Bill Lakeland has long dreamt of building a network of drones to capture important earth imagery. He’s using the blockchain to bring his vision to life. Randy Ginsburg dives into Spexigon, the fly-to-earn platform bringing a new model to the aerial imagery industry.
Bill Lakeland always opts for the birds-eye view. An expert aerial photographer, he has spent his career flying and coordinating planes to collect high-resolution imagery, playing a key role in capturing the images used in applications like Google Earth and Google Maps.
After recognising an opportunity in drone technology in 2017, the seasoned entrepreneur decided to pivot his career, founding Spexi Geospatial, with a focus on drones instead of planes. Their software brings automated-piloting drones along app-planned flights, collecting imagery that can be used to create data and imagery products for third-party operations.
The goal? To build a network of drones and pilots to visually capture important areas of the globe, and create a database of high-resolution imagery. Specifically, a database that could be accessed by organisations for a variety of purposes, such as inspecting railways, roofs, roads, and other infrastructure, or monitoring natural resources like forests and rivers. With high-resolution imagery from drones, both individuals and organisations can make more informed decisions without having to physically visit a site, when often such visits are not possible.
Innovation takes time, and reaching scale takes even longer. In 2017, the drone technology and regulatory environment were not advanced enough for Lakeland to establish his network as intended. Image quality was inconsistent, regulation was unclear, and there were simply not enough consumer drones on the market. Instead, Spexi pivoted towards self-piloted image capture, allowing people to take their own images to sell to third parties, but without the database and network structure to facilitate this at scale.
To bring his big vision to life, the team needed to answer one key question: how do we incentivise and motivate drone pilots across the globe to fly regularly and capture imagery? To solve this, Bill turned to the blockchain. In 2021, the team launched Spexigon, a global fly-to-earn drone imagery platform designed to democratise geospatial data.
“We quickly identified the blockchain and tokenomics as a proven vehicle for the mass coordination and incentivisation of a group of people to put their efforts towards a common goal,” says Adam Killam, VP of Marketing at Spexi.
Similarly to how Bitcoin rewards miners and Ethereum rewards stakers for supporting their networks, Spexigon plans to coordinate and incentivise pilots with its own utility token, creating a fly-to-earn economy sustained by the value it provides to organisations who leverage their drone imagery to make better decisions.
With this model, Spexigon hopes to establish both a community of pilots and a database of global imagery. Using Spexigon, organisations that require high-resolution imagery will no longer need to use their own drones or employ pilots. Instead, they’ll simply search, purchase, or commission imagery via Spexigon. From there, data buyers can use a suite of tools to put the imagery to use.
However, Spexigon is in no rush to roll out its token, acknowledging the importance of timing, preparation, and matching supply and demand. “A lot of other projects have gone off the rails by creating all the supply but not matching the demand,” says Adam, referring to the need to bring in organisations who want to buy drone imagery via Spexigon before opening up to public markets. “We hope to take a more balanced approach and build both at the same time.”
Another key area of focus has been the fragmentation of the drone industry itself. With the proliferation of consumer drones, there are now millions of pilots flying with varying levels of expertise, image quality, and regulation.
“We quickly identified the blockchain as a proven vehicle for mass coordination and incentivisation.”
— Adam Killam, VP of Marketing at Spexi
To combat this inconsistency, Spexigon will be compatible with one specific drone initially, the DJI Mavic Mini 2. The Mavic Mini 2 comes with 4k video resolution and is made by DJI, the Chinese manufacturer that dominates 76% of the world’s consumer drone industry. The Shenzhen-based company was also placed on the US sanctions list last October over suspected ties to the Chinese military, indicative of the headwinds that face the broader sector. (The drone can still be flown in the US, but not for government-related flights.)
In phase one, the flying will be controlled entirely by the Spexigon software, significantly lowering the barrier to entry for beginner pilots. The move will guarantee high-quality image capture, as well as ensuring that each drone is flown in the exact same way using a custom-built, geographic-specific flight plan generated by Spexigon itself. Still, this process isn’t entirely automated. Humans will still need to launch the drone and monitor the airspace.
“We want to make sure governments and businesses are making better decisions.”
— Adam Killam, VP of marketing at Spexi
Fresh off a $5.5 million raise from a group of web3 and robotics companies including Protocol Labs (the web3 applied research lab behind Filecoin and IPFS), InDro Robotics (a drone research company), and Dapper Labs (the company behind the Flow blockchain), Spexi is building out its platform and is hopeful that their technology can play a role in tackling some of the world’s largest environmental issues, as well as providing a service for enterprise clients.
“With ultra-high resolution images of forests along the West Coast, we can use computer vision and AI to detect pockets of dry tinder that could potentially lead to wildfires,” Adam explains. “This will allow us to prevent environmental destruction by assigning crews to clean up these areas. It could have a massive impact."
And that impact stretches far beyond the immediate use cases themselves. A tool like Spexigon would let organisations avoid sending employees to far-flung locations, freeing up time and resources, and bringing vision to places where it is unsafe or impossible for humans to reach. For Adam, the purpose of Spexigon is clear: “at the end of the day, we want to make sure governments and businesses are making better decisions.”
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