Tulsa-based Aerial Data Service prides itself on riding the cutting edge of technology.
ADS is the state’s largest full-service aerial photography and photogrammetric mapping company. ADS is headquartered at 8301 E. 51st St., Ste. 100, and has a production office in Austin.
ADS extracts geospatial data from photographs taken in flight and converts the data into maps. Think surveying – from 25,000 feet. Aerial Data superimposes maps onto the original photographs to render a product known as an orthophoto.
No, an orthophoto is not a scary image from your kids’ orthodontist. The curvatures of both the earth’s surface and camera lens distort objects in aerial photographs. Most notable are images of high-rise buildings and towers – camera lenses and the curve of the earth’s surface make these objects appear to lean.
Rather than settling for a photograph in which a building looks like a Pisa impersonator, an orthophoto moves the top of a building directly above it’s base while making it the same size as its base in the image. Individual orthophotos may then be stitched together to make a mosaic orthophoto. A digital map can then be superimposed over the orthophoto to make analyses easier and more accurate.
Though many companies provide these services, Carter said quality is of the essence. ADS promises accuracy in the digital mapping and photogrammetry, which is the science of the accurate measurement of objects by recording, measuring, and interpreting energy patterns, images, etc.
“We’re the only ones in the state who do what we do,” said Jean Carter, president of Aerial Data.
Orthophotos are Aerial Data’s bread and butter, with more than 80 percent of their projects utilizing them in one way or another. ADS was the first in the state to offer orthophoto technology.
Though ADS is the local industry leader, the company faces competition nationally. ADS sustains its competitive edge by promising and delivering quality, said Eric Andelin, ADS Vice President.
“We always make sure the client is happy at the end of the project,” said Carter.
“Then that customer comes back,” added Carter.
History as Innovators
In 1984, Carter purchased ADS, which originally got its start in 1964. Carter wasn’t satisfied with the market the company was serving.
“I started to get more equipment, more people. I knew I wanted to grow,” Carter said. “I wanted to go further afield – not just in Tulsa.”
“Now we provide our services to over 2,500 companies in 45 of the lower 48 states.”
ADS employed eight when Carter became president. ADS grew to 42 employees by 2004. Today the company boasts a staff of 31.
Carter’s goal has been to be a technology leader by not only using the latest equipment and methods, but also by developing them in-house.
“We have people here who can not only draw and edit, but we also have people who can write software to make that information available to our clients,” Andelin said.
The market is getting much, much broader. We have to adapt to that.”
ADS has a reputation in Tulsa for low turnover. Carter attributes that to how ADS treats its employees.
“We compensate and we treat them well,” she said. “Then they stay, and you don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”
In such close-knit companies, it’s common to place trust in the hands of the few. Management at ADS thought this configuration an advantage; they were proven wrong, however.
The company suffered $1.6 million in losses to embezzlement between 1984 and 2004, all at the hands of a trusted friend who worked as head accountant. When the crime was discovered, Carter made “a lot of changes in accounting.”
“We have one person opening the mail, another person making the deposits, another person doing the bank statements,” Carter said. “And, I look at everything.”
When the embezzlement was discovered in 2004, sales at ADS were around $4 million. During the last two years the accountant was with the company, she took more than $800,000. The former employee is now in federal prison.
“It takes a while to recover from that financially,” Carter said.
With Andelin’s help, Carter hopes to take ADS in a new direction.
Andelin joined ADS in July 2006. His first project was to streamline operations internally, Andelin said.
“In this industry technology technology changes daily and it is our task to determine avenues best for our clients,” Andelin said.
Since the photogrammetry industry changes constantly, the products and services ADS offers are much different now than they were in 1984. Carter and Andelin said they have to keep their ears to the ground.
“We’ve gone through two generations of equipment, just upgrading. There is constant change in trying to keep step with technology,” Carter said.
ADS customers range from the engineering sector, state departments of transportation, local municipalities and even secure military work. Carter said ADS is able to serve that range of customers because it can “deliver all the products and services that a really big company can deliver.”
“But, customer service is what differentiates us and what keeps our clients coming back,” Carter said.
The Aerial Arena
ADS boasts several thousand customers, and they know that the coming weeks are the optimal times to call ADS. Trees are free of leaves, making the ground easier to photograph from the air.
At ADS, rendering services and products starts with determining the desired outcome, said Andelin.
“Say you’re a land developer and you want to develop 160 acres of land. If you’re going to be grading, cutting and filling land – or maybe for GIS, there are different things we can do,” Andelin said.
Within days of the commission of a project, ADS pilots take to the air in one of two planes equipped with high-tech cameras. The cameras take stereo photos – think of the old Fisher-Price View Master toy and how those images were taken at slightly different angles to look three-dimensional. From those photos, technicians at ADS use computers to produce planimetric maps, which detail streets, buildings, power poles, etc. They can also produce surface models, which detail terrain contour information.
Another edge ADS has in the photogrammetry market is they house their own flight operations, survey crews, photo lab and photogrammetric departments.
“I don’t want to have to send anything out,” said Carter. “I want to do it here and have control over the timing and quality.”
Though ADS faces competition from surrounding states, those companies sometimes call on ADS to take the photos because they have in-house aircraft.
“If someone calls us, we can get out and fly the job in 24 hours if they need it,” Andelin said. “It’s a big benefit, having your own aircraft and crews, because a lot of what we do is for engineering companies that may have their own surveying department, but they may be busy doing other things.
“We’re more familiar with how to survey for mapping. It makes things go a lot faster and easier for them,” Andelin said.
Future on the Cutting Edge
As interest in and demand for integrated Geographic Information Services and photogrammetry services swells, ADS is poised to seize the expanding market.
The management team at ADS has lately been engaged in research and development of new products and services. New services are 3-D city modeling, which is extremely accurate thanks to geospatial measurements, and GIS hosting.
“Now we have to enlighten our clients that these services are available and educate them as to how to use them,” Carter said.
Though some mapping companies view the wide availability of Google Earth and other applications as competition, Andelin said ADS views those advancements as consumer education and market expansion.
“It just means more and more people become aware of what we do,” Andelin said.
“It really only generates more calls to us, more requests and additional work for us,” Andelin said.
On the horizon for ADS is the ability to map the inside of buildings. Carter and Andelin perceive the demand from first-response and emergency services, and they are working to find a viable solution.
“If they could see the inside of a building just as you can see Tulsa from Google Earth, there would be a lot of value in that. And we have that capability,” Andelin said.
“In a first-response situation, if a firefighter has to go into a building, and they can see on a screen where he is and tell him where he needs to go, the technology could be tremendously helpful,” Carter said.
Purchase of a digital camera is on the horizon for ADS, Carter said.
The cameras on the planes are the most expensive pieces of equipment in the aerial mapping industry. The cameras, with software and peripheral equipment, can cost more than $1 million, exceeding even the cost of an airplane. The last new camera purchased by ADS 15 years ago cost $400,000.
Andelin anticipates being commissioned by entities like Google Earth and Microsoft to capture aerial imagery for their databases.
“Right now, most of our work gets put into the world of CAD [computer-aided drafting]. More of our work will be for the Internet, or for tools that are used on the Internet. So GIS is the direction we’re going,” Andelin said.
ADS recently purchased a new plane: a twin-engine Piper Navajo PA-31-350 Panther II. With two planes, Carter anticipates the advantage of keeping a plane local while sending the other to service potential clients who were previously out-of-reach.
“We anticipate growth, whether it’s here or there,” Carter and Andelin said. ?