At last week’s InterDrone show in Las Vegas, senseFly unveiled its latest solution, the eBee X. Waypoint caught up with the company’s fixed-wing drone lead, Francois Gervaix, to learn more about this release, including what makes this mapping UAV such an efficient beast, the thinking behind the platform’s new sensor portfolio and much more.
Hi Francois and thank you for sitting down with us today. You must be very busy with the rollout of the eBee X, so let’s jump right in. What are some key features that set the eBee X apart from other fixed-wing mapping drones?
Hello! The eBee X is the latest release in senseFly’s long tradition of mapping drones. With the eBee X, we wanted to set a new standard in mapping tools and redefine what a drone can do, so we designed it to meet all the user’s mapping needs and to boost the quality, efficiency and safety of their data collection.
With the eBee X, we have numbers that are really impressive—a flight time of up to 90 minutes and ground coverage of up to 500 hectares or 1,200 acres
So, whether you’re a cartographer, surveyor, geologist, architect, urban planner or city engineer, the eBee X has a camera to suit every job and can work virtually any job site.
You mentioned efficiency just now. Can you expand on that? What makes the eBee X efficient?
Of course. We’ve added the latest technology in terms of batteries, the motor and aerodynamic design, to make the eBee X even more efficient than previous eBee models.
In my experience, there are usually two numbers that people like to hear related to efficiency: how long [the UAV] can fly and how much ground it can cover. With the eBee X, we have numbers that are really impressive—a flight time of up to 90 minutes and ground coverage of up to 500 hectares or 1,200 acres.
It’s important to mention, too, that a drone is not a mapping drone out of the box. To make it a mapping drone, you really need a good payload.
Yes, speaking of that, can you tell us more about the eBee X’s new payloads? We understand there are multiple camera options available?
That’s correct. The eBee X is available with three new cameras. They’re the senseFly Aeria X, senseFly S.O.D.A. 3D and the senseFly Duet T. That’s in addition to the eBee X’s compatibility with our existing senseFly S.O.D.A., senseFly Corridor and Parrot Sequoia+ cameras.
Can you tell us more about these options? Why are there so many? What was the thinking behind that decision?
What we learned with the previous generation of drones is that it was really beneficial to offer payloads for different applications. The standard senseFly S.O.D.A. camera is fantastic; it’s a one-inch camera with 20-megapixel RGB, mechanical shutter and is very robust. Of course, we love it and so do our customers, but we wanted to keep improving. So, we said, “Okay, we want higher resolution, more pixels and a bigger sensor,” and that’s why the senseFly Aeria X was designed.
…whether you’re a cartographer, surveyor, geologist, architect, urban planner or city engineer, the eBee X has a camera to suit every job and can work well in virtually any job site.
The senseFly Aeria X is an APS-C sensor, which means its sensor is almost three times the size of the senseFly S.O.D.A. camera – and it’s a 24-megapixel camera! That means that in any conditions—cloudy, windy, sunny or rather dark—the camera will deliver super-sharp images and a high level of detail.
The next new camera is the senseFly S.O.D.A. 3D. We got a lot of feedback from users who loved the standard senseFly S.O.D.A. camera but ideally they were also looking to capture oblique images from their fixed-wing drones. So, we designed the senseFly S.O.D.A. 3D, which can roll left and right during flight to take three shots with each capture – 1 nadir or top-down and two oblique. As its name indicates, this camera is therefore great for 3D mapping applications, such as urban areas where you need to map facades, where you need all the details of the buildings, not only the rooftops. For the same reason though, the S.O.D.A. 3D is also great for surface mapping, or so-called horizontal mapping. Because of its three-shot approach, it has a much wider field of view than normal, and thus requires fewer flight lines. That’s where the eBee X’s top coverage figure of 500 hectares comes from, using this camera over flat terrain (in optimal conditions of course).
And finally, the Duet T, which is a brand-new thermal camera rig that pairs a thermal sensor with the standard senseFly S.O.D.A. camera. It’s a fantastic tool that gives you the high geometric resolution of senseFly S.O.D.A. and the high thermal resolution of a state-of-the-art thermal camera. And these two resolutions are perfectly aligned thanks to the rigid link between the two sensors, meaning you can easily create high-resolution, geo-accurate thermal maps.
At their very core, What would you say each camera is best suited for?
Aeria X is great for when high resolution is needed and/or in difficult conditions because it has a higher sensitivity than any other camera, the exposure parameter will be more flexible and will adjust to any light conditions for a bigger, more detailed image. So, where image quality in difficult conditions is needed, you’ll want to use the Aeria X.
… if you can use the same drone for many different applications like you can with the eBee X, then we believe that makes everything more efficient for the user
For senseFly S.O.D.A. 3D, I would say it’s best suited every time oblique images are needed in any pure 3D environment. Maybe that’s because there are many buildings around or your job site is a quarry or mine with stepped sides, or there are power lines, trees, landslide, rock face. Basically, any condition where oblique images are required.
And finally Duet T is best suited for thermal applications related to solar panels, detection of hot spots and so on.
What are the main benefits of having such a wide array of camera options available?
It makes the eBee X so versatile, it can operate in many different environments, for different types of mapping project. If you take a surveying office, for example, that does work for both the mining industry in remote areas and 3D modelling in urban areas, they could use the same eBee X to tackle multiple jobs. All they would need to do is equip it with a different payload.
We strongly believe in using the right payload for the right application, but if you can use the same drone for many different applications like you can with the eBee X, then we believe that makes everything more efficient for the user. And at the end of the day, that’s what we’re trying to do – make the end user’s job easier.
In your opinion, Francois, what industry is the eBee X best suited to and why?
Industries or situations where you need large coverage, where you need high geometric resolution and accuracy, or where you need to fly the same missions again and again, as so-called temporal resolution is becoming another very important criteria in the industry. This could be the monitoring of something like a large construction site where things change daily and you need a timely overview of that change. And this is where temporal resolution comes in because you need a drone that can repeat the same mission day-in/day-out, and produce the same results, the same high quality, very quickly. So, for someone like a civil engineer, the eBee X is ideal.
Then you have all the applications where your geodata must be accurate. The eBee X would be ideal for geologists looking after landslides, for example, or for a surveyor working in the aftermath of a natural disaster, or an urban planner who has to know the exact volume of all the buildings and all the features of the landscape.
I don’t want to forget agriculture though. The eBee X is really well suited to this industry too. All you need to do is swap the payload to a Parrot Sequoia+ and the drone is fully capable of flying crop scouting missions. Or use its senseFly Aeria X for terrain mapping and plan out your irrigation program. The same fixed-wing drone, when it’s well designed like the eBee X, can be used in multiple situations with different payloads.
When it comes to mapping, what makes the eBee X so accurate?
The big thing over the last two years has been the need for precise GNSS; acquiring nice pictures at the right location with all the right settings in terms of sharpness, high resolution and so on. This is something that we often take for granted. But what you need to have in addition is an accurate geolocation for your images and then your end products. Then your orthomosaic, your point cloud and your mesh will be geometrically accurate as well.
Two years ago, we introduced precise GNSS—so with real-time kinematic, RTK, and post-processed kinematic, PPK—and it was very successful. After our experience with that drone, the eBee RTK, we knew it was an important step forward and it proved very successful, so it’s now a standard option with every eBee X.
It’s not only hardware though – our eMotion flight planning software has been improved to help the user get the best accuracy, not only in ideal conditions but in virtually any conditions and in any configuration. For example, if using your own base station, or our senseFly GeoBase, or other virtual reference stations.
Let’s stick with software a second. You mentioned the drone’s flight control software, eMotion. Which version is this now up to and, equally importantly, how does the eBee X integrate with a user’s existing industry software?
The eBee X comes supplied as standard with eMotion 3.7, the latest version of our excellent flight planning software. eMotion is great because it makes flying and operating the drone simple. It collects feedback from the drone and will autonomously guide the drone during flight with only optional or minimal interaction from the user required.
It’s not only hardware – our eMotion flight planning software has been improved to help the user get the best accuracy, not only in ideal conditions but in virtually any condition and in any configuration.
eMotion 3 then connects after the flight with different industry standard software, such as Pix4D, Agisoft and Trimble Business Center. Once you complete your mission, the Flight Data Manager inside eMotion will help you to easily combine all the data, the accurately geotagged images and that invaluable meta-data, and prepare a project—or the block, as we call it—to be processed. From there you just import that into one of the processing platforms I mentioned.
The eBee X is being billed as both rugged and reliable. What makes it so suited to use in harsh environments?
It has been thoroughly tested, and I can tell you, the last few months, we’ve travelled the world with this drone! It has been tested in many conditions—in the snow (as high as 4,000 meters in the Alps), in dusty environments like mines and deserts, in hot environments like the Middle East, in wet environments, in windy environments…
High/low, hot/cold, dry/wet, the drone has been tested in all these situations and that was just to validate the design. This design was based on all the experience that we had; almost 10 years of experience since our creation back in 2009.
If only you could control the weather and make conditions ideal every time you fly!
Exactly, and let’s be honest, a drone that flies only when the weather is fine and sunny isn’t very useful. We do a lot of flying and testing and we rarely have ideal conditions! Reality really is quite different. It can be cold, it can be hot, it can be wet, and the same drone must be able to work in these conditions, and we’re proud that we’ve gone to such great lengths to test the eBee X in many conditions and that it still operates very well.
The eBee X has what’s described as an Endurance Extension feature. Can you tell us more about that? What does it do and why is it important to have?
Yeah, this is something new as well. As I mentioned, the eBee X can serve all types of applications, but some applications require more endurance, and when we say more endurance, that means an hour or more of flight time. It’s something that was impossible a few years ago and now it’s possible thanks to the new battery and motor technology.
There are some legal considerations to operate a flight for longer than one hour, but the eBee X has the capability. With the right battery and the right software, or the right version, it can fly up to 1.5 hours. For example, when you need to map extremely long corridors that are beyond visual line of site (BVLOS)—outside of 0.6 miles—which is more or less the limit of the human vision.
With its Steep Landing technology, the eBee X gets to the ground very quickly. You no longer need a large area to glide down, and it’s very accurate, so much so that you can land in very small areas…
In that situation, you want a drone that has the capability, that has the endurance, that has the autonomy, to go much further than that. With the eBee X’s endurance extension, you have this excellent efficiency. You don’t have to fly back to swap batteries; you can stay in the air roughly 50 percent longer than you have done previously. This makes the same drone, the same payload, 50 percent more efficient.
The eBee X also has something called Steep Landing technology, which sounds fairly self-explanatory…
Yes! So again, when we talk about ease of use, or comfort, or efficiency, this steep landing technology makes the life of the user better and safer. The next time you are in an airplane landing at any big airport and you have this long preparation to land and slowly descend, I want you to think about the steep landing technology of the eBee X because instead of needing a large area to land, it does a controlled drop.
I’ve been checking, editing, exploiting images from a nadir point of view for 20 years and this really changes things
It just gets to the ground very quickly. You no longer need a large area to glide down in, and this landing is also very accurate, so much so that you can land in very small areas, something like 10 meters by 10 meters, so around 30 by 30 feet.
One last question. There is so much packed into this fixed-wing drone, do you have a favourite feature on the eBee X?
Tough, tough question! I would say the senseFly S.O.D.A. 3D for its oblique images. They give you a new perspective of the landscape. I’ve been in the photogrammetry business for 20 years this year—I’ve been checking, editing, exploiting images from a nadir point of view for 20 years—and this really changes things with its new point of view.
Thank you so much for sitting down with us today, Francois.
You are very welcome!