A journey through the Dutch ‘Geospatial Valley’

A journey through the Dutch ‘Geospatial Valley’

Groningen: a hub of innovation making waves around the world

Two members of the 'GIM International' and 'Geo-matching' team recently hit the road to explore an emerging hub of geospatial tech activity: the Dutch province of Groningen. There, they took a closer look at four different companies making waves at home and abroad, explains Wim van Wegen.

Earlier this year, I embarked on a road trip with my colleague Peter Tapken from Geo-matching, our product comparison website for surveyors, hydrographers and other professionals who are looking for industry equipment. We headed to the province of Groningen in the northeast of the Netherlands, to take a tour of several companies driving geospatial innovation.

Georeferenced imagery

Our first stop was at Horus View and Explore, a provider of intelligent imaging solutions for mobile maps. With a strong emphasis on innovation and a vision centered around georeferenced imagery as the ultimate tool for informed decision-making, Horus has become a leading global player. In a nutshell, the company provides organizations with precise, reliable and actionable insights derived from image data, with the ambition of reshaping navigation, inspection, analysis and critical decision-making in various mobile mapping applications.

Managing director Dirk Aalbers gave us a warm welcome. He spoke in detail and with passion about the development that Horus has undergone in recent years. He firmly believes that his company stands as a distinguished force in the global mobile mapping market. “People are often surprised when they learn that our company is headquartered in Groningen,” he said with a chuckle. “They commonly joke that we’re in the wrong place; we should be in California, they say!”

A Deutsche Glasfaser mapping vehicle parked outside the Horus building.

“But we are definitely in the right place here; we’re rooted in this region, yet with a broad global perspective,” he added. “We have partnerships with NVIDIA, Teledyne, Trimble and others. In fact, the majority of our business is international. But Groningen serves as an excellent base for our operations.”

We noticed several cars parked outside the Horus building from Deutsche Glasfaser – a company that provides fibre optic to the home (FTTH) across the German states of North Rhine-Westphalia, Schleswig-Holstein, Bavaria and Lower Saxony. “They are indeed one of our significant clients,” stated Aalbers. “We integrate our compact mobile mapping system into their vehicles, allowing them to map the surrounding environment. This facilitates the calculation of fibre optic installation costs, as factors such as surface type and obstacles are meticulously mapped out.”

The demand for mobile mapping solutions is currently growing, especially for large-scale projects. “I believe we’re strategically positioned, with our activities sitting at the intersection of hardware, AI and software,” commented Aalbers. “These three elements embody our innovative ingenuity.”

The province of Groningen is in the northeast of the Netherlands. The city of the same name is a vibrant economic hub. (Image courtesy: Shutterstock)

Gamma ray spectrometry

Our next destination was Medusa Radiometrics, located on the outskirts of the city of Groningen. Bart Kruizenga and Carola Kolkena took us on a tour of the company, which offers a variety of survey instruments designed for the highly accurate measurement of soil spatial variation. The gamma-ray spectrometers, which form the core of these instruments, passively detect natural radioactivity in the topsoil. “We have succeeded in making them incredibly user-friendly. That may partly explain why we are so widely represented internationally from our base here in Groningen,” said Bart Kruizenga. Up to 99% of the clients are outside the Netherlands, and between 70 and 90% are based outside of Europe.

Currently, the company’s main focus is the mining exploration market, for example for lithium and uranium projects. One ambition is to expand the customer base beyond the mining industry. The environmental sector is one example of an area where gamma-ray spectrometry is less well known, despite its numerous potential applications. Additionally, the company has prioritized marketing its systems as alternatives or supplements to ground radar.

Medusa has a sister company that specializes in geosurveying and consultancy services, providing comprehensive soil information for diverse sectors. With a focus on climate adaptation, it leverages soil data for improved water management and landscape planning. Moreover, it conducts soil analysis for archaeology, environmental research and civil engineering projects.

Panoramic view from the centre of Groningen, the capital of its namesake province. (Image courtesy: iStock/Sjoerd van der Wal Fotografie)

System integrators

After leaving Medusa, a 15-minute drive took us from the urban bustle to a rural part of the province called the Ommelanden, full of charming old villages and towns. We treated ourselves to a delicious lunch in Bedum, known for its leaning church (which is said to lean more than the famous Tower of Pisa) and even more for being the hometown of Arjen Robben, one of the Netherlands’ finest footballers. We then made our way to the local business park to visit Smart Delta. This company is rapidly emerging as a specialist in mobile mapping, with an additional focus on safety and security markets alongside the geospatial sector.

We were welcomed by René Bolhuis, CEO/CTO, and Jan Wierenga, chief commercial officer. “I often get asked what exactly it is that our company does, especially by people less familiar with high-tech and geospatial products. At Smart Delta, we specialize in sensor fusion technology. We blend data from different sensors to give us a complete picture of what’s happening around us or within a system,” explained Bolhuis while the coffee was being served.

“We have many customers who collect geodata in rural areas. One application is utility mapping, but there’s also a landscaping company that uses one of our systems in their work. Our solutions can be utilized in numerous ways to gather data, whether it’s from boats for water and road management, to keeping railways free from vegetation, or aiding in disaster recovery management – which is an area where we excel and truly enjoy,” added Wierenga.

“What sets us apart is our ability to deliver work ranging from the basic to the most sophisticated. Designing tailored mapping solutions is our strength. We pride ourselves on crafting solutions that precisely meet our customers’ needs, no matter the complexity. This adaptability has secured us a diverse clientele, spanning local regions up to global markets,” Bolhuis elaborated. By then, the friendly company dog – a laidback retriever – had strolled over for some attention.

After hooking Wim’s electric car up to a fast charger, the road trip could continue.

Street-mapping specialists

After bidding farewell to the gentlemen (and dog) at Smart Delta, we travelled towards our final destination of the day, situated near Hoogkerk on the western outskirts of Groningen. The town is renowned for its sugar refinery, where vast quantities of sugar beet have been turned into sugar over the years.

But besides sugar, the town is also home to Geomaat, a leading surveying engineering firm specializing in the measurement, collection, analysis and processing of geodetic data within the spatial domain. Unlike the other three businesses visited during this road trip, this company’s activities are primarily based in the Netherlands, with occasional projects abroad. “In 2008, we were among the first in Europe to recognize the potential of a new camera technology developed in England (by StreetMapper, developers of 3D laser mapping, Ed.). We designed our own software to complement that technology, and we continue to benefit from that early advantage today," explained Geomaat's Liesbeth Dijkstra during her company presentation.

The company uses a specially developed van equipped with an advanced camera system mounted on the roof, similar to street-view technology but significantly more sophisticated. This setup captures a vast amount of data while travelling at speeds of 80-100km/h. Additionally, the device can be deployed from a train or boat.

She continued: “In 2017, we scanned the Groningen ring road for the first time using our Streetmapper-IV and created a digital terrain model. In 2020, we scanned it again, mapping all trees in detail, including their diameters and crowns." This terrain model is continuously updated and includes all phases and temporary roads. We compared the scans from 2017 and 2020 to create a difference map in QGIS. One scan serves multiple applications, so we’re collecting once for multiple uses! That’s sustainable work, right?

At the end of the afternoon, we headed home filled with new knowledge, inspiration and lots of coffee. We had enjoyed truly insightful visits to four local companies, and we can think of several others that would be worthy of a visit in the future. With such a vibrant landscape of geospatial innovation, we firmly believe that the province of Groningen deserves to be called the Dutch ‘Geospatial Valley’!

If you have any suggestions for a future geospatial road trip, we’d love to hear from you! Send your tips to wim.van.wegen@geomares.nl. We’re eager to explore innovative and inspiring companies – and if our trips happen to take us through scenic surroundings, it’s an added bonus!

Peter Tapken (left) and Wim van Wegen at Geomaat’s headquarters in Groningen.
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