What’s it take to build a successful UAS remote sensing business?

TerraCam

Rolf Schlub, founder of TerraCam, based in Johanesburg, South Africa talks about the remote sensing business. TerraCam was founded in 2011 by Rolf W. Schlub to satisfy the growing trend of remote sensing in industries such as mining, land surveying, construction, urban development, security and agriculture. Using unmanned aerial platforms, TerraCam gathers image and video data that can then be processed into actionable information. As the director of TerraCam, Rolf manages the strategy and direction of the company while maintaining close collaborations with the R&D department. In this episode of the Drone Radio Show, Rolf talks about the company, its services and the challenges and opportunities of creating a remote sensing operation in the drone industry.

In This Episode

  • Introduction to Rolf Schlub. The word TerraCam is a combination of the words ‘terrain’ and ‘camera’ which forms a foundation of the work the company does. TerraCam operates throughout the non-conflict countries in Africa, offering primarily aerial surveying, multispectral mapping and integration services for enterprise organizations.
  • Remote Sensing. Rolf describes remote sensing as the science of obtaining information about objects from a distance. This is typically done through a aircraft, satellites or drones. Sensors are used to collect data and can be either passive or active. Mining and Agriculture are the major applications served by TerraCam. Of the two, agriculture is provides the greatest demand for remote sensing services. Remote sensing in Africa has been fueled by the fact that many countries do not have any regulations governing beyond visual line of sight flying.
  • The Drone Industry in Africa. Rolf talks about the challenges and the opportunities of flying drones in different countries in Africa. South Africa has some of the strictest drone regulations. In surrounding countries, the industry is still evolving, with little regulations in place. This gives TerraCam opportunities to serve clients. Rolf sees positive growth in the drone industry in Africa. The industry is evolving providing many opportunities. Drone operators need to be mindful of the different rules across borders in Africa and the direction and impact of potential regulations.
  • Challenges and Opportunities. TerraCam benefitted by being the first mover in the drone industry, and that gave them opportunities to establish themselves in the industry. The adoption rate for drones in many African countries is still quite low, which Rolf sees as an opportunity for TerraCam to make significant gains in the future. Being the first mover in a new industry also has its challenges, as TerraCam has had to deal with changing government regulations and fluctuations in service demands.
  • Product Development. TerraCam invests time and effort working with industry experts to develop products. Using the agricultural industry as an example, Rolf describes how TerraCam coordinates with agricultural research firms to tailor software, sensors and mission planning to deliver targeted solutions for their agricultural clients.
  • Business Operations. The first time you enter a new country, that’s when you start learning what regulations are and how the business will be regulated. Over the years, TerraCam has gained an understanding of how the countries work. Whereas several years ago, there were several barriers in entering certain countries, today, TerraCam teams are able to move through airports in as little as 15 minutes. TerraCam is based in Johannesburg and sends teams to countries for the engagements. The project manager needs to be well versed of the regulations and procedures of the respective country they are doing the remote sensing.
    Hardware and Software. TerraCam uses the 2 SenseFly Swingjet EB drones, a host of multi rotors from DJI and Parrot and Pix4D mapping software.
  • More About Rolf. Rolf was born and raised in South Africa and worked with Aersud and SenseFly prior to forming TerraCam. He has worked on the Airbus A400M, Airbus A350XWB and the SenseFly Swingjet. He has always wanted to run his own company, so in 2011 he returned to Johannesburg to start TerraCam. He built the business by personally calling on mine survey companies, land survey companies and anyone that benefit from remote sensing services. It’s been a lot of work, but today, Rolf is enjoying being an entrepreneur and reaping the rewards of the past 6 years.
  • Lessons Learned. Rolf suggests that entrepreneurs should become quite knowledgeable of the drone industry, do a lot of market research and base their business decisions on facts. A lot of empty promises can lead to destroyed business. Keep overheads low even through the hard times can ensure a prosperous company in the long run. Rolf believes that regulations in South Africa will be relaxed over time and the drones are also going to get more and more sophisticated. UAVs will have better detect and avoid systems with ADS-B transponders to further integration into in a manned air space. These systems will allow broader use of drones, but they’ll also increase the barrier of entry into the industry.
  • Future Plans. Rolf hopes to explore and expand into more African countries, develop more integration work, especially into the mining industry. Rolf’s ultimate objective to deliver a professional service, quality products and keep their innovation stream going to serve customer needs.

Mentioned Links

TerraCam remote sensing image of a construction site