Q&A: FalconViz offers key drone data for Saudi Arabia’s ambitions
Luca Passone is the Co-founder, Chief Technology Officer and General Manager at FalconViz, a full-service GIS company based in Saudi Arabia. He’s been flying WingtraOne for more than three years and sat down with us to discuss his experience and how the drone has impacted his business and the jobs he is able to take on.
Q: Hello Luca, and thanks for taking the time with us today. Could you talk about FalconViz, logistics, and what you’re doing with drones?
LP: Sure, happy to share. Our company has 25 employees, and we’re based in Saudi Arabia. The foundation of our business is drones. It’s how we started, and it’s a key element of the company. Everything we offer to our clients starts off with data collection. Drones play a big part in this, but we also integrate other technologies like ground-based LIDAR scanners, mobile mapping, indoor scanning and so on.
The idea behind FalconViz is to be a one-stop shop for clients that need digital versions of their physical assets. Most of our clients need some kind of geospatial information system. And this starts with a large area that requires data collection—typically this is done using Wingtra. Let’s say that for 90 percent of our projects, we use Wingtra to collect data. Then once we collect this data, we push it through a pipeline that usually starts with Pix4D, Context Capture, or even our own internal software when either of these two lack something we need.
The next stage is modeling: Once we collect this huge amount of data, and we process it, how do we give it to the client in a way that makes sense? In a way that they can interact with it and gain the kind of information that they need?
To do that we either rely on off-the-shelf software, or we develop our own, in house. We take the data collected by the WingtraOne, we process it, we upload it to our platform, and the client can interact with it. We can personalize the experience for them. And we do this for a variety of different customer segments.
Q: Do you have a case in mind that you would want to talk about today, or shall we talk about how FalconViz uses WingtraOne in general?
Q: What is your role at FalconViz and how long have you been in it?
LP: I’m one of the co-founders. My current position spans quite a few different departments.
My official title is general manager and CTO. But my day-to-day task besides general manager is looking at technology and seeing what new and exciting things are coming up. I also speak to our current vendors to see how we can find solutions to problems we might have, drive innovation within the company and make specific decisions for purchases and roadmaps and so on.
Q: How long have you been using WingtraOne drones?
LP: I think we are one of your very first customers. I want to say since 2018? Is that possible? I think sometime in 2018.
Q: How many drones do you have?
LP: Right now we have three Wingtras, three M300s, two M600s, two Inspires and a variety of smaller ones.
Q: You said 90 percent of the aerial data capture you do with Wingtra. What are some of the outstanding projects that you have handled lately, or over time?
LP: Each project that we do is unique in some way. We seem to never get two projects that are the same. The latest one, where we completed all of the data capture using only Wingtra, was for an area over 140 km2 (55 mi2) in the north of Saudi Arabia for this brand new city called NEOM that the kingdom is building.
So the project was divided into several areas. One of them was just topographical surveying. Your standard deliverables of DTM, DEM, DSM and so forth.
And together with that we also did some corridor surveying. So this was taking advantage of new features that Wingtra is offering—we requested it and you guys have listened to us. So we were very happy when it became available and we used it pretty heavily in this project.
The deliverables help with the city design planning—to do flood simulations, to plan roads, and to plan infrastructure, as in pipelines and electricity delivery and all kinds of these things that are required for a new city.
FalconViz takes full advantage of WingtraOne’s corridor mapping feature. (Outputs shared in part and in lower resolution to preserve a level of confidentiality).
Q: What has Wingtra allowed you to do since you brought its technology on board. Because this is also a reflection of transforming what is actually possible. You know? So it’s a mirror … of what is becoming possible in terms of infrastructure and development. How would you put this into words?
LP: So when we purchased our Wingtras, the drone landscape was very different. If you look at multirotors, I think we had an S1000. The flight time was maybe 10-12 minutes, so a limited range. And if you looked at fixed-wings, we built our own plane out of an RV jet. It could fly for a long time. I think it would fly for one hour and 15 minutes. But the problem was that it was very difficult to fly. So only a few people within the company were able to take it out successfully on missions and bring it back in one piece.
What Wingtra allowed us to do was to greatly decrease the barrier to entry, reduce the risk and make sure that the drone and the equipment would come back and go to the next project without worries. Add to that the VTOL capabilities, which meant we didn’t need a runway for a plane, then it was really the obvious choice for us.
If you look at today, a lot of the issues we had early on have been resolved. I mentioned before the ability to do corridor scans. This for us was quite important. And we see that there are always new features coming out on a regular basis, depending on how your customers give you feedback and how important it is for us.
Q: You already talked a bit about the methods. You started out drone-based?
LP: FalconViz was born drone-based. Terrestrial came later mainly to tie in indoor scanning with outdoor. Saudi Arabia is doing a lot of work to open up for tourism, for example. And they are very interested in documenting the historical sites. So we do a lot of hybrid projects, where we would go in with the Wingtra and get the large-scale nadir plan of an area. Then, where there are smaller parts where we need more oblique images, we can go in with a multirotor.
Then we can do the inside with a laser scanner, and finally tie all of this together into a larger model that can be visualized in a virtual environment like a gaming engine. Then we deliver this to the client—because they’re not interested in a point cloud. They’re not interested in a digital elevation model. They just need to look at the model and fly through it easily and walk through it.
This is something that we did recently for Diriyah; you might have heard of them because they host a round of the Formula E championship. Actually this year there will be a FormulaOne race in Saudia Arabia. And we did the aerial survey of the F1 track with the Wingtra also.
WingtraOne data-based outputs courtesy FalconViz (shared in part and in lower resolution to preserve a level of confidentiality).
Q: So you’re saying that your projects are all over the place.
LP: YES! They’re all over the place. So they go from the middle of the desert to the city center of Riyadh. From pretty flat areas to ridiculous mountains that change 2 km (1.2 mi) in elevation over a 1 km (0.6 mi) horizontal distance. And it’s very difficult to make sure that the technology can perform to the client’s expectations and our expectations in these very different conditions.
Q: All of this leads me to believe that WingtraOne is pretty reliable. Would you agree with that and can you speak a bit about the reliability?
The couple of times that the Wingtra did report an error, it landed safely, and we sent the logs to Wingtra [Support], and you helped us solve the problems, which were easily identifiable.
Q: Is there any possible way to say how much you have flown with your WingtraOne drones?
LP: Kilometer squared covered? I think we must be close to … I think we are over 700 km2 (270 mi2) … and closer to 1000 (386 mi2). In three years I think so. We fly the Wingtras a lot. I can safely say that we are over 500 km2. I’ve been on projects that have been almost that big by themselves. Just NEOM was over 150 km2 so …
Q: How are you finding the drone to work with in terms of the post processing? The workflow? How would you comment on that?
LP: For me it’s one of the bigger positives if I look at the workflow that we had before and with the M600 that we have. Of course DJI has a lot of drones, the Inspire and Phantom, but none of them have the resolution on the cameras that we need. So they are out of our scope. So really the only other drone we can use besides the WingtraOne is an M600.
And if I compare the two workflows, one is a nightmare, one is the dream. Of course Wingtra is the dream, because you have all the files organized, and we use the PPK payload, so you just download a couple of files, you run it through the Wingtra software and you get all the geotagged images ready to import into Pix4D or Context Capture.
If I compare that to what we used to do with M600, it’s really difficult. Because [with the M600] if you have a missed image you need a tool to match, you need to get the logs, export them, get the geotags, match the time, it’s really not nice.
Q: Do you also find it’s good at capturing the data? At giving you what you needed? Getting you the data the first time around?
LP: If the mission plan is done properly, we are very happy with the flights. It’s very rare that we have to fly again. There have been some times where the weather changes. Here, we don’t get many clouds. A few times we have gotten clouds in the mid-afternoon. So the ISO of the camera goes up and it doesn’t match with the sunny photos that we took in the morning so we have to re-fly. But that’s not to do with the drone; it’s just part of the work. To get good data you have to work with the weather.
Q: So Saudi is the land of word-of-mouth. And I’m wondering if your business benefits from the WingtraOne. Do you get recommendations and referrals based on the quality of the work and products you provide?
LP: Yeah so we have a lot of repeated business from clients that we worked with in the past. We also get a lot of business from companies that come to Saudi but they cannot bring their drones into the country. And so we do a lot of data collection. We’ve done this for French companies, we’ve done this for Australian companies. We’ve done this for a variety of non-Saudi entities that are famous for a specific thing. Let’s say they are known for making beautiful 3D models of something—say a historical site—and the ministry tries to bring them in but they cannot bring the drones.
We go in and we try to do the data capturing for them. We do a lot of work, for example, for the Boston Consulting Group. They have a lot of projects in Saudi and we do a lot of their topographical surveying. And they have been happy with us for two to three years. Every time they have a project here, they ask us to go in and do the topographical surveying, and a lot of our work comes from this.