FalconViz: Putting Start-Up Technology in Service of Saudi Heritage

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Every five years, a number of researchers from King Abdullah University of Science and Technology would perform a geometric scan of the university campus, when the idea occurred to them: “is it not possible to perform this task faster through the use of drones?” Within a few months, the founders gained two patents for photography device control systems and a method to automatically transform the images to data. From there start-up FalconViz was born, and it now works with the biggest institutions to provide air scanning services for urban, industrial, and heritage areas within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which helps preserve the kingdom’s heritage and culture in addition to developing a cutting-edge sector.

In 2015, the four founders from KAUST registered their new company: Neil Smith (CEO) Luca Passone (CTO) Mohammed Shalaby (VP Business Development) and Anas Dahlawi (General Manager). The founders gained initial financing for a sum of 1 million SAR or 0.25 million USD from KAUST to launch the new company, registered as FalconViz.

The founding of the company came as the crowning achievement for the project that had only begun almost a year before as an attempt to digitally map the KAUST campus. In the beginning, researchers attempted to take regular photos of the university buildings and process it through computers to create 3D models, but it soon became clear that this operation would be very time-consuming. Neil Smith states: “I realized that if I was able to photograph these locations from the air using a drone, and collected these images digitally, I could scan it in far less time and with higher accuracy.” There were, however, some problems they needed to solve first before achieving this aim. 

Anas Dahlawi, one of the founders, says: “We faced several challenges. For example, the cameras fixed on the drones were shaking severely during flight, which made the images unclear.” To deal with this, the researchers created an automated system to control the camera’s movements and the angles of photography to greatly lessen the degree of shaking, bringing the accuracy of the images captured by the camera to one centimeter. Additionally, the researchers developed a semi-automated image recognition system for the aerial shots that would transform them directly to data and 3D models, the aim of aerial scanning.

One day, the governor of Jeddah (the second largest Saudi city by population) was visiting the researchers at KAUST, and by chance saw the 3D models they had made of the campus. The governor immediately expressed his interest in collaborating with the company and making use of its aerial scanning technology to document the city’s heritage locations. In 2014, UNESCO had chosen the historical city of Jeddah to be the third world heritage site in Saudi Arabia, and this was an important opportunity for the governorship, and therefore an opportunity for FalconViz, headed by CEO Neil Smith, to join between computational technology and historical, cultural, and humanitarian documentation.

From then on, the company has created scans and 3D models for various historic locations throughout Saudi Arabia, including the cities of Saleh and Diriyah near Riyadh, another of the important UNESCO world heritage sites, in addition to different locations within the Jawf Region and Eastern Province, and that is with the support of the Ministry of Culture, the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage, as well as other government institutions.

Neil Smith says: “our drones all fly automatically, and can fly close to the ground, even if they are faced with obstacles such as lamp posts or communication towers that would – usually – present a danger of crashing for the drones.” after completing the aerial photography tour, which takes one day, the team works on processing the images and transforming them into a computer model. Anas Dahlawi says: “we can, with this technology, scan an area of up to 5 million square meters in a period of five days only, where construction companies and engineering firms would require almost a month to scan this area using traditional methods.”

The company needed to expand with the passing of time beyond the scope of historical and heritage documentation, and it was able to do so with the aid of other companies in the urban and industrial planning field. Anas Dahlawi says: “We were in need of ‘educating’ the job market through offering them presentations and samples of our work in a domain they were not familiar with.” For that reason, the company started cooperating with major development projects in the kingdom, particularly those in the public sector. One such project was NEOM, a major project that wishes to create a city that crosses the borders between Saudi, Jordan, and Egypt, and would be a major center of industry and entrepreneurship in the region.

“It is natural that the future is laden with obstacles,” says Anas Dahlawi about his experience working in an unfamiliar technology field in the kingdom and the Arab region. “One of our continuing obstacles is keeping pace with the rapid change in drone flight, as well as a lack of investment in local talent by the job market. It’s not easy for us to find people capable of handling the stress on the field and of a profession that requires – for example – operating a drone for eight hours a day. From another angle, we’re facing increasing competition from foreign companies.”

However, Anas Dahlawi is optimistic about his company’s future, as well as the future of the technology sector in Saudi Arabia, even if the field is relatively new, as the rise in competition is an expected factor that a local start-up is able to handle. He says: “Perhaps what I’m proudest of is our reliance on Saudi talent, which reaches up to 60% of workers in the company, although most of the posts they hold are in the engineering and technical field and require a great amount of experience.”

After four years since launching FalconViz, the company now has 18 employees and 8 drones, performing various aerial scans around the kingdom. In 2016, and the company gained the second round of financing valued at 1.1 million USD from the ARAMCO Entrepreneurship Center (Wa’ed). Despite its non-traditional field and its exposure to rapidly rising competition in the region and the world, the company has demonstrated an example of the available technological innovation and entrepreneurship being used to serve the local and Arabian culture and heritage.

This article was originally published in Arabic on technologreview.ae. You can read it here:

“فالكون فيز”: توظيف التقنية الناشئة في خدمة التراث السعودي