’ll definitely fail. You’ll probably produce garbage and lose trust from the end users within your organization.

If you don’t know how to start, then contact a drone consulting company. There are companies out there that really deliver this kind of process knowledge very well.


To learn more about Virtual Surveyor, make sure you stop by booth #634 at the upcoming Commercial UAV Expo, happening October 1-3 in Las Vegas.