When the U.S. military needed to identify mines in a dangerous valley in Afghanistan, aerial-imagery specialist Tudor Thomas helped build a plane-based system to map it. The project wasn’t cheap. Back in 2013, similar systems cost the military and its contractors one to five million dollars, Thomas says—and that didn’t even include the cost of the plane. “It’s hard to comprehend how much was getting spent just to make a simple aerial image,” he says.

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