Historically, monitoring real estate development projects involved sending analysts to visit construction sites in person or relying on free applications like Google Maps.

The first option offers valuable first-hand insights but isn’t scalable and quickly becomes resource-intensive. And with the onset of COVID-19, it became unsafe—or even impossible—to travel at all.

Although satellite imagery is available in numerous online mapping portals, users have no control over image currency or quality, often leaving analysts with outdated information that misrepresents the reality of what is happening on the ground.

To keep staff safe and continue supplying accurate real estate information, Zonda (formerly Hanley Wood | Meyers Research) recently acquired Bird.i, a construction activity analytics company, and subscribed to Maxar’s SecureWatch service for on-demand access to over 125 petabytes of Maxar’s high-resolution satellite imagery and analytics.

Zonda’s research platform, called Integrated Research Intelligence System (IRIS), streams Maxar’s high-resolution satellite imagery via API to monitor more than 60,000 housing projects in the United States. The platform provides up-to-date insights to Zonda’s customers, which include builders, building product manufacturers, mortgage lenders, and multifamily development executives.

Leveraging artificial intelligence (AI) to move from the past to a post-pandemic future

This IRIS screenshot shows Maxar’s WorldView-3 imagery of a subdivision in Phoenix, Arizona.

Before COVID-19, updating nationwide real estate development projects throughout various stages of construction relied upon large groups of people, called survey teams. A survey team would sift through permits, deeds, tax records, and sales and traffic data, perform site visits and gather other types of related information on a quarterly basis. The team manually input all of that data into Zonda’s central database.

Beginning in March 2020, travel restrictions and concerns for safety prevented survey teams from performing most of their usual site visits to active construction projects. The teams needed current, highly detailed visuals of what was happening on the ground at development sites across the United Sates.

The Maxar images above demonstrate different stages of construction. On the left, the foundation has been poured. In the middle, the framing has begun. On the right, the roof is completed and a fence has been built around the backyard.

When it became apparent that the travel impacts of COVID-19 were going to be lasting, Zonda bolstered its robust data analytics platform with Bird.i. New machine learning (ML) models were built and deployed so that specific phases of construction could be detected faster and labelled more accurately at a scale much larger than a survey team could cover by traveling in person.

Zonda’s AI model detected different construction stages of homes in this WorldView-3 image of Phoenix, Arizona, and labeled them.

Today, Zonda’s platform works by constantly ingesting all new Maxar satellite images acquired over a given area. New images are rapidly made available within Maxar’s SecureWatch service. As soon as a new image is available, the small section corresponding to the geometry is retrieved and processed with ML to identify residential properties and their construction stages. The ML models’ outputs are delivered automatically to the research platform, which updates millions of records daily.

Combining AI with on-demand access to Maxar’s fresh high-resolution satellite imagery has drastically increased the efficiency of construction project monitoring across the United States. Automated integration with SecureWatch enables Zonda to monitor development on the ground around the world from a computer and accurately relay project stages to customers. Despite a 40% drop in site visits during the pandemic, Zonda was able to monitor construction sites nationwide and release its second-, third- and fourth-quarter 2020 reports on time.

“High-resolution and frequent imagery of urban and suburban areas—and the fast, simple API access provided by SecureWatch—made Maxar a clear choice for important ground truth that Zonda’s customers need to plan new developments and keep tabs on competitors’ projects,” said Zonda CEO Jeff Meyers. “Proprietary algorithms and constant access to current Maxar imagery give Zonda a unique advantage over other real estate development data providers.”

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