ArcGIS Image for ArcGIS Online allows us to do what we are better at doing, which is the analysis and applying the science and the expertise that we have. We don't have to be full-stack developers or DevOps teams. We can outsource that to Esri and just do what we're doing with the application.
Startup Geospatial Technology Firm Employs Imagery Streaming and Hosting Solution for Land-Use Monitoring, Detection
Skytec LLC, a geospatial and remote sensing firm
Skytec needed a new cloud-based solution to host and share imagery which allows the company to go to market with products faster.
ArcGIS Image for ArcGIS Online
The use of ArcGIS Image for ArcGIS Online enables the company to go to market quickly with more seamless onboarding and streamlines processes, including automating and speeding up the derivative product process.
Conservation is the care and protection of Earth's natural resources, such as land, water, and wildlife, to preserve them for generations to come. Skytec, a Chattanooga, Tennessee-based geospatial and remote sensing startup, focuses on the use of unmanned aerial systems (UAS), remote sensing, and geographic information system (GIS) technologies to promote land conservation. With an eye toward sustainability of natural resources, Skytec developed the Ranger application in 2019 to "monitor what matters."
With the app, Skytec can identify if a high-priority area is significantly changing (such as shrinking or disappearing). Drones and near-daily satellite imagery from Planet Labs are used to remotely monitor a subscriber's property. Clients include land trust groups that maintain natural resources, forest agriculture, and pulp and paper industries. The Ranger application, built with Esri's ArcGIS Web AppBuilder, is optimized for desktop and tablet use and is already monitoring more than 500,000 acres across the country.
"As we become more wired, more connected, [and with] more people on the planet, things are changing fast, and rather than being reactive all the time, we can catch things early," says Andy Carroll, chief technology officer at Skytec. "We can detect and protect natural resources in a much better way using [imagery and GIS]."
To better manage and store imagery, Skytec wanted a new cloud-based solution that was simple to deploy and able to scale to meet the growing demands of clients. Being a small team of environmental scientists, the last thing they wanted was to worry about standing up infrastructure to host and share imagery. To solve this need, they began using ArcGIS Image for ArcGIS Online, a software as a service (SaaS) product that has helped them improve change detection analyses, provide custom client deliverables, and streamline processes.
The previous method of imagery management and analysis involved numerous steps for the Skytec team members. First, they would mosaic the individual tiles downloaded from Planet Labs' satellites within ArcGIS Pro, a desktop GIS application. They then created a tile package from the imagery and uploaded it to create a tiled service. The overall process was lengthy and time-consuming.
The small startup company also had limited resources to be able to process imagery. Satellite imagery was collected to perform change detection, after which different types of models, indexes, and scripts were produced, primarily on a desktop. Carroll notes that they did not have a big enterprise server or cloud resources available to help with storage and processing, so they needed a solution that would help them better manage assets.
"We tried to deploy our own cloud. We're not DevOps [software development and IT operations] people; we're environmental scientists. So we tried to stand up a cloud and go through all the security, certificates, and SSL and TSL," says Carroll. "And basically, we spent about three months pulling that together and realized that we [needed] to reach out and have someone manage the cloud for us."
Skytec also wanted a solution with the ability to scale and allow the company to go to market with products faster. Carroll says the team members realized that they would have to invest in a full-blown enterprise and manage it or search for a tool to do it for them. Frank Martin, an Esri partner manager in global business development operations and enablement, suggested an emerging Esri product: ArcGIS Image for ArcGIS Online.
ArcGIS Image Online is a SaaS offering for hosting, analyzing, and streaming imagery and raster collections. The team opted to use the extension to process and securely store the imagery, powering the Ranger app in ArcGIS Online. Carroll says ArcGIS Image Online was a good solution for them because it could handle the volume that subscribers would need "right out of the gate."
Also, Carroll says that while Skytec is working toward a full ArcGIS Enterprise deployment, which is a traditional image server that would provide similar functionality, the company could begin serving clients immediately with this solution.
"[ArcGIS Image Online] allowed us to continue to move towards this path where we have the option to deploy our own image server if we want to but, again, start servicing and fulfilling the needs of clients today," says Carroll.
The Skytec team members began by testing their raster data in ArcGIS Image Online over several weeks. The solution allowed them to test "freely or affordably" without the high costs of their existing cloud computing service, says Andrew Mindermann, senior data analyst.
On-the-fly image processing algorithms, also known as raster functions, were leveraged to create custom raster chains to visualize change. This enabled Mindermann to serve out meaningful representations of change over any given area at any given time, which is key to what Skytec clients were looking for.
"I was like, 'Wow, this is exactly what we need for highlighting change detection and what we're trying to do with this application,'" says Carroll. "Within a matter of five to six weeks after we signed up, it was ready and running live."
The setup of ArcGIS Image Online was very straightforward, according to Mindermann. He notes that a few times, the team consulted help documents for sharing imagery and details on settings but says overall it was very intuitive because of his familiarity with ArcGIS Online.
Customers have the option of monthly or quarterly monitoring or a custom interval. The new method to manage and process this imagery involves receiving image quads from Planet Labs as tiled GeoTIFFs. These multispectral images are subsequently uploaded as imagery layers to ArcGIS Online for visualization and analysis.
The upload process empowered Skytec to automatically create a single tiled imagery layer that was ready for clients to visualize and the Skytec team to analyze. Users could go into the application, zoom in on the imagery layer, and see current or previous images throughout the lifetime of their subscription.
Skytec created and served out both tiled and dynamic imagery layers. Tiled imagery layers were fast to create, while dynamic imagery layers enabled on-the-fly processing using multiple processing templates, all within the Ranger app.
"It's neat that a single layer can be used in production and to generate derivative products at the same time. You can't do that with a tile service," says Carroll.
Skytec has been using ArcGIS Image Online for less than a year and has already seen an array of benefits, including enabling the company to go to market quickly because of a seamless onboarding experience. Onboarding people, from clients to data analysts, is simpler because ArcGIS Image Online is user-friendly and easy to learn. "It takes less time out of the day to get people up to speed internally and externally," says Mindermann. "So that's been a huge time-saver."
ArcGIS Image Online has streamlined overall processes, including automating and speeding up the derivative product process.
"The on-the-fly processing capabilities available in ArcGIS allow us to avoid redundant storage," says Mindermann. "We're streamlining it and really making the most out of all the products that we generate. We're trying to reduce any type of doubled effort or unnecessary storage, not only for us but [also] for our clients. And it benefits the performance as well."
ArcGIS Image Online has significantly improved change detection for clients. Skytec onboarded a new client who immediately viewed two potential violations of conservation easements (boundary encroachments and harvesting), which was all done in a one-hour phone call.
"Those are the experiences we are beginning to have with all our clients," says Carroll. "We're detecting things on the landscape that [may have gone] undetected and saving people from driving out to a site in person. That's been pretty rewarding."
Now, as soon as an image is moved over, it takes 15 minutes for the team to have another product. Once products from Planet Labs are uploaded to ArcGIS Image Online, visualization models are done within the cloud and can be chained together and automated, saving time, explains Carroll.
"So it's just, really, those efficiency gains [with ArcGIS Image Online]. You're taking something that might be a six- to seven-step process and getting it down to two steps, like upload and run raster function," says Carroll. "And it's in an environment that's not going to tax your system. So hopefully, our desktops will last longer now."
Skytec can also provide its clients with deliverables much faster. According to Carroll, after they get an e-mail notification with a client product request, the team members order the satellite imagery and ArcGIS Image Online gives them a "24-hour delivery, next-day kind of capability." For example, a recent request saw Skytec uploading imagery for a client into the application within 24–48 hours after tasking a satellite.
"The ability to upload 50-centimeter and 4-meter-resolution imagery, and it's the same process and performance; there's no difference within the application [is great]," says Carroll. "And if you were to do that in a desktop environment, it would take much longer. I think it helps with the overall experience that the users have with our app."
Mindermann adds, "Being able to act quickly is key to detecting change at this level. It's knocking out a lot of time, increasing efficiency, and there's less hand on the mouse and monitoring [of] a computer."
Carroll enjoys the ability to customize with ArcGIS Image Online. For example, if the Skytec team members need to change indices they're using, it can be done directly in the browser instead of creating and uploading functions using a stand-alone desktop. The security and reliability of ArcGIS Image Online have allowed the Skytec team to focus on the science as opposed to the infrastructure. Previously, a computer could be tied down performing processing; ArcGIS Image Online offloads that and lets the team continue to work while the processing is running in the cloud and not on a local computer.
"I don't have to worry about the back end, the database, the structure, the security of the servers—all of that," says Carroll. "So it's a neat product on that end."
Carroll explains that the model they've selected is to deliver their product through ArcGIS Online. They essentially open a gateway between two different ArcGIS Online organizations, and it's secured by the user, who can easily control who gets access to the data with built-in security features.
Mindermann describes ArcGIS Image Online as a comprehensive solution that has been a game changer because Skytec now has the same capabilities as larger organizations.
"[ArcGIS Image Online] gives us the ability to compete with what typically might be a whole team of data scientists that are handing off different components of models or multiday processing," says Carroll. "It brings enhanced value to the cloud as a SaaS offering."