By Tom Harrington, VP, Business Development –

A closer look at new aerial imagery content programs

Aerial imagery data is fast becoming commoditized within the geospatial marketplace. New providers and aggregators of imagery — aerial (both ortho and oblique) and satellite – are popping up all the time and competing aggressively for market share. These new sources of imagery are marketed under licensing models, often referred to as Content as a Service (CaaS) or Managed Content as a Service (MCaaS). The basic elements that characterize CaaS are standardized data content, standard terms and conditions for usage and distribution, high performance and low cost cloud storage, and some form of streaming services. 

For a closer look at your options, download our 2019 Aerial Imagery Provider Comparison Guide. 

As a signal of how far the market has moved to “commoditize” imagery content, some vendors are offering single seat licenses to streaming services that provide access to nationwide imagery that can be bought and paid for online.

A significant advantage of this new model is the low cost. We are seeing prices that are a fraction of custom data collection programs. Other reasons to take a closer look at imagery CaaS are reliability and convenience.  

The main attraction of this new model is the low cost. We are seeing prices that are a fraction of custom data collection programs.

Imagery data content providers in this mode typically license their products at prices substantially below the cost of custom collection programs.  How they do this is that these providers often have one or more major clients whose data purchases underwrite a significant portion of the acquisition and production costs; thus additional subscriptions to the same data can be sold at prices that do not cover the total cost of the collection and processing. This is a huge opportunity for states, territories, utilities, transportation agencies, and others seeking affordable yet high quality imagery data. 

From a reliability and convenience point of view, these CaaS data products are collected on a regular schedule to a standard specification by reputable and experienced companies that stand behind their products. These companies are typically long-time players in digital data acquisition; firms who have made substantial past investments in hardware, technology, and software; firms that committed to innovation and continual improvement. In addition, typically, CaaS data is also collected on a more frequent schedule than traditional custom collection programs (which are of course adjustable), matching today’s appetite for the freshest, high resolution data, and as these programs mature, archival collections of imagery will build.

From a data purchase point of view, CaaS changes the paradigm. In contrast to going through the expense and effort of specifying the data products, and going out to bid for a custom collect on a 3 to 5 year cycle, customers can “sign up” for a subscription service and effectively obtain comparable data products without the transaction costs of RFP development and bidding, and with reduced overhead for data program management. From a customer’s point of view, the shift in perspective is from treating imagery data as a “project” to manage, and to treating imagery data as a “product” to buy.

From a customer’s point of view, the shift in perspective is from treating imagery data as a “project” to manage, and to treating imagery data as a “product” to buy. 

How data is stored and served is a key factor in both the cost and performance. Cloud storage can be a cost-saver because it offsets the cost of storage on local servers, and facilitates distribution and access. Cloud storage also offers a performance boost. For example, we’ve found that storing tiled imagery in the cloud at scale allows for high speed serving and tracking of data usage. AppGeo’s GIZA appliance, for example, offers OGC compliant WMS and WMTS services that can be consumed into CAD and GIS software platforms for immediate, high performance use that surpasses dynamic tiled services. GIZA also offers the benefit of reporting on usage in a manner that can help justify program costs and / or support cost sharing programs in multi-department settings.

In short, the imagery streaming revolution has begun. CaaS for imagery offers a standard, low-cost, reliable data program that everyone using imagery data should consider the next time they are in the marketplace for imagery products.

Not all CaaS offerings are the same, of course. Content as a service providers vary in the licensing terms, and the combinations and range of products they offer, including aerial orthoimagery,  satellite orthoimagery, oblique imagery, LiDAR, and more. The offerings in the marketplace are distinguished also by characteristics such as the resolution, the frequency of collection (refreshment), percentage leaf on/leaf off, allowance for public access, rules concerning derivative products, quality of streaming services, and accuracy and quality control. Higher and higher resolution tends to attract the most attention in the marketplace, but content program vendors are also paying close attention to accuracy. 

Higher and higher resolution tends to attract the most attention in the marketplace, but content program vendors are also paying close attention to accuracy. 

The downside to imagery content as a service is that the standard CaaS specifications will not always align with the custom or traditional demands of buyers, such as percentages of leaf off, sun angle, or specified degree of ground control. But the current reality is that content as a service data is, in most cases, a near perfect substitute for custom collect. For a comparison of some of the CaaS offerings, check out this comparison guide.

In addition, as this is still a relatively early point in the imagery content as a service market, vendors have shown a willingness to exercise flexibility and creativity to meet client requirements and differentiate themselves from competitors. While vendors have a menu of standard content, there is also an opportunity to order imagery as an “off menu” item.

Our outlook is that competition and demand in the market for low cost, high quality imagery data will continue to drive changes that are beneficial to government and private sector clients. In response to the CaaS opportunity, at least ten states have already made the shift to sourcing their imagery needs through content provider licenses. We expect this trend to continue. And we expect that the current competition will also drive technological change, including higher resolution cameras, improved processing techniques, higher levels of accuracy. And we anticipate that business models will continue to evolve to deliver other values to the end user. 

For the foreseeable future, we are in the age of greater availability of useful, high quality data. And the trend is for more and better data to be available at lower costs as the competitive marketplace and technology evolve. Buyers are making the shift from data as a “project” to data as a “product”. The next level challenge is what will we do with this great opportunity.