Soaring on demand for high-res images

28/04/2021 - 08:00

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A tech startup is aiming to extend the impact Perth innovators have had on the global geospatial industry.

Soaring on demand for high-res images
Amir Farhand and David Singleton are behind Soar.Earth. Photo: David Henry

When David Singleton started looking for new business ventures after retiring as chief executive of global shipbuilder Austal, it was a small startup with big plans that caught his eye.

“I was just fascinated by the notion there is a company here in Perth trying to create a business that is going to dominate worldwide,” Mr Singleton told Business News.

“The vision is really enticing.”

The company is Belmont-based Soar.Earth, established by tech entrepreneur Amir Farhand, who is chasing a grand business opportunity flowing from the rapid growth in the volume and quality of aerial images.

“There is all this content being created but it doesn’t exist in one centralised location,” Mr Farhand said.

“It’s on somebody’s hard drive, in a library, the mines department has it, the weather bureau has it.

“Our grand vision is, we want to become the world’s biggest visual atlas.”

He said there were millions of drones taking photos across the world and dozens of companies chartering aeroplanes and launching satellites to capture new imagery.

That’s in addition to all of the geological and topographic maps that have been created over many years.

“We don’t care where the maps and images come from,” Mr Farhand said.

“We don’t own anything. We are effectively a platform and an access channel for everybody to upload their content and share their maps and images.”

He said every individual latched onto the concept in different ways.

“Some call it the Netflix of maps, others call it the Wikipedia of maps, or the YouTube of maps,” Mr Farhand said.

Mr Singleton likes the YouTube comparison, which illustrates the ‘blue sky’ potential for Soar.Earth.

“I remember when YouTube came out and I wondered who on earth was going to upload videos to YouTube so someone else could watch it,” he said.

“And yet now, if you want to see something, from a 1950s movie or a football match, you go to YouTube. “I think the same is going to be true here.”

The board of directors at Soar.Earth includes another entrepreneur who has played a lead role in three Perth businesses that have had a global impact.

Guy Perkins has more than 30 years’ experience in the geospatial sector.

He has held numerous roles, including managing director of ESRI Australia, chief executive of ER Mapper, chief operating officer of Nearmap, and a director of Spookfish.

For good measure, Mr Perkins is also the uncle of Western Australia’s most famous tech entrepreneur – Melanie Perkins, now based in Sydney, who is the co-founder and chief executive of global success story Canva, which is valued at nearly $20 billion after completing a capital raising this month.

Mr Perkins has spent much of his career working closely with Stuart Nixon, who invented the original technology behind ER Mapper, Nearmap and Spookfish.

“Perth has been the genesis of some very big companies, and maybe not all of them recognised because some are privately held,” Mr Perkins told Business News.

Working with Mr Nixon, Mr Perkins was the experienced commercial executive complementing the creative tech innovator.

It’s a similar relationship with Mr Farhand, with whom he has worked for nearly a decade.

“He has had multiple ideas, all along the way,” Mr Perkins said.

“He was a consultant [at NGIS] when we first met, but he had bigger dreams.

“That’s what happens; you get smart people inside companies and they will say, ‘Why am I working for someone else and selling someone else’s ideas?’”

Products Mr Farhand has launched over the past decade include social media mapping app Kojai, remote sensing and thermal imaging company Scanthema, and weather forecasting app Event Weather.

“He sold that, and this is the one that he has landed on,” Mr Perkins said.

“That’s what happens when you play around with lots of ideas, you land on one that finally takes off. “It’s not that different from the Canva story.

“They started off with Fusion Books, which was for schools to create content, then they decided it could be bigger, they wanted to get into the design space.”

The Soar journey

Mr Farhand said the Soar.Earth story started in 2012, when his company, Takor Group, developed an Android mapping application called Mappt. It was built for mining company Fortescue Metals Group and contractor Samsung C&T.

“They wanted an app that allowed staff to access all of their maps wherever they happen to be, irrespective of internet connectivity,” Mr Farhand said.

The two companies provided $50,000 each to fund the development.

“It worked. That product has gone on to have about 50,000 users across the world,” Mr Farhand said.

The app was taken up by contractors working for the US military in Afghanistan, who used it for ‘geotagging’: mapping their photos of unexploded bombs.

The contractors used EXIF data (metadata in the background of digital images) to plot the exact location, as GPS wasn’t accurate enough.

“There was an edit function we had, and they would effectively take control, using the blockchain, of the EXIF data, and move it to the exact location and it would never move,” Mr Farhand said.

“This was before blockchain was cool, by the way.”

He said Takor was the first commercial organisation to implement blockchain technology into drone imagery.

In another milestone, in 2016, Takor was inducted into the US Department of Defence’s geospatial intelligence program.

“That was an exciting time because we got to see the best of the best,” Mr Farhand said.

He subsequently spent two years rejigging the code base in order to ‘consumerise’ the technology and make it available to a mass market.

It was during this period that Mr Farhand tried twice to list on the ASX: first through a reverse takeover of biotech company Bone Medical, and later through an $8 million initial public offering.

“We tried an IPO but nobody got it,” he said.

Instead, Takor completed a private capital raising in 2018 with family offices in Asia and San Francisco.

Mr Farhand then moved to Silicon Valley, which he said opened his eyes to the potential.

“People think at a different level over there, we saw how big it could be,” Mr Farhand told Business News.

“Over here, people ask, how much revenue have you made, when do I get my money back, when are you doing an RTO?

“Over there, the first question is, how big can this get? How do you dominate the market?

“How do you hit escape velocity? That’s the question people ask.”

Who will use it?

Mr Farhand admits that quantifying Soar’s potential is difficult.

“Sometimes investors ask us what it is useful for; we don’t know, it’s so huge,” he said.

“It’s like asking, how do you use YouTube.”

Mr Farhand said the demand for Soar’s content was evident already.

“What’s really interesting is the time spent on site,” he said.

“People go on there and stay for 40 minutes because they get interested.

“They discover one thing, then another, then something else.

“We can capture people’s eyeballs.

“That’s when we knew we were onto something.”

The first dedicated iron ore wharf (1967) on the western side of Port Hedland's inner harbour. Eighteen wharves have been built in the inner harbour.

A key feature of Soar is the software that allows content creators to upload their images.

For the first time, it gives people a dedicated platform to share their content.

Mr Farhand describes it as a simple drag-and-drop function, like Dropbox.

A metadata file is attached to each digital photo, with latitude, longitude, and other map references.

“The software can read that and lines it up on the map system,” Mr Farhand said.

“So, then you have these layers of maps, historic and live.”

Soar has also built application programming interfaces (APIs) with satellite imaging companies, so their content goes directly into the system.

Mr Singleton said Soar allowed people to order specific content.

“You can go onto the site and task a satellite to take photos as it flies over an area of Perth,” he said.

“You can put Google maps or road maps underneath it; you can do that instantly.”

ASX-listed mining company Mineral Commodities was one customer.

It used Soar to order satellite images of its Tormin mineral sands project in South Africa, as Perth executives could not get there during COVID-19.

An academic in Oregon used Soar to get satellite images so she could count whales as they fed off the coast of New Caledonia.

Another example was an individual who used Soar to get live satellite images to try and find his brother who was lost at sea.

On the supply side, a 12-year-old schoolboy in Long Beach, California, has been using his drone to take photos of houses in his neighbourhood.

Real estate agents are now buying those images through Soar.

Another example Mr Farhand recently discovered was an aerial photography enthusiast who takes pictures of every bridge and dam in Texas.

“Every week I’m stunned by what people use the system for,” Mr Farhand said.

Unique features

Soar’s features distinguish it from the likes of Google Earth and Bing Maps.

These include its marketplace function, which allows people to buy and sell content.

Soar is also a decentralised system, where the content comes from multiple sources and is owned by its creator.

It offers unlimited types of imagery, from satellites, aircraft and drones, as well as geological and topographic maps.

Soar is aiming to have content that is updated daily, if not hourly, and is developing search functions that allow for unlimited catalogues of data.

Funding for growth

Having raised $4.5 million from investors to date, Soar is working with broking firm Canaccord Genuity to assess fundraising options.

“Now it’s about putting enough money into the business so it gets to that point where its ubiquitous,” Mr Singleton said.

“That is absolutely the intent here, to be the world leader in that geospatial mapping sector.

“It’s off to a good start because it hasn’t got any competition at the moment.

“But it requires heavy investment over a period of time.”

Mr Singleton told Business News the company was planning to ramp up its advertising to boost market awareness.

It plans to set up offices around the world and employ additional staff to get more content uploaded.

For instance, Soar recently gained access to declassified US spy satellite imagery, which had to be processed prior to uploading to the website.

Looking ahead, Soar expects to work in countries where government agencies have large numbers of geological maps but do not have the capacity to digitise and upload this material to the Soar website.

Mr Singleton said Soar would also need to continue investing in its R&D team in Belmont to update and improve the software.

Content creators

While Soar is focused on being the distribution platform of choice, there is no shortage of companies creating aerial imagery.

Mr Perkins has observed the growth of this industry over more than 30 years.

He got his start in the industry working for Esri Australia, the local arm of the US-based developer of GIS (mapping) software.

Mr Perkins noted the development of an industry growth plan, led by former Australian government industry minister Nick Minchin.

“It was a cottage industry and he [Minchin] said, ‘What do we need to do to position it for growth?’” Mr Perkins told Business News.

That process included the creation of several industry bodies spanning industry, academia and science.

“That was the genesis of trying to create an industry,” he said.

In the early 2000s, Mr Perkins joined ER Mapper, an innovative company established in Perth by Stuart Nixon.

He brought a commercial mindset that recognised the limitations of operating in Australia.

“One of the problems with Australia is that it doesn’t have a lot of capital, but we have a lot of smart people who can provide solutions to gaps in the industry,” Mr Perkins said.

“It’s very hard to compete with the Googles and the ESRIs of the world. “They throw hundreds of millions of dollars at problems.

“What I find is that Australians are very innovative but don’t have the firepower to follow up.

“Sometimes they miss out on scaling up; obviously my niece is proving me wrong, but she is the exception to the rule.”

ER Mapper’s breakthrough was developing image compression techniques that made it much quicker and easier to manage and distribute large image datasets over the internet.

Mr Perkins noted the support of state government agency Landgate.

“They were one of our first customers,” he said.

“Every time you come up with something innovative, they embrace you.

“They have been very supportive through the whole journey.”

However, ER Mapper was constrained by lack of funding, so Mr Perkins set about finding a new owner.

European company Leica Geosystems, which is part of the global Hexagon group, bought ER Mapper in 2007 for about $20 million.

Shortly after, Mr Perkins teamed up again with Mr Nixon and technologist Simon Cope to launch another company, Nearmap.

“The same guys from the ERMapper realised there were things they could create and bring to the market,” he said.

Its key innovation was using an array of off-the-shelf cameras rather than expensive, large-format cameras.

“The ability to use off-the-shelf cameras was revolutionary,” Mr Perkins said.

Nearmap also developed science and software to create high-resolution image sets using these cameras.

Its technology made it much easier and faster to capture and process high-res aerial images.

“The Nearmap invention was all about high frequency, high resolution and lower costs,” Mr Perkins said.

“Everything was geared around efficiency, low cost and high resolution.”

Another key player at Nearmap was aeronautical engineer Mike von Bertouch, who heads Kardinya company Innovaero Technologies.

He was involved in developing Nearmap’s first generation of aerial imagery equipment.

This included the certification and production of the camera systems that were installed in light aircraft.

Nearmap listed on the ASX in 2008, through a reverse takeover of intellectual property company ipernica, after which the founders progressively departed.

The company is now worth more than $1 billion after successfully monetising its intellectual property in Australia and overseas.

Its latest financial results for the half year to December 2020 showed the company achieved 21 per cent growth in its annual contract value portfolio to $112 million.

Statutory revenue increased 18 per cent to $54 million, with record growth in North America, where it competes head-to-head with EagleView.

Based in Sydney, it retains a strong Perth connection through managing director Rob Newman and non-executive directors Ross Norgard and Tracey Horton.

The four people who led the creation and early development of Nearmap teamed up again to establish Spookfish, which boasted the next generation of aerial imaging technology.

The Spookfish system captured ultra high-res imagery from altitudes far greater than other camera systems such as those from Visionmap, Ultracam, Nearmap and others.

Spookfish gained early backing from Perth investors, notably Tony Grist’s Albion Ventures, Rod Jones’ Hoperidge, and Tom Henderson’s Forrest Capital before listing on the ASX in 2015.

Three years later, it was bought by a bigger company in the sector, US-based EagleView, for $122 million.

As part of the sale, Innovaero negotiated a long-term contract to continue manufacturing and supplying the Spookfish camera technology to EagleView.

Innovaero has continued to seek innovative growth opportunities, late last year unveiling a tactical unmanned aerial system (TUAS) targeting the defence sector.

This was a result of two years’ research and development. It has also attracted new investment, with ASX-listed company CFOAM paying $1.55 million for a 10 per cent stake in the privately owned company.

While established players in the geospatial sector such as Nearmap and EagleView have refined and improved their technology, Mr Perkins and the original ER Mapper team also have an eye to the future.

“There is an unfinished story to the whole Nearmap-Spookfish story,” he said.

“Behind the scenes, Stuart [Nixon] and Simon [Cope] and I are all talking about where-to next.

“We want to leave behind a digital encyclopedia of Australia on a yearly basis at high resolution.

“There is research happening in the background; something will happen in the next six to 12 months.

“It’s all about becoming more efficient.”

Mr Perkins said the next step would be sourcing hi-res images from jets at 45,000 feet, above the flight path of commercial jets.

That would be followed by more efficient sourcing of hi-res satellite images.

“Satellites are already orbiting the globe; the big problem is transmitting the data down quickly,” he said.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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