The use of different types of sensors combined with imagery and geospatial intelligence is opening a broad array of new markets for need-focused aerial mapping firms.

A recent investment in unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology has allowed Bluesky to launch a fast response aerial survey service.

Households, businesses and government organizations are facing a myriad of challenges. The effects of the global recession continue to bite, yet energy and fuel prices remain high and seem to be rising. On top of this, citizens and communities are being tasked with reducing harmful emissions and their overall environmental impact. Fortunately, these same challenges are creating opportunities for forward-thinking surveying and mapping firms.

One example is Bluesky International Ltd., an aerial imaging, remote sensing and GIS firm based in Leicestershire, U.K. Established in 2003 after a management buyout from U.K.-based Getmapping, Bluesky quickly developed a reputation for creating seamless digital aerial photography, 3D landscape and cityscape visualizations and prints. The company also created a national mapping center to provide digital mapping, satellite imagery and aerial photography. Much of the firm’s recent growth, however, has come from non-traditional applications as a result of strategic investments and a careful evaluation of existing and emerging needs.

From its inception, Bluesky has actively sought ways to add value through innovation. In 2004, the company teamed with Weather Service International (WSI), a specialist in weather media, to provide 3D imagery capabilities to television stations throughout Europe using a combination of Bluesky’s high-resolution aerial photography and WSI’s software. Later that year, the company made further inroads into 3D mapping through agreements with Halcrow Group Ltd. (now a CH2M HILL company) and Anquet Maps.

But seeing the world from the air in three dimensions, the Bluesky team also recognized that there was information about buildings and structures that they weren’t yet capturing--information that could provide substantial benefits to government agencies and communities that were trying to comply with increasingly stringent environmental and energy legislation. For example, the U.K.’s Home Energy Conservation Act (HECA) 1995 required every government agency with housing responsibilities to prepare, publish and submit to the Secretary of State an energy conservation report identifying practicable and cost-effective measures to significantly improve the energy efficiency of all residential accommodation in their area, and to report on progress made in implementing the measures. Obtaining the required information for these reports was a challenge.

Bluesky's SolAR database, compiled from up-to-date, high-resolution stereo aerial photography and other geographic data, shows every roof in England and Wales that is potentially suitable for the installation of solar panels.

In 2007, using a modified version of an airborne thermal infrared sensor technology used by the military for night vision, Bluesky began offering aerial thermal surveys that provided average heat-loss values for building polygons. Flown from an altitude of over 1,500 feet, the thermal surveys provided better than 1-meter resolution. By matching this information to address databases, municipalities could create web pages that allowed visitors to search by street name or postcode and view thermal images of their properties. Correlating the thermal values with other records, such as deprivation indicators and housing stock condition reports, allowed officials to quickly identify both public and privately owned properties with high levels of heat loss and therefore potentially poor insulation. They could then offer services and grants to residents in an effort to increase energy efficiency--and, importantly, generate the reports they needed for HECA.

Over the next several years, Bluesky’s thermal mapping service expanded to include online maps integrated with GIS and other data overlays. Then, in March 2010, the company invested in a new thermal mapping system designed to capture and map highly accurate measurements of heat loss from buildings. The system included a state-of-the-art thermal survey camera, an advanced navigation and positioning system, and improved sensor control and user interface. It was a strategic move that would open even more doors of opportunity for the aerial mapping firm.

Conventional thermal mapping systems require continuous cooling of the camera environment, which can lead to variations in results and subsequent issues during post-survey analysis over large geographical areas. The microbolometer thermal camera used by Bluesky can perform nearer to the real ambient temperature around the camera, making it more suitable for use in aircraft flying at night. The new sensor is also capable of measuring within the optimal spectral range required to assess the emissivity from building roofs. The sensor has a spectral range of 1.5-14 micrometers, a temperature range of -40 to 120 degrees Celsius (-40 to 248oF), and a camera resolution of 1240 by 480 pixels. It also has an advanced navigation and positioning system that allows georeferencing of the resulting heat loss image to a range of 1 pixel.

Bassetlaw District Council recently commissioned a nighttime thermal survey to help address fuel poverty and provide better detail on private housing stock across the Nottinghamshire district. By recording highly accurate measurements of relative heat loss from individual buildings using the new sensor, Bluesky was able to deliver a property level digital map for use in the council’s GIS. The thermal data will be used to support the council’s intentions to reduce carbon dioxide in the area and educate the public on energy efficiency.

“Living in a safe, warm and well-maintained home is essential to enjoying a good quality of life, and we have introduced a fuel poverty reduction campaign to support this objective,” says Kerri Ellis, sustainability officer at Bassetlaw District Council. “The thermal data will help us accurately identify individual properties at risk of fuel poverty and enable us to proactively target households for tailored advice and signposting.”

Bluesky solar maps help businesses in the South of England benefit from free or low-cost electricity by identifying suitable roofs for arrays of solar panels.

Bassetlaw District Council members are planning to overlay the digital thermal map in their GIS, combining it with other housing-related intelligence such as Standard Assessment Procedure (SAP) ratings and Warm Front information. The property-specific intelligence will then be used to identify individual properties and streets at risk of fuel poverty, target council resources efficiently and effectively across a largely rural population and provide a benchmark for ongoing work.

A property-level thermal map is also helping Leicester City Council target energy inefficiency and reduce carbon emissions. The “Hot Lofts” scheme, a partnership between the council and British Gas, aims to deliver free loft and cavity wall insulation for all private homes, regardless of income, on a rolling program. Using a color-coded and property-matched map generated by Bluesky, the council can identify properties most in need of assistance and write to them with the details of the scheme. To date, the project has helped nearly 6,300 properties reduce their energy consumption, contributing to a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions of approximately 6,000 metric tons per annum--an estimated annual gas savings of more than 32,700 gigawatt hours.

The thermal mapping system has also allowed Bluesky to begin offering a new end-to-end thermal mapping service that allows energy inefficient households to be identified and directly targeted for improvement. The company uses the raw thermal survey data to provide content for the production of easy to understand marketing materials that highlight inefficient homes in a map form. The postcard or other mailing document is sent directly to the homeowner and shows how the house compares to other properties on the same street. Commissioned by local authorities, energy companies or home improvement businesses, these marketing campaigns inform homeowners that they may benefit from extra insulation and provide suggestions on how to increase insulation and reduce carbon emissions.

Other non-traditional areas of data capture are also meeting energy and environmental needs. For example, after initial night sky mapping developments generated interest from local authorities, Bluesky teamed up with the University of Leicester to look at solutions using new high-sensitivity camera sensor technology. It is expected that the new system, mounted on survey aircraft, will accurately record the location of street lights, illuminated road signs and other nighttime sources of light to provide an accurate resource for asset inventories, light pollution assessment and energy optimization measurements.

“We have looked at other systems already on the market, but we think there is scope to develop a more advanced system that will increase the quality of data and resulting analysis,” says James Eddy, technical director of Bluesky. “By working with the University of Leicester, we can build on their expertise in the fields of remote sensing and spectroscopy and our own experiences of nighttime surveying.”

The HELIOS (Heat Loss Investigation System) web-based reporting tool, developed by Manchester Geomatics, uses thermal data collected by Bluesky during airborne thermal imaging surveys.

The map-accurate “Nightsky” images produced by the new system will be suitable for use in a desktop mapping tool or GIS.

Solar mapping is yet another recent area of focus for Bluesky. Using high-resolution aerial photography combined with 3D data, both from its national archive of data, the company has developed an innovative method of generating solar potential maps. Photogrammetric techniques are used to accurately determine the size, aspect and gradient of individual properties, from which the company is able to measure and record factors that may contribute to the potential for solar power. The suitability of each roof element is then considered, taking into account roof shape and other impediments such as skylights or dormer windows, as well as potential obstructions such as neighboring properties or trees. Bluesky can also provide measurements for other environmental energy projects, such as wind turbines, micro-hydro systems and heat pumps. Within a year of launching the service, Bluesky had completed assessments of the solar power potential of more than 500,000 properties in the U.K. The company recently embarked on a nationwide solar mapping project and an on-demand service providing detailed solar suitability reports.

Organizations such as the London Fire Brigade and Kier and Harlow Councils have already benefited from the intelligence afforded by the Bluesky data. “The solar potential assessment allowed us to target properties that would provide the greatest potential return on investment,” says Paul Slater of Kier’s energy solutions team. “By identifying properties with suitable roofs, the cost of installation could be offset by the income generated by the feed-in tariff. This intelligence was invaluable as it allowed us to make initial assessments and decisions at the desktop, saving thousands of pounds on site surveys.”

Bluesky also supplied Kier and Harlow with performance assessments and potential energy generation rates based on solar panel specifications and location specific solar radiation measurements.

The advancement of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology and the related removal of flight barriers is seen by many as the next frontier in aerial mapping. Here, too, Bluesky is pairing technology investment with innovative application. The company recently launched a fast response aerial survey service using UAVs guided by artificial intelligence (AI) autopilot. In the U.K., where commercial unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) are allowed to fly provided all of the required safety, airworthiness and operational standards have been met, potential applications include large-scale construction and engineeering sites that can be surveyed at regular intervals or predetermined points in time to provide data for project management, reporting and funding. The height data can be used for line of site calculations to ensure compliance with planning applications or cut and fill calculations for project invoicing, and for the creation of realistic 3D images for marketing or KPI reporting.

New high-sensitivity camera sensor technology aids night sky mapping for asset inventories and energy optimization.

Other applications include open cast mines or quarries or even landfill sites where large volumes of material are extracted or moved on a regular basis. The geographically accurate imagery would provide a record of activity at a given point in time, and the highly detailed height models could be used to measure stockpiles, cut and fill volumes and for facilities management and safety monitoring.

With an option of mounting additional sensors on the UAV, Bluesky is also exploring agricultural applications, like monitoring crop growth or irrigation and identifying locations for higher value crops or high yield areas. Additional applications are expected from within the leisure industry--specifically golf courses, where the map-accurate images and height models could be used to create yardage books, feed digital caddy systems and develop stroke manager solutions.

Bluesky is an example of necessity giving life to invention. By thinking outside the box, aerial surveying firms can develop geographic data solutions to address some of the environmental and economic challenges being faced by both public and private sector organizations. Although additional investments might sometimes be needed from both the developer and client, these solutions can provide a return on investment with tangible and measurable benefits. Difficult situations really do inspire ingenious solutions.