Managing Editor Stewart Walker met with Phoenix LiDAR in their Los Angeles office, profiling a young company that leads the market in the integration of LiDAR sensors with UAVs:
Amidst the excitement of UAVs and their rapid development as a disruptive technology in our geospatial world, LIDAR Magazine is pleased to take a closer look at a team driving such innovation. Phoenix LiDAR Systems, the first to offer commercial UAV LiDAR, hails from the Palms neighborhood in Los Angeles. Located just a stone’s throw from big names such as Sony Pictures, NPR, and the NFL, Phoenix’s roots indeed echo the entertainment ideals of its neighbors: CEO Grayson Omans started his UAV flying days hovering cameras over actors on film sets, and as UAV and LiDAR technology became more affordable for commercial use, he saw an opportunity and shifted his UAV payload from imagery to lasers.
The move from aerial filming to aerial mapping was a daunting task, the first requirement being reliable control and tracking of the UAV. Enter Dr. Benjamin Adler, co-founder and researcher who wrote his Ph.D. thesis on autonomous UAV mapping. Working with a lot of fishing wire, Grayson and Ben developed a reliable method of controlling the UAV without risk of it flying away with their equipment. They then sought to borrow $52,000 of LiDAR equipment from none other than Velodyne LiDAR, a big request coming from a tech startup comprised of two people. To its credit, Velodyne agreed, sending Dr. Wolfgang Juchmann to Southern California to witness the test flight. A week after his wedding, and to his young wife’s eternal chagrin, Grayson postponed his honeymoon and worked with Ben to prototype what would become the industry’s first commercial UAV LiDAR system–needless to say, it featured a Velodyne sensor. Business ensued and the rest is history. Grayson’s candor and humor on this topic characterized our discussions and the insights into the UAV LiDAR world that emerged.
I spent several hours with Grayson, learning the Phoenix story first hand from him and his sales and marketing directors, Eric Agnello and Vu Nguyen. Grayson has a business degree from Cornell, though his father was a mechanical engineer, and the yen to take things apart and reassemble them rubbed off. Grayson began to build UAVs as a hobby and developed experience that would later inform his business decisions, including the opportunity created by combining an aircraft with sensors and software. He and Ben, who built their software development team in Hamburg, Germany, concluded that UAV autonomy is the holy grail for their fledgling industry, and proceeded accordingly. Combining autonomous UAVs with mapping necessities such as LiDAR sensors, high-definition cameras for photogrammetry, and a host of other equipment, appeared to Grayson as a powerful business case.
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