“We are changing the terrain” - IT goes to a large construction site
What could be more ridiculous than getting lost along the way to an interview with a cartographic startup. But about my embarrassment, I whined enough in the last article - this will be only important things.
Let me remind you that last week I started writing about drones at a construction site and talked with Dmitry Korolev, one of the four founders of TraceAir, a service that is trying to change the construction industry using drones, photogrammetry and analytical algorithms. Like his other interlocutors, I mistakenly thought that drones were at the center of startup design. But it turned out, something completely different.
How did it all start?
I started coding class in the fifth. At school, an informatics teacher showed a BASIC, and I’m like: aaaaaa, you can code this game! Then he went to school-gymnasium 1567, in the physical class. There was just an awesome party. Cool stuff related to electronics. We soldered amplifiers, IR receivers / transmitters, we wrote the protocol to them, the client. Now there is one dude from our class in the Valley, another girl a few classes later than us, too, was there, but returned here.
Our physicist was a smart guy (taking this opportunity, Alexander Andreevich, hello), he wrote us tests in pascal, gave them on a grid on a computer, and we solved them. Once they decided, “let’s hack the physicist’s test so that it highlights the correct answers for us.” In general, our school was very cool.
And what did you already know, was able to the last grade of school?
Basic, Pascal, was able to solder all sorts of devices, a little assembler. At some point I tried to look at Delphi, but I would rather not look - Delphi is still ... When the network went - C / C ++, Perl and PHP.
They wrote PoC exploits. Around the same time, a class in the 11th or at the end of the 10th could be written to the Hacker magazine by mail, and this was published. I wrote there: "dudes, let's do IT-sec together, whoever wants to." The crowd gathered, but did not last long, about two years. We did quite interesting things. If the security focus can be searched, you can even find something in the newsletter annals.
Next was the physics department. A friend told me that programming is cooler there than in the VMK. This man brutally broke me off - there was no cool programming there. As soon as I realized this, I began to look for all sorts of security projects. But he quickly realized that he had to leave for a more legal plane.
In the second year, I used the physics faculty clusters, and the teacher told me: “Dim, if you run some kind of exploit from the physics faculty, you can do this even through a proxy.” I say, "Alexey Valentinovich, excuse me, please, I won’t." And from that moment he began the development movement. It was 2003-2004. This teacher was looking for orders, and we were coding. Engines for scientific conferences, social maps, some kind of geographical social network.
Tell me what the product does?
How to combine sky love with IT
Dmitry had several startups between the university and the beginning of TraceAir, and we discussed them in more detail in a previous article . He is a professional paraglider, so he always looked for how to combine sky and IT.
There was a service for air sports. According to the trackers, spectators from the ground could track the race and understand what was happening in the sky at that moment. The service achieved some success, but did not bring money - this was not interesting to investors.
There was a service for the analysis of satellite images. He allowed, for example, to mark forest fires on a map.
During the drone boom, Dmitry and his team wanted to launch air delivery in Moscow, but limited themselves only to coffee in Gorky Park. They faced all the problems that drones carry with them, but the money ran out before solutions were found.
After a trip to Silicon Valley in 2014, the future direction became clear - not the drones themselves were needed, but serious industrial services for them. This started TraceAir.
A drone or an airplane flies in zigzags over the site, makes a bunch of photos. Further, these photos turn into photogrammetry algorithms on GPU servers in point clouds and a 3D model. Our software compares this 3D map with all the documentation that is uploaded there. It analyzes, compares, and suggests how the logistics of excavation work should be built, how to carry out soil replacement - when you replace bad land with good, we predict the behavior of the earth - compression / swelling, which also greatly affects the order of work.
Surveying from a drone.
This is how the construction work in the application looks.
Says, for example, “here you are already in the project, please don’t break it, you don’t need to go there. Here you still need to dig to the bottom - this land will swell so much. Here it is necessary to lay, because you will have more land here than you calculated. And here you have pipes coming and they are laid 5 meters away from the project. ”
The builders look and understand, "OK, here we have to dig so much - this is conditional for a week of work."
A key technology in comparing what you have with what you should have. The technology compares, and then either gives hints or helps the construction participants to interact. Communication works more in the Russian market. Tips on what to do - in American.
That is, this is a replacement for surveying?
This is the very first thought that usually comes. In fact, surveying does not solve anything. Other companies that make drones for construction are trying to replace geodesy. The drone flew over, scanned everything, made a 3D model, and this is where the work of surveyors ends.
To compare and make decisions, it’s not the surveyors who need it, but the engineers. The foreman, who is digging the earth, used to turn to engineers. They already hired surveyors. Surveyors filmed the landscape, gave the data to engineers. And those are: “Oh, we have a break. We’ll drink coffee now, and there it’s already the end of the day. We’ll answer you in a week. ” After a week, the foreman finally answered the question, and only after that he made the decision to dig.
It looks like this with us - the foreman opens the cell phone, encircles the area of interest to him, “here I have so much land, it is distributed like this. Here is the best way for me to import this technique here. It will take so much time. ” All information is here.
That is, this is a reduction in the distance between builders and the expertise that engineers have in their heads. We look at what people in the fields are doing, we are throwing new features under their usages. So, if we replace someone, then engineers. Surveyors remain on the scan, and we are already deciding how to apply something and build it better.
If there is any union of engineers who says - no drones at construction sites?
Engineers are already bumping into us in America. Previously, they considered everything for a long time and expensive, but we came to such - here you have all the calculations.
Engineers tell us, "guys, this seems like a licensed activity." And we say, "go to dick, we have software." Well, something serious begins. California engineers are driving us a little barrel. Of course, not all, some understand that progress cannot be stopped.
When I was 15, I worked as a surveyor. Just ran with a stick and put it where they say. But I didn't understand a damn thing how it works further. Did you have to figure it out?
Of course. Contractors have just a bunch of dudes with sticks who just run around and put dots. We tried to understand why they are not as advanced as surveyors should be.
There are few advanced in Russia and America. There are dudes who set up processes and they are smart. They know how all these satellite receivers work, why they need several frequencies, how the atmosphere affects them, what is PPK mode, what is RTK mode. We also have to figure out how it works.
The entrance ticket to our industry is accuracy. No exact data - exit ticket. And I don’t care how tricky your analytics algorithms are, which tells you how to dig better if you give inaccurate data. All prompts will go into the pipe.
This is a problem that drone startups are facing. They give generally left data. We have eaten this in Russia. At the very beginning, we were constantly kicked: “Yes, what drones to replace geodesy! They are inaccurate. ” We spent a lot of time on confirmation and comparison with geodetic data, we understood how accuracy works, and average deviations. When you understand it deeply, you begin to understand where surveyors mow. If you send two one after another, they will get different models. He put one stick on a stone, and missed another mound.
Does the drone solve this?
Yes. A model is a cloud of points. When you shoot with a stick, there will be as many points as the number of times you put the stick. And the drone creates tens of millions of points - the same amount as lidar shooting, only costs significantly less. And then there is no need to stitch together lidar clouds, because lidars are removed from several points. Drone really simplifies surveying. Now a bunch of companies say that the simplest survey is drone surveying.
Photogrammetric landscape model
About business in America
When we flew to Silicon Valley, we were told: “if you can earn a ruble in Russia, then you can earn ten here. Better show what you can do in Russia. Why immediately fly here? " We agreed, but the move was a mistake. Those who start doing business in Russia and then move to America - they do not survive because they have a business in Russia, but in spite of this.
Experience in Russia does not affect experience in America.
People make decisions differently. For example, at a construction site in Russia, at the very beginning we were perceived as an anti-fraudulent system. With her, the contractor will not overstate and make left posts. When we arrived in America, we tried to sell exactly the same. And they say that we have no problems with this anyway.
The markets work differently. In Russia, we worked with developers who were themselves general contractors. Everything is brought down in one big construction company. And in America, a lot of small firms are united around a conditional project and interact with each other. We went to the general contractors, but it turned out that the general contractors are just a layer, and you can’t solve anything with them.
There are other problems. For example, the removal of land from a construction site. In Russia, it was possible to throw the remaining land from the project into any ravine for 100 rubles. And also to pick up from a neighboring ravine. Just now they are starting to tighten the nuts, and prices are rising. In America, if you have some land left, that’s the problem. It’s very expensive to dispose of. Therefore, when we say “you will have land in balance. It’s not necessary to bring anything, to take anything away, ”for them it’s super value.
Where do you have more customers?
In the 16th year, when we went to America, we tried to sell in the same way as in Russia. But from April until November 16th, we were unable to sell anything in America either, until we were joined by a dude from Stanford.
He asked us:
“Are you sure that anyone needs this here at all?”
“Of course you need,” we say, “they buy well in Russia.”
- And here, how many builders did you talk to understand what pain they have?
- With zero.
Then we began to research the market, found a bunch of people from the industry, about 120 people. We came and asked, “dudes, tell me what you have at the construction site it hurts and just listened, not selling anything. Just trying to understand the industry. In the end, we said, “here we have made technology (technology is not equal to product). Do you think this is useful or useless? ”Someone said that it might be useful to someone. Someone said no need and does not make sense.
And someone - “you need it, wrap it right now!”
And so we went to residential construction. There people work without a general contractor. Customers themselves reproduce areas with houses over and over again, manage contractors. We met with them, and everything began to develop. Russian history here had nothing to do with it. At the end of 2016, they realized that we were torn between two markets and then we refused all sales in Russia at all, returned only now at the end of 2018.
It turns out now basically everything in America?
There are more sites, less revenue. Here we worked at large industrial facilities - all sorts of building factories, gas processing, oil refining. And in America, this is residential construction, when you prepare the land on which houses are then built.
Residential Development in California
When you build a huge plant, it's billions of dollars. And small construction sites of 5-10 acres - only tens of millions. But even in America we try to focus on large areal objects of 400-500 hectares. When you tear down the hills, build pads and put a bunch of small houses on them. One-story America.
How photogrammetry works
If you take a mug, remove it from different angles and then quickly flip through all the pictures - your brain will understand that the mug is three-dimensional. It would be as if he would simultaneously see all of her foreshortenings and complete the three-dimensional image himself. So is photogrammetry. The drone flies from above and removes everything from different angles. Then he collects a model from these photos.
Photogrammetry in any case gives an error if you remove the site once. We shoot once a week, and sometimes even more often. It turns out a timeline on which a bunch of copies of the construction site shows how it has developed historically. In this historical section, we can improve photogrammetry, pull the data under each other, without cunningly distorting them. Although builders are ready to understand small deviations. The same surveyors will slightly tilt the stick, and already garbage turns out.
If everything is done correctly, it will be more accurate than from a surveyor with a stick who decides where to put, where not to put it.
Photogrammetry used to work like this. The drone flew, took photos, the pilot uploaded them to the computer, processed and gave them to the customer on a flash drive. There are 108 gigs. The customer asks how to open them, and to him - “as you want, so open it. Download something. ”
We do all this on the back and display it online on the mobile phone. We cut all these files, do tiling, translate into the coordinate system of the construction site - and they work there not in degrees / minutes, but in their system. And you need to go into it without losing accuracy.
This is a task with a bunch of parameters. How many signs do you have on earth to go to the coordinate system of the line, at what altitude the drone flies. We selected all these sums of parameters to get the accuracy that builders require. In America, the standard is 1/10 feet. If we fall into this standard - everything is fine, if not - bye.
What's inside the product
Tell me directly about the modules - what does it all consist of?
We used to collect our drones and set up a custom camera. DJI has not yet made normal drones, so we ourselves collected everything from scratch. They took GoPro, put a specific lens, because only one lens gives accurate data, and the rest give shit. This continued until the end of 2016, when the DJI finally began to do fine.
In general, testing drones is also not just looking at the characteristics on the site. Let's say a new model comes out, conditionally Phantom 4 Pro. We send it to our test site, where a lot of control points were shot with a total station. We scan it with this drone and see what happens after 20-30 flights. If 80% of the points were taken without deviating from the permissible norm, then you can work. If not, most likely something is wrong with the camera.
Of course, the most important thing is the camera. Drones themselves are now able to automatically fly in zigzags using any third-party software. And before that it was quite complicated, and we used any raw opensource that allowed us to automate the flight. But the program for the flight is far from the key technology. Anyone can do them.
We also do not do photogrammetric software ourselves - its dofiga. We tried a bunch of different ones, and settled on PhotoScan - it is good in terms of accuracy.
Drones, cameras, photogrammetric software - you take everything on the side. What do you write yourself?
All that further. Working with drawings, comparing models, calculating volumes, comparing with existing drawings, converting models from 2D to 3D. In order to benefit builders, you need to go through a whole chain of actions. At least 54 independent steps with different technologies - from how the drone flew to before the builder saw its volumes.
All data - photos, documentation - get into our called Backoffice site. Then everything is processed on Amazon GPU servers, the required number of instances rises.
What do you write all this on?
The entire front part is node.js and React. Map on Leafleat. The backend - everything that works with Amazon is usually Java, but lately we have been translating everything to Amazon Lambda, and there it’s easier for anyone to write. Where fast calculations are needed, there is C ++. And everything else is Python. Node.JS is now also slowly replacing lambdas.
We use the Amazon stack a lot, all of their micro services are very cool.
Special greetings to Roskomnadzor. When this trash happened, then we suffered a lot. I wanted to come and all ... fire and sword!
I wrote to lawyers: let's gash a case? But they said, and their tasks are enough. It would rather be for a fan. I really want to, but so far have enough of their motions.
Photogrammetry and CAD file processing are spinning on instances. And everything is very sensitive to changing parameters. Even if you change conditionally somewhere from 100 to 90, the accuracy increases sharply. Everything is in the details, so I can not talk about them.
We ourselves think through tips for builders. For example, we analyze the site and say:
- Here, your road is worse suited for this scraper, it is better here. And here your scraper will not call at such a slope at all. Go around the hill on the left.
- Prepare the ground with the CAT D6 or D8. He will do it in half an hour. With such a bias, it will stop, but with this it will not.
Do you also take the characteristics of the same bulldozers somewhere?
Yes. We wrote them off with the Caterpillar Handbook 47. With what deviations do they drive, in what gear, at what speed. Moreover, when we wrote forecasts about how to build roads better, we took not only Caterpillar, but put GPS trackers into real scrapers and watched them drive to adjust real characteristics to our model. How they drive in more dense soil, as in loose soil - everything is taken into account.
All these geological pieces should your developers know?
Everyone should - but not everyone knows. Products know for sure.
For geologists who are engaged in prediction, for example, where the earth will swell, there is no way to populate, compare, build a model of behavior. And when our products come to them for data, ask for some kind of model, geologists answer: “we will collect it in a month, now we can’t”. We are: "Fuck with you, just tell us how you do it." They say, and it really sounds like you can just code.
Then the products will fully find out and transmit the data to the development.
And then what should developers be able to do?
Developers must understand the product side, why do we do it at all. We have a horizontal structure, there are no specific bosses, no "I’m a boss, you are a fool." The programmer must understand that everything for the sake of specific user cases, for the sake of a specific user - here he pokes his iPad with dirty hands.
We show a lot of photos and videos from the fields to the team. How builders work on their dusty sites. When the UX-er sees how its interface is used on a small laptop with a dusty touchpad, it is like: “what the fuck would I do!”
On a conditional iPad, everything is convenient, and a couple of extra clicks are not scary. And here he understands - all fuck is necessary to replace and greatly simplify. The more you synchronize a person with a real user, the better.
How the company works
How many people are there now?
Not. Six more developers have just been hired. We have an office in the Valley, an office here and a little people are distributed throughout Russia.
There are a lot of cool programmers, it's easier to assemble them. When we started, Masha, our head of product, had a software company. A part of her programmers spilled over to us when Masha joined us. Some developers worked on my previous startup. There was a dude from Belgorod, now he moved to Moscow to communicate more with the team, there is a dude from Minsk. Kolya (our devops) we found randomly, just on freelansim.ru. One dude from Kiev QA. People come here regularly. We bring people to America for a food synchronization; we ourselves come here once a quarter. There are pluses to remote development, there are minuses.
What are the downsides?
The downside is that you spend more time on synchronization. If dudes begin to be far from the product, then we try to bring them back. We remind you that we do this for the sake of our builders, and not just to gash a cool feature.
So now I left America, starting to move away from the information field and already taking efforts to stay up to date with the states - this is difficult. But of course, the pros pay for themselves. Gathering a team in America is nonsense.
Do you have to filter out people through some special specifics when hiring?
Algorithmics should be. We run everyone through conditional tasks, for example, about triangle inequality. Here the object gives you something similar to a triangle. How do you check whether it is a triangle or not?
If dudes are aware of the inequality of the triangle and can write it, then okay - the basic chips understand. There was still a joke about the address. If dudes cannot find us on the map, then they are unlikely to have a place in a geographic geodesic startup.
Understood, I would not have passed.
In fact, I'm joking, we have never done that.
The main thing is that a person should be ready to change his paradigm from "I'm just a developer, my task is to code from here to lunch" to understand "why the hell do you code this, how it connects to your real user." Developers are used to knowing nothing at all. What the project manager said to them is what they are doing.
And we have no project managers.
There is a skill that you can’t check, and we try to plant it. You can’t put up with shit. We have written in the values of the company, if you see that something is going wrong, then raise the red flag, this is not an opportunity - this is an obligation.
If the layout went or loaded for a long time - do not get used to it. Correct if you can, and if you can’t, find the one who corrects.
Why IT climb into the construction site
You started with romantic things - hacking, paragliding, love of heaven. Aren't you bored with building now?
Construction is the most awesome and romantic thing that can only be. I directly felt this when, in 2015, I went to our first Morton sites to immerse ourselves in the construction industry. It seemed to me from the outside that the builders are such incomprehensible people who cherish something there.
And then we came to the site, where there is something like a construction stand-up, a weekly discussion on how to do next. It's frosty outside. Guys are in sheepskin coats, smoking. One looks at a heap of land, at an unfinished building, at a crane. And in his eyes you can see some kind of inner smile. And so he says to a neighboring same brutal peasant: "We, builders, are changing the terrain." In the second one, too, something romantic immediately wakes up, and he is such a “yes ...”
I then realized that construction is something really cool for people. Where flights, where IT - and here is the real world.
It has come. But at first there wasn’t. Did you choose construction because it had money?
When they told us, “you earn at least something in Russia,” and we returned to Moscow, there was nothing to do in it. There are no agricultural fields, careers somewhere in Siberia. Around one construction site. That is, it came randomly, and when they started to dig, they realized how wonderful it is.
We then discussed what generally drives us, why we work so hard, and promote our business. We want to do automatic construction. I clicked on the map, and look at the progress bar. And TraceAir will manage the technology so that everything is built on its own.
This is the vision of the company that we want to achieve in 20 years. When we are told, “Would you like to try drones in a farm or somewhere else?”, We say - no, we are not talking about drones - we are talking about construction. We want to automate it, and sawing is still very dofig. It is an eight-billionth industry, but it is generally untouched by IT. A lot of things got stuck in the eighties, somewhere even in the seventies or sixties.
The Hadron Collider was built for 16 years, and on an automatic construction site this could be much faster. Even an ordinary house - and then problems, errors and delays dofig.
We want to give humanity the opportunity (because I love humanity) with the help of automation software to turn plans from imagination into reality in the most optimal, most efficient and fastest way. Here is such a superposition. This is what drives us all, and we are figuring non-stop.
But sometimes from the outside it seems that construction - especially in Russia - is the business of dark people. There is a lot of money, corruption, factories are worth billions. Does this bother you?
We just don’t work with such people. In the beginning we were used as an anti-fraudulent system. For Morton, we saved 30 million rubles at two sites in four months simply because the contractors were trying to overstate the budget, ascribe something.
It is written in our values - do not deceive and do not put up with those who are deceiving. If we are asked to raise the model, “so that the contractor gives more money”, we will send a fuck. And by the way, this happened once.
“And lift it up so that it looks like we did more.”
- Dudes, are you fucking?
There are no stupid posts in America, but builders there may not specifically tell developers that they will have to do double work. And the developer will pay twice. And we tell them, “you don’t need to transport land twice. There is a short way. ”
In fact, we are loved by both contractors and developers, although it seems that bringing transparency, we are doing the contractor badly because he wants to just do nothing and earn more. Our software optimizes the entire OS, and we allow the contractor to do everything faster, thereby reducing its internal costs. It turns out all is well.
I heard about the idea of throwing robots to Mars so that they automatically build a colony there. Do you want this?
Of course I want to. Well, when that happens, I'm sure TraceAir will be there.
Instead of conclusions
We have a regular column - called "10 questions to the programmer." We talk there with ordinary developers, and in the end they ask their next question. I have selected some for you.
From learning which technology did you get the most buzz?
TCP / IP How networks are connected and how they work.
If you are given the opportunity to fly to Mars without a return ticket - will you fly?
No, I won’t fly in one direction. Only if I take with me technology that will allow me to build something and come back.
If what you do becomes illegal, will you continue or leave?
Omitting the fact that it already was ... if the same stupid laws as in Russia, then, of course, I will continue to damn it. If you are a startup, and no one has judged you - most likely you are not making any revolution in your field. Without breaking established laws, you can’t change anything. So the answer is obvious - yes, of course I will continue.
Do you also need a question from me now?
Well, if there is.
There is something where, in your opinion, people are massively mistaken, and only you see how it is right?