Leading the flock in the field of aerial imagery
“A lot of people think that all of this imagery that’s on Google Earth comes from satellites. But that’s not really the case. It’s actually imagery that’s captured predominantly by companies like ours,” says John Antalovich, Jr., Executive Director of Kucera International, Inc., a company that has been flying over, photographing, and mapping the earth’s features for over 60 years.
“The company was started in the late 1940s,” Antalovich explains. “The name, Kucera, is the name of the original founder of the company – Bob Kucera. He was an avid pilot and he was interested in a business that would involve flying. At the time, following World War II and the Korean War, there was a lot of activity in the aerial sensing business for military applications, and Kucera picked up some surplus equipment and started to do commercial-type aerial mapping services. That’s how it all started; he was basically looking for a vocation to support his avocation, which was flying. He loved to fly. He purchased some WWII-type aircraft, and had them outfitted with camera systems and away he went.”
Kucera incorporated his company in 1953, and even though the idea of getting information from aerial photography had been around since the early days of aviation, the many different commercial applications based on new technologies were just beginning to emerge. “So there were opportunities there, and Bob Kucera’s vision was to get beyond just taking aerial photographs and getting into various applications, such as photogrammetric mapping. He brought a lot of people on board to manage the mapping part of the business and my father happened to be one of those people.”
John Antalovich, Sr., took over the presidency of the company when Bob Kucera passed away in 1969. Over the next several decades under his leadership, the company continued to broaden its range of in-house capabilities to include a variety of specialized technologies and applications. It also acquired two other aerial mapping and surveying firms in order to expand its territorial spread. In 1984, ownership of the Kucera organization passed from the Kucera family to John Antalovich, Sr., now Kucera International’s CEO.
Today, Kucera International is a full-service provider of professional aerial and ground sensing and surveying, photogrammetric mapping, geospatial data processing, and related geomatic services for government, commercial, industrial, professional, and institutional clients. “We have a total staff of about 75,” says Antalovich, Jr. “Our main office is in Willoughby, Ohio, which is just east of Cleveland, and then we have some other satellite offices; one is in Pittsburgh, PA; one is in Columbus, OH; and one in Lakeland, FL. Our geographic scope is predominantly the United States, but we’ve done a number of projects outside of the U.S. – as far away as Poland, South America, and Canada. We’re worldwide, but we do have a limitation on where we can go with our aircraft.”
Antalovich explains, in plainer language, just what the company does on a typical work day: “There are many, many applications for aerial imagery and mapping services. They range from very small surveys of very small areas, for instance, when a company wants a picture of its facility or a map of the facility for a master plan, or sub-division. Usually that all starts with a map of the topography. So we do that type of work. And then we do a lot of work for the government at different levels, ranging from local and municipal government right up to the federal government, for a wide variety of planning and engineering applications. For instance, counties and cities do property assessments using aerial imagery; the federal government uses imagery for flood insurance mapping and crop monitoring. We do a lot of work for highway infrastructure mapping, as well.
“For commercial, we do a lot of work for utility companies. We’ve done numerous energy projects, where we do aerial mapping of areas where they plan to install wind farms or transmission line corridors, and then, aerial sensing and mapping is used to monitor those installations. Recently, we’ve been involved a lot with natural gas pipeline corridors. So, it really runs the gamut of different types of commercial applications. Mainly, any time somebody is planning on putting something in that’s infrastructure-related, or they have existing assets that they are trying to monitor or want to develop – a lot of that work starts with some type of a map or some type of image as a reference point, and basis for the engineering work.”
The company owns and operates six of its own planes, four of which are twin-engines. “Those are the planes that are the big workhorses for the organization,” says Antalovich. “We can go pretty far with those planes. And we have two single-engine planes that are used for more localized work. Also, there are certain applications where you want to be able to fly very slow and low, and the single engines are very good for that type of work.”
Depending on the size and scope of a project, Antalovich explains that the company doesn’t always necessarily need to use its own aircraft, at all: “We work together with a lot of companies in our field, so typically, on a small project, that would be a sub-contracted service. It would be less expensive and more expedient to have a smaller company that just does aerial photography or aerial sensing, so we would probably sub-contract to a locally-based firm. If it’s a very large project, then it becomes more cost-effective for us bring our own planes out to the site.”
According to Antalovich, there about 100 companies those do work similar to Kucera. “They vary in size from very small operations with just a few staff members up to very large operations that have hundreds of staff members,” he says. “We’re in the middle, maybe a little bit towards the bigger size.”
But regardless of size, what gives Kucera an organizational edge over the competition is that it is a one-stop-shop. “The advantage of our organization is that we do all of the services,” Antalovich says. “There are different phases of our work. One is the acquisition, itself, of the aerial data. Then there are a number of processes that you go through to extract data from what you collect, and some companies do only portions of those phases. We do all that work internally. So we do the aerial capture, and all of the mapping work and data extraction work, in-house. That gives us a competitive advantage in terms of being able to get work done quickly and cost-effectively. It also enables us to have better control over quality, since it’s all done in- house and monitored, internally.”
Staying ahead of the technology curve is another way in which Kucera exhibits its leadership in the industry. For example, the company provides LiDAR services with its own Leica-manufactured, LiDAR system. “For the last ten years, at least, it’s been a very sought-after service,” Antalovich says. “It’s basically laser mapping – shooting a laser beam down from the plane that bounces off of the surface of the ground and other surfaces. A GPS unit is integrated with the sensor, so if you know your position, and you know the speed of light, and you can measure the time that it takes the laser beam to go down and come back, then you know the elevation of the ground that it rebounds off of.”
Of course, none of the new technologies that Kucera employs for the benefits of its customers’ particular needs come cheap. “The sensors that we use are very expensive,” Antalovich asserts. “They’re actually more expensive than the aircraft in many cases. They’re specially designed; they’re not your average digital camera that you would buy for personal use. They’re very large-format and they have very sophisticated GPS inertial measuring units that are integrated into them to capture all the data, digitally. So, a typical sensor system costs anywhere from $500,000 to $1.5 million.”
However, according to Antalovich, there are also some new technologies coming into play that are actually less expensive than their precedents and which may shake up the aerial imagery industry in, as yet, unforeseen ways: UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) and drones. “The impact that it’s going to have is unknown at this time,” he muses. “Some of the smaller type projects that we do, covering small sites, can be done, right now, with drones and UAVs. The bigger sites? There just aren’t big enough systems at this point that they could be done, cost-effectively. So, it remains to be seen as to whether there will be larger type systems that are unmanned. There are lots of issues that have yet to be sorted out, but that’s one big possible game changer in our field. And we’re going to be involved in that, just from the standpoint that we’ve done this type of work. So most of the companies that are in this field, including ours, have already either purchased or developed their own unmanned system, and everybody’s trying to figure out how they’re going to use them.”
In fact, the company already has had a couple of inquiries about using drones. Antalovich continues: “Some of them are customers of ours who said, ‘Can you do our project with an unmanned aircraft, and how is that going to benefit us?’ And in many cases, the answer at this point is ‘No,’ because they have very large areas. You couldn’t possibly – cost-effectively or time-effectively – take aerial images of an entire county with a small unmanned aircraft. That’s not going to work. But, there are other projects that we do and some of our customers have approached us about those where we’re just taking a photograph of a very small site. And those are ones where we’ve actually given people proposals to use an unmanned aircraft. One good example is site surveys, such as a plant site. Another one is for companies that have stockpiles of materials that they use for manufacturing. Many times they’re kept outside. If you take a photograph of those and you have stereo coverage, which is typically what we have, you can make a map of those and then compute the volume. That could be done from an unmanned aircraft.
“Right now, though, everyone is trying to determine if the quality will be commensurate with manned aircraft. Drones can go lower and get closer to objects, which then can be looked at from more angles than conventional fixed-wing aircraft or helicopters can. But there are other issues, such as vibration, and using a small format camera because of weight limitations, meaning you have to mosaic a lot of small pictures together. So, it’s just a brand-new area. In the coming years, it will be determined where it’s going to fit in. It’s definitely going to have its place but it remains to be seen whether it’s going to be a niche area or whether it’s going to take over a more significant part of our business. And there’s going to be a lot of other companies getting involved because the capital expenditure using a drone is not very high, so they’ll be a lot of start-ups that will offer that type of service.”
As Kucera navigates the future of the aerial imaging industry, Antalovich outlines some of the company’s long-term goals. One is to get more involved as a direct contractor for the federal government by increasing its size and sales volume. Because of the way federal contracts are awarded, medium-sized companies, such as Kucera, generally only get hired as part of a larger team. “So we’d like to get to the size and capability where we’d be able to be a prime contractor for a federal government contract,” Antalovich states.
“Another goal is to maintain the diversity of services and technology that we have because it’s made us more unique. We have six aircraft and six different kinds of sensors; most companies don’t have that many different kinds of sensors. And we’d even like to expand upon the different types of sensing technologies that we use. The market for some of these systems is still emerging, so we anticipate that there is going to be a demand for other types of aerial sense data and the processing that goes behind them to extract usable data. We’re also looking at some type of land-based geographic data collection systems – they call it mobile mapping, where you drive along and collect information from the top of a car or a van. And then you can integrate that with aerial data. And then there are certain types of indoor scanning systems that you can do to scan the inside of a facility. So you can go from the air above, all the way inside a facility without actually having to step into it.”
Kucera International is a company that was born of one man’s love of flying and then nurtured by leaders who had the vision to perceive, design, and ultimately provide the many commercial applications that its customers desire and need. “We’re involved in a unique business and we have unique capabilities within our business,” says Antalovich, summing up. “The data that we produce is useful in a variety of ways and we offer a variety of capabilities that are applicable to many different types of organizations. We have the ability to get to places fast and provide fast data turnaround. As far as being able to monitor something from the air, the faster you can produce usable data after you’ve done the acquisition, the better. And one of the trends in our field is ‘right from the air to the client.’ Everybody wants something yesterday; you fly over a site and you just turn the data set over to the client right there after it’s collected. We haven’t quite gotten to that point yet, but it’s getting very close.”
With its ongoing dedication to its mission of providing the highest level of customer service satisfaction, and as a recognized leader in the field of aerial imagery, there’s no doubt that Kucera International will be getting to that point much sooner than the rest of the flock.
AT A GLANCE
WHO: Kucera International, Inc.
WHAT: A full-service provider of aerial photography, remote sensing, and airborne and ground control surveying
WHERE: Headquarters in Willoughby, Ohio