When it comes to working, and thriving, in hot desert environments, Philip Angell of Dubai-based VPS has more experience than most. We caught up with Philip between projects to learn how he went from being a UK-educated hydrographic surveyor working in the oil and gas industry to a pioneer of the Middle East drone scene.
Hello Phil. Could you tell us a little about your personal journey into the world of drones? When, how and why did you first start thinking about, and then using, this technology?
I have been a surveyor since 1995, having studied classical surveying, hydrography and marine navigation at the Institute of Marine Studies, at Plymouth University in the UK. I’ve worked worldwide, mainly as a consultant in the offshore geophysical industry for a number of international oil companies. With the recent oil price crash however, I needed to look at alternatives.
Coming from a hydrographic survey background, maps and charts have always interested me
Coming from a hydrographic survey background, maps and charts have always interested me. So, when I discovered that drones could produce accurate and visually appealing deliverables, I decided to start offering UAV survey products here in the UAE. It later transpired that most of the clients I spoke to were more interested in purchasing drones as a service, rather than buying the drone hardware themselves. And so my new business was born, albeit in some challenging environments!
Operating UAVs in the UAE is not for the feint hearted. There are a number of regulatory approvals required and with each Emirate having its own local CiviI Aviation Authority, under the Federal regulator, it can be quite a challenge at times. Not one to be discouraged though, I decided to obtain all of the operating permits, insurance and certification required, after which VPS received its Unmanned Operator Certificate from the UAE’s GCAA in late 2016, after new UAV regulations had been announced. We currently operate in all of the seven Emirates and work on some very interesting projects for high-profile international engineering, survey and consulting firms. We are very grateful to the UAE Government and various Civil Aviation Authorities for allowing us to carry out our work in the UAE.
Operating UAVs in the UAE is not for the feint hearted.
Most of our work is on mapping and survey projects using senseFly’s eBee range of fixed-wing drones, but we have also been asked to carry out some conventional static photography using our DJI Matrice 600 Pro. However, we are finding that “reality capture”—combining aerial data with terrestrial-based data (photos, laser scanning etc.)—is becoming more sought after, especially with the huge infrastructure design and development projects found here in the UAE.
Explore one of VPS’ most impressive projects: a 3D survey of a mountain in Ras Al Khaimah, UAE
2. Tell us about one of your favourite or most challenging drone projects Phil. What and where was this? What made it stand out? What did you learn?
Whilst all of our projects are unique and equally interesting, the largest area we have surveyed was 40 square kilometres in Abu Dhabi. The project resulted in 20,000 images, which produced two terabytes of data!
We conducted this survey in August, where temperatures here approached 50 degrees Celsius, and the humidity was nearly 100%
We conducted this survey in August, where temperatures here approached 50 degrees Celsius, with humidity at nearly 100%. Our operating hours were therefore from 06:00 to 10:30, before the temperatures became intolerable for both humans and machines. We completed this eBee RTK project in four days, flying 85 flights, with just a small remedial infill to image on day five.
What did we learn from that project? The need for lots of planning, scouting, mission simulating and plenty of water!
3. What impact would you say drone technology has had on your working life?
Drone technology has allowed me to develop a business that produces products—deliverables—that allow people to work more efficiently. If I can help someone to do their job better, then that’s a real bonus. The analogy I use is going from black and white TV—meaning conventional point and line survey data—to full HD with a remote control, in the form of DTMs, orthophotos etc.
Explore VPS’ 3D model of a cement factory project, produced using Pix4Dmapper Pro, following four half-hour eBee RTK drone flights:
4. What kind of role do you see drone technology playing in the future for companies such as yours? Can you imagine what your working life might look like several years down the line?
Automation. Following the launch of our new website, we are working on a drone planning portal that will allow clients to plan their surveys through our site, facilitate the required regulatory flight permits for each mission, and we will then dispatch an operator to the site and fly the mission, with all the client’s data being processed, delivered and available for client approval automatically.
I like to deliver the data in person and to see the client start thinking about their project whilst looking at the results. That’s always a special moment.
Of course, as with any form of automation, you will always need a qualified and experienced human to oversee the process. I like to deliver the data in person and to see the client start thinking about their project whilst looking at the results. That’s always a special moment.
5. If you could give three tips to a budding dronepreneur of the future, what would they be?
1. Understand that the client is mostly interested in the data, not how it was acquired. Make sure you have a good understanding of what the client intends to use the data for and how they will utilise it within their existing workflows. And be prepared for many questions!
2. Set yourself realistic goals—it takes time for clients to adopt new technologies and much larger datasets. Remember this is a learning curve for everyone!
3. Define some unique selling points that set you apart from the competition, and make sure you choose a tried and tested drone! Reliability and repeatability are two of the most important features of UAVs.
Some great insights Phil, thanks for your time.
You’re very welcome!
Industries served: survey, mining, inspection, reality capture, real estate
Drones: eBee Plus, DJI Matrice 600 Pro, DJI Mavic, DJI Inspire, DJI Phantom
Software: eMotion 3, DJI Go, Pix4Dmapper Pro, Global Mapper, Adobe Lightroom
Avg. flights per month: 6
Lifetime flight hours:300+