John Kubiak’s career has traveled on a literal upward trajectory. With a degree in forestry management, John first worked as a forestry technician in northern Minnesota. Disenchanted with working in the woods every day (“I got tired of feeding mosquitos!”), John looked for a change. He co-owned a geographic information system (GIS) company for more than 10 years; then, feeling his career had plateaued, he joined Barr’s GIS team to work on a variety of mapping and data-collection projects. These days, John focuses his time collecting data from the skies. As Barr’s Reality Capture Technology Coordinator, John is Barr’s technical lead for research, development, and education of unmanned aircraft system (UAS) technology. An FAA-certified remote UAS pilot, John talks about his evolving career and what the future holds for reality capture technology.
Describe your career arc. How did you arrive in your current role?
I came to Barr with a 12-year background in GIS and started working on environmental compliance projects for pipeline clients. When I came to Barr, I didn’t even know what a geotechnical boring was, much less how to collect data for one. That job opened doors to new geographies, clients, and project experiences. I was always passionate about remote-sensing and surveying, and the idea of using drones for project work piqued my interest. From there, I became one of Barr’s first certified drone pilots, which went hand in hand with the GIS work I was doing for projects. Around the 10-year mark, this reality capture position was created to help us better coordinate our hardware, processing, and skills development in this field.
What appeals to you about this work?
Reality capture can mean one point or billions of points in a geographic space. There is almost no limit to how much data can be gathered. Historically, it has been difficult for most people to think about things in 3D, but that is starting to change because of gaming communities, the architectural field, 3D printing, etc. People now are starting to think more in that three-dimensional space. Barr offers a lot of those components—whether through traditional survey work, 3D scanning, or drone flights—and I find it interesting to be working on the leading edge of that shift.
Aside from the wow factor, why should we care about what drones can do?
“Drone surveys can cover a lot of ground in a single flight and can mitigate safety hazards that would normally be encountered with traditional ‘boots on the ground’ surveying.”
It’s all about the data. Everyone looks at the drone as the shiny spoon in the drawer. But lots of people have drones these days. It’s the data that comes out of it and knowing what to do with it. I work with people from all our offices and am known for being a data cop. If someone comes across a piece of data from an external source that doesn’t look right, they will ask me if it passes or fails. Many times, I’ll say it fails because it wasn’t collected or processed correctly. In addition, drone surveys can cover a lot of ground in a single flight and can mitigate safety hazards that would normally be encountered with traditional “boots on the ground” surveying.
Tell us about a typical day in the field with a drone.
It’s not as fun or as glamorous as it might sound. It’s hard work! It’s important to plan accordingly—understand the deliverable before you leave, grab your gear, load it up, and be prepared to carry it over terrain. When you’re flying a site, you’re watching your aircraft and its surroundings, and you always have one eye on impending weather, other aircraft, and birds. Be prepared to manage mountains of data. The other day I collected 15 gigabytes of data that still needs to be processed—about 9,000 photos.
What does the future hold for those getting into this field?
Reality capture is expanding across industries and software platforms, which means the volume of data is going to expand dramatically. Clients are expecting this shift to new hardware and software platforms, and developers are working on it. Right now, it’s all a little messy because each of these platforms do things a little bit different from one another, but they’re slowly starting to meld together, offering opportunities to make the data more usable and sharable.
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About John Kubiak
John Kubiak, reality capture technology coordinator, has over two decades of experience with GIS. His work includes data management, mobile data application development and deployment, collection and processing of UAS (or drone) data, field data processing, watershed modeling and analysis, and detailed cartography services for clients’ reporting and permitting needs. John is Barr’s technical lead for drone technology research, development, and education. He became a Federal Aviation Administration-certified (Part 107) small UAS pilot in May 2018 and has flown dozens of projects, collecting nadir and oblique imagery and video for inspection, construction observation, and topographic surveys.
The Minnesota Land Trust urgently needed to collect topographic and surrounding bathymetric data from the Interstate Island wildlife management area (WMA), located along the Minnesota and Wisconsin border in the St. Louis River. The data would help support an Outdoor Heritage Fund habitat-restoration project. However, Minnesota weather in December can be challenging and unpredictable. Barr offered to use a UAS quadcopter to capture topographic data. Upon client approval, one of Barr’s licensed drone pilots and an employee acting as an observer quickly planned the ground-control layout and conducted the UAS flight to capture the necessary data safely from shore.
Image gallery (below):
Remediating contaminated sediment and repairing a dock wall in the Duluth, Minnesota, harbor required moving the decommissioned SS William A. Irvin through a narrow slip bridge—with just seven inches of clearance on either side. Our client asked Barr to verify all measurements and provide support during the move, which included accurately placing spud barges, in the dark, to help guide the Irvin out of the slip bridge.
John powers through the July heat in an annual community 5K run for charity in Duluth, Minnesota.
Using Barr’s latest thermal payload, John conducted a near-shore inspection of ice conditions during the winter of 2023.
The Kubiak household bleeds purple and gold for their beloved Minnesota Vikings. In 2022, John and his son Luke attended a game at U.S. Bank Stadium.
John conducting a drone flight to inspect and take measurements of an osprey nest nestled on a communications tower. The inspection was also able to determine if the nest was actively being occupied.