In the summer of 2014, people in Jeddah’s historical Al Balad neighborhood caught a curious sight. Unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly known as drones, buzzed 50 meters above the old city, prowling over its densely-packed stone rooftops.
The drones weren’t monitoring Al Balad for defense-related purposes—what unmanned aerial vehicles are typically known for. FalconViz sent them out. The startup, which operates out of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), developed a new way to survey and map areas, using high-resolution cameras mounted on drones to collect data.
After UNESCO designated Al Balad a World Heritage Site, Jeddah’s Municipality commissioned FalconViz to survey the district’s 250,000 square meters. The startup then ran the pictures through proprietary imaging software, transforming them into highly detailed 3D maps, plans and models. Historians and city planners used the renderings as part of ongoing preservation efforts.
FalconViz’s drones—which are no larger than a hobbyist’s remote control plane—can scan a 5 square kilometer urban area in little more than one week. In rural settings, they can complete the task in a few days.
“If you surveyed an area like that [Al Balad] with a traditional survey team it could take months,” says Neil Smith, co-founder and CEO of FalconViz.
The drones may be eye-catching, but the software sets FalconViz apart. It allows the company to take the data gathered by drones and turn it into life-like 3D maps in a few hours.
“We’re the only company who can provide [an] end-to-end service solution when it comes from data capturing, all the way to visualizing the data,” says Anas Dahlawi, FalconViz’s 33-year-old general manager. “We know we’re ahead of the game.”
By miles. So far, FalconViz is the only commercial drone operator with a government license.
Last year, Saudi Arabia’s General Authority of Civil Aviation made it illegal to operate drones without a permit. It singled out drones equipped with high-resolution cameras as a security threat, in addition to being a safety hazard.
It took more than a year and a chunk of money for Dahlawi to get a license in early 2016; he won’t disclose the amount. FalconViz’s four drone operators had to pass a commercial pilot’s test under rules that are stricter than those of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.
Although it has that advantage, FalconViz doesn’t have the surveying market to itself. It faces an established industry, where oil and gas companies have long required such services.
Competitors include Arabian Geophysical & Surveying Co. and Saudi Comet Co. Large construction companies, such as Al Jaber Group, also employ their own surveyors.
A traditional survey team working on the ground—using tripod mounted theodolites, levels, surveying poles and GPS—will methodically measure distances and angles between points by using triangulation. “This is a very time consuming process, requiring very skilled surveyors,” says Smith.
Satellites, airplanes, and helicopters can perform surveys, but aren’t always suitable for high resolution scans of smaller areas, like Al Balad. The surveys are not detailed enough. FalconViz’s technology provides resolution on a granular level—as high as half a centimeter.
Its software recognizes changes in camera positions between each image, and much like a traditional surveyor, uses that to triangulate the position of objects and points as they shift slightly from image to image.
The drones range from a spindly six-rotor copter designed for precision scanning, to an imposing fixed-wing drone that resembles a bat, and is used for long range flights.
FalconViz provides services for a variety of purposes, including monitoring construction sites, performing mining assessments, and urban planning. To date, it has completed 30 projects for 18 clients, such as Saudi Aramco, Aecom, and Dow Chemical Company. Saudi Binladin Group, which is expanding the area around Makkah’s Holy Mosque, recently signed a contract.
Its fees vary, but a survey covering a 5-kilometer urban area costs between $200,000 and $500,000, depending on the complexity of the project. When Jeddah’s Municipality enlisted FalconViz, a member told Smith it had recently spent $3.2 million on a land survey.
So far, he and Dahlawi have raised a total of $1.1 million from Saudi Aramco’s Wa’ed, which provides funding for entrepreneurs, and KAUST. They’ve amassed a fleet of eight drones and built a team of 18 employees.
It all started with one tiny drone and an impromptu experiment.
Neil Smith, a 38-year-old American anthropologist, arrived at KAUST in 2013 to conduct research at the university’s Visual Computing Center. He was drawn to KAUST, because Saudi Arabia, like the rest of the Middle East, features a wealth of historical sites in need of preservation, and he wanted to apply computational sciences, such as 3D reconstruction, to archaeology.
At KAUST, Smith kept hearing about Luca Passone, a PhD candidate in earth sciences. Passone, 31, was experimenting with drones, building them from scratch by importing the frames, motor components, batteries, remote control transmitters and receivers, and adding cameras. A fellow researcher suggested Smith could perhaps use Passone’s drones for his imaging work.
Smith and Passone hit it off, and decided to test whether the drones could capture the data Smith needed to create accurate 3D models and maps.
Passone went to the campus mosque one morning in late 2013. Standing on the lawn under the minaret, he directed the drone over the tower, its cameras trained downwards. He then sent the images to Smith, who processed them using modeling software he developed. “Within a couple of hours we had the entire mosque captured in 3D,” says Smith. “We were blown away.”
They invited Mohamed Shalaby, a 48-year-old mathematician at the Visual Computing Center, to help them with geometric modeling.
In early 2014, a group of KAUST industry partners touring the campus stopped to view a demo of FalconViz’s technology. Afterwards, a representative from Jeddah’s Municipality invited the trio over; the meeting landed them the Al Balad contract. “I think that’s when we first realized that this could be used heavily for commercial applications,” says Smith.
He and his partners used a $205,000 grant from KAUST to build a new drone and fine-tune their software, but they needed business help. “We come from scientific backgrounds,” says Shalaby.
They turned to Dahlawi, a frequent visitor at the Visual Computing Center. He agreed to temporarily manage the business. Dahlawi has a master’s degree in project management from George Washington University School of Business, and is a founder of a sports marketing company.
He knew how to navigate the Saudi business world—at least more than three foreign academics. Six months later, Smith and his partners asked Dahlawi to stay full-time. “We grafted him into the founders,” says Smith. Dahlawi was responsible for obtaining the drone license, allowing FalconViz to continue operations in Saudi Arabia.
From there the startup took flight. The Al Balad project led to another contract from the Jeddah Municipality to map out a seaside boulevard in 2015. FalconViz also scored a contract with Makkah’s Municipality.
For many of its clients, such as Saudi Aramco, it has to submit to confidentiality agreements, but other projects are innocent enough. In 2015, FalconViz partnered with the American University of Beirut to survey the iconic Pigeon Rocks, a natural stone arch formation rising from the Mediterranean just off the city’s corniche. The university used the data as part of a virtual reality experiment.
But, FalconViz doesn’t have immediate plans to spread beyond Saudi Arabia. Most countries in the region have either strict or ambiguous regulations around drones. “Here, we can prove the technology that we’re creating really is transformational,” says Smith.