Copple trusting his perspective on 3D lay of the land

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John Copple, CEO of Sanborn Map Co., in front of one of the company’s planes, which is equipped with a laser system to collect data to build 3-D maps.

Four months ago, Sanborn Map Co. CEO John Copple bought controlling interest in the Colorado Springs-based map-making firm and now has plans to take the company to a new dimension.

Sanborn has long specialized in topography, land cover, two-dimensional and three-dimensional maps for cities, counties and states. The company, which has 150 employees and $30 million in revenue in 2011, is integrating video, topography and 3-D building maps down to every contour of a building, every inch of pavement and every shrub.

It is information that helps governments and businesses assess fire risk, know where to build cell phone towers and where the next shopping mall might go.

But, Sanborn’s next move could make geographic data a standard part of daily life used by average consumers on smart phones and desktops.

“What is next is integrating 3D models with analytics,” Copple said. “Right now, it takes an analyst to operate the system and determine risk — we want the general public to use it.”

It’s not a mission impossible. It’s the company’s history, Copple said.

Sanborn has been mapping the United States since the Civil War. That’s when founder D.A. Sanborn made maps by hand for insurance companies. During World War II, the company was commissioned to make maps for the U.S. Army. And, over the years, it started in Pella, N.Y., morphed with new technology.

In the 1990s, Sanborn was sold to Environmental Data Resources, a firm owned by London-based Daily Mail Group.

“They bought if for the historical fire insurance maps,” Copple said. “People were looking for environmental risk where a commercial building was sold — Sanborn was the only historical source of data.”

In 1997, Daily Mail Group started buying aerial survey firms, including one in Colorado Springs. DMG relocated Sanborn headquarters to the Springs in 2000 and maintains offices in North Carolina, New York, Missouri and Oregon. Copple, who has a background in satellite imaging, joined the company in 2003.

Today, Sanborn owns a fleet of eight planes outfitted with Light Detection and Ranging sensors that measure distance with lasers. The laser points are more accurate than digital cameras allowing the Sanborn team to create 3-D city maps. Google Maps has a license to use about 60 Sanborn 3-D city maps, including Denver.

Using the laser cameras, Sanborn flies over cities and drives through neighborhoods collecting data. All of the data ends up in a Geographic Information System — a collection of software and geographic data used to analyze all forms of geographic information.

GIS is a $5 billion U.S. industry and growing fast. Instead of just using GIS as a standalone system, cities, states and businesses are integrating the data into their infrastructure.

For example, Police in Dubai wanted to protect a VIP and needed to know where the official could be seen from various vantage points in the city’s high rise buildings. The city hired Sanborn to make a 3-D map of the Dubai’s 300,000 buildings, mapping every entrance and exit and even every rooftop air conditioning units. Now, police pull up a 3-D map of the city and a red zone shows them all the locations police need to cover to keep a VIP safe anywhere in the city. That map is connected to all the police cars and all city cameras.

“Now the Dubai police and fire can monitor everything going on in the city in a 3-D visual environment,” Copple said. “Now, you can put everything into context.”

Most of the company’s 150 clients are government — cities, counties and states — who want maps and analysis of maps. They want to know if a city floods how much of the buildings would be underwater or where fire risk is highest.

Sanborn took a hard hit when the economy tanked. The company lost a large government contract and was forced to cut more than half of its 400 employees.

In September, DMG sold a majority of the company to Copple. In its press release DMG said trading conditions for Sanborn had been weak and likely would continue as U.S government budgets remain tight.

But, Google Maps and city 3-D maps have stepped up the visibility of geospatial technology, said Caitlin Dempsey, GIS analyst and editor of GIS She does not see government cut backs permanently affecting the industry. She predicts GIS will grow in real estate and retail in 2012.

“The ability to visualize geographic data is becoming a standard and required part of many businesses,” she said. “Can you imagine trying to launch a successful real estate tracking app without mapping services embedded with it?”

The U.S. Department of Labor reports that the geospatial market is growing at annual rate of almost 35 percent with commercial sector expanding at 100 percent. That’s what Sanborn is counting on.

“Our customers will continue to be government, but I think we will grow into commercial applications by using this data in other ways and creating access to it,” Copple said. “The data is only good if you can put other data elements with it and help someone solve a problem.”