Northeast Kingdom Tech Startup Readies for Launch

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LYNDONVILLE - Two years ago, husband and wife Matt Clark and Chrissie Heinrich set out to create a company that would tap into the fast-growing drone industry. With experience working at microDATA GIS, a now-sold St. Johnsbury company founded by Heinrich's father that operated many states' E-911 systems, the pair knew they wanted to focus on mapping. Now, with a commercial launch planned within the next couple of months, Whiteout Solutions thinks it's found a unique niche.

Until a year ago, the company, based in the old Bag Balm building in downtown Lyndonville, was working on developing more traditional forestry management software. But, according to Clark, the business wanted to differentiate itself from others -- and found a way to do just that when looking at the most common aerial mapping technology currently in use.

"You can go buy a drone and buy software packages and go fly and map land," Clark explained, "and typically you use a technology called photogrammetry, which is the process of taking multiple images of an area -- you'll fly it out in a gridded pattern, and what happens is you have image overlap and there's software that can tie those images pixels' to each other.

But he says there's one big problem with photogrammetry: it takes a long time to produce a map.

"We realized a lot of the limitations with the technology that's used in traditional UAV mapping right now is the process time," said Clark. "It takes forever to process some of those. We did a flight for Burke Mountain and the flight time was roughly four or five hours. It was not very long to fly it and do the data collection, but it was about a week processing time."

So the company began to look at other technologies and sensors that could be mounted on drones, like LIDAR. LIDAR, essentially light-based radar, uses a laser to measure the distance from a sensor to the terrain. Taking 300,000 measurements a second, the technology is able to create an instantaneous three-dimensional model of the earth.

Traditionally, LIDAR mapping has been performed on expensive plane flights, largely limiting its use in Vermont to the state government. By mounting the sensors on much less expensive drones, Clark hopes landowners of all types will have access to detailed maps they never would have had before. For example, Clark illustrates, "we can actually visualize tap lines inside tree stands. So we can create a map of your trees and the tap lines that are interconnected to those trees and extract everything else -- so you can do tap counts, you can see if the connections are still there."

At first, Whiteout will be flying the drones themselves and providing maps to landowners. But the company's eventual goal is to make the system so easy to use that landowners can run the drones and create the maps themselves.

"Our hope is to make it as simple as possible so that you don't have to have a degree to fly the thing. We have software that does the autonomous flight, so basically you program in your flight path, you draw a rectangle around where you want it to go, and it will launch up the drone, it flies the area at the altitude you set it to, and when it's done collecting the information it comes back and it lands itself. So it's not like you're sitting there trying to fly the drone, it's all autonomous," said Clark. "Our goal is to develop a technology that we can sell as a package, and that would include the software and the hardware, to be able to go collect and fly your own information. And then we'd be able to provide cloud-based services where they upload their information to process it and visualize it."

Regardless of how a landowner ends up with Whiteout data, however, Clark said he sees landowners and foresters benefitting in a big way from having access to detailed and up-to-date maps of their land.

"There's a tremendous amount of value -- if you think of your forested lands as an asset -- whether you're a landowner or logger that's gonna harvest them or a land steward, it's an asset that's sitting out there and you don't necessarily know what your inventory is of that asset. So that's what we're trying to paint that picture of, giving them the inventory picture of what their assets are, "said Clark. "At the end of that day, that's really what it comes back to, is knowing what you have and what the value of that is."