Our latest service provider profile focuses on Bluesky International Limited, a privately owned company based in Leicestershire, UK that specializes in the acquisition, processing and application of a range of geographic data, in particular aerial photography, LiDAR and thermal imagery. Bluesky's other area of expertise is the creation of GIS data for modelling environmental and climate change. In this in-depth interview, the firm's Sales Director, Ralph Coleman, talks about Bluesky's growth, its recent investment in new aerial scanning technology, the latest product and service developments and some ambitious plans for the future.
When and how did Bluesky start?
Bluesky was founded in December 2003 following the merger and subsequent demerger from another aerial survey company. Initially Bluesky concentrated on the sale of aerial photography to the local government market. Since that time the UK aerial survey industry has changed beyond recognition and as a result Bluesky has had to find ways to stay ahead of the game through innovative product development and proactive customer engagement.
How many people are working for the company?
There are currently 25 members of staff working at Bluesky, 50 percent of which have more than 10 years of service and have been with the company since its original inception as Wildgoose Publications Ltd in 1996. We are currently actively recruiting in the sales and business development department as well as in the airborne acquisition and production areas. We are expecting to buck the wider economic trend and increase personnel significantly in the short-to-medium term.
What would you say is Bluesky's unique selling point?
Bluesky’s biggest USP is currently its recent purchase of the world’s first fully-integrated lidar, thermal and RGB sensor array. This represents a new chapter in Bluesky’s development and offers new opportunities to both Bluesky and its customers; it is an extremely exciting time for the team at the moment.
In addition there is one word that always crops up when describing Bluesky and that is "agile." As a small privately owned business we can move quickly to react to changes in demand or government legislation without the need for cumbersome and protracted "sign-off" procedures and bureaucracy. Creating new products and services that solve a particular problem is key to widespread take-up and involving customers in the development phase has proved to be crucial.
What role does lidar play in your business? What laser scanning services do you offer and who are your clients?
We have been selling third party off-the-shelf lidar and sub-contracting new capture projects for many years now but that only represented a modest part of the company’s turnover. More recently, as Bluesky became financially stronger, it became apparent that the demand for lidar was growing, and purchasing a lidar sensor would be the next logical step. Growing the lidar business for our new Optech M300 sensor is now an integral part of Bluesky’s future success and it will be a primary revenue generator starting in 2013.
We are offering an end-to-end airborne lidar capture service from planning through to delivery and integration. We believe there are also significant opportunities to become involved in customer specific downstream lidar based product development. Our client base is already broad including government (central and local), engineering, utilities, construction, archaeology and environment.
What will your new lidar, thermal and imagery system enable you to do that you weren't doing before? What will it enable you to do better?
Be masters of our own destiny! We have traditionally sub-contracted all the airborne capture elements of new acquisition work and we have therefore been at the mercy of our sub-contractors. We now have a long-term agreement for the supply of aircraft and have employed additional experienced technical staff. We already have a significant order book for all three sensors with some of the contracts requiring simultaneous acquisition using two of the instruments. This will enable us to be far more reactive to customer requirements and will also allow us to mobilise within hours when weather windows occur. The high specification of the Optech lidar sensor is unparalleled in the UK will therefore enable us to service markets that were not previously open to us in addition to increasing our efficiency by being able to capture two surveys at once -resulting in reduced costs and more competitive pricing for our customers.
I notice that on your website it highlights the fact that the lidar data you offer is "Crown Copyright Free." Is this a major selling point to your clients?
This is more relevant when we are creating derived products using the lidar as the base dataset. The UK’s geographical data market is flooded with products that use Ordnance Survey’s mapping as the basis for their creation. This means the products could be subject to restrictive licensing terms and on-going royalties governed by Crown Copyright. Due to the fact that Bluesky will retain the IPR in much of the data captured we are able to grant far less restrictive licenses to customers opening up endless possibilities for new applications and products.
How do you see the laser scanning side of your business developing in the next few years? For instance, you have recently acquired an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) for site surveying - how much demand is there for this service at present? Are there any legal or legislative barriers to the use of drones for aerial surveying in the UK? If so, how do you work around these?
We currently sub-contract UAV work to a third party. We have seen a significant rise in interest for this service in the last six months. From our experience we currently feel that commercial UAVs are not large enough to carry a high spec sensor payload such as a laser scanner, however this will surely be a focus for the future.
There are significant restrictions imposed by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA - the UK regulator) on the use of UAVs in the UK, which limit their practicality, these relate to the weight, where you can operate them, and the operator maintaining visual contact. This means that in essence they must be light (under 20 kg) and can only be used in rural areas to a radius of about 500m.
Could you explain more about your National Tree Map - what it is, who will use it, how it works, how it will generate income?
The National Tree Map is a digital mapping layer depicting tree canopy coverage and tree heights for the UK. It is created using a combination of national remotely-sensed datasets owned and co-owned by Bluesky that are combined and subjected to a series of complex algorithms. The resulting deliverables are:
• A raster image showing the height of tree canopy with the colour representing the average height;
• Approximated coverage of the canopy of each individual tree represented as polygons;
• A point feature representing the highest point of an individual tree; and
• The idealised crown of each individual tree displayed as a regular circle.
This dataset is being created speculatively and will be available as an off-the-shelf product for England and Wales early in Q2 2013. Scotland is planned shortly after this.
There are wide-ranging applications for this dataset and it will provide invaluable information for any professionals concerned with the management or assessment of trees. This includes forestry, utilities asset management, insurance subsidence risk, conservation management or tracking the spread of tree disease which is obviously very topical at the moment in the UK.
Why has no-one created such a map before/What has made it possible to do this now?
Other vegetation databases do exist, however not to the accuracy or on the same scale as Bluesky’s NTM. This product has been two years in the developing and it has been a case of trial and error with different methodologies, algorithms and base datasets in order to achieve the desired results which we are now extremely pleased with. Other organisations have attempted to create such a map but the feedback we are receiving from our customers is that as far as we are aware none have succeeded in achieving as good as results as Bluesky’s NTM.
The SolAR (Solar Assessment of Roofs) database features prominently on the Bluesky website. Is this the fastest-growing area of your business at the moment? What are the future (medium-term) prospects for this area - will it continue to be an important source of income and growth?
2011 and 2012 were big years for solar energy in the UK and Bluesky’s innovative solar mapping database helped many installers, environment companies/consultants and social housing landlords plan their solar installations and calculate their potential returns. This boom was largely down to the government subsidies or Feed In Tariffs "FITS" that significantly rewarded the owners of solar panel installations and provided a healthy revenue stream over a 25-year period. Unfortunately this was unsustainable and the subsidies have now been slashed causing a significant slump in the UK solar market.
This has reduced Bluesky’s opportunity to generate revenue in the solar market but there are still many schemes that require Bluesky’s mapping services and the expectation is that the industry will find a natural level and gradually recover over the next few years. It’s unlikely that the solar business will return to 2011/2012 levels however the renewable energy sector as a whole is still growing rapidly and Bluesky has several ideas for new products and services to meet the needs of this expanding market.
Are there any additional sectors or services are you targeting going forward? For instance, do you have any plans to develop ground-based laser scanning capabilities (e.g. mobile mapping of road or rail networks)? What about plans to link your 3D scan data to 3D printing services? (And if so, how?)
Much of our time will be concentrated on growing our presence in the engineering and utilities sectors where we hope to win contracts for our new lidar sensor. This will be tough in two traditionally challenging markets but we are confident we can be successful. We’ve also recently had some success in the insurance market and hope to grow our interests in this area.
At the moment we don’t have any plans to develop a ground-based scanner capability, although we are very keen to broaden our airborne sensor portfolio and currently have at least one "UK market first" in the pipeline. This is a Nightsky camera that is designed to be deployed at night to capture imagery used to measure ambient light sources for use in ecology, crime mapping, light pollution and various other applications.
Does Bluesky have any clients outside the UK? If so, where?
Yes, we have customers in the US, Australia, North Africa, West Africa and closer to home in France and Spain. We see the international market as a growth area for Bluesky’s products and services and intend to grow our international client portfolio.
Where do you see the company five years from now?
I think we are ambitious and realistic; we have survived what has been a difficult few years in the UK by keeping our feet on the ground, staying agile, having a handle on our costs and maintaining focus. There are a huge amount of opportunities for Bluesky at the moment but we need to ensure that any growth is sustainable and well managed. The next 2-3 years will be crucial in cementing Bluesky as a market leader for lidar and earning a reputation in the area of aerial survey. We have a solid foundation based on our existing products and services and hopefully this will assist in securing this development. Five years from now the aim is to be the largest aerial survey company in the UK and to have built a reputation that enables us to expand through Europe and further afield. We really feel that this is our time.
For more information visit: www.bluesky-world.com