When we talk about drones, we’re also talking about Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), and they have served a number of purposes throughout history. Commonly known for their military applications as remotely guided missile deployers and reconnaissance aircraft, drones have served a purpose in mapping for even longer. Technically the very first UAV used was a hot air balloon in 1783 (it carried a sheep, a duck, and a rooster). Technology has come a long way since then, both in the efficiency and cost of the equipment we use today. Now the sky’s the limit in terms of the recording instruments you can attach to UAVs, like cameras, LiDAR, hyperspectral sensors, or barometers.
Why Use Drones?
Surveys can be completed in the traditional manner, but if you can get up high, you can get fantastic imagery across a large area. Aerial surveys have become a very popular means of collecting aerial imagery (raster images) and LiDAR data, for uses in geospatial analysis. Using manned aircraft has some limitations. Aircraft require skilled, licensed staff to operate, and are expensive to purchase and maintain, all while posing a risk to the pilot.
Many drones or UAVs can be programmed to follow a set flight path, or a flight plan, thus requiring limited supervision and control from the remote pilot.
Precision agriculture has been using drones for a long time already, and this will only increase as the equipment becomes more affordable. By using drones or UAVs you can make data collection more accessible, keep staff out of harm’s way, and complete a high-quality image collection for a vastly reduced-price tag compared to traditional manned aircraft missions.
Limitations of Using Drones
For all the positives they offer, there are still plenty of limitations when using drones. Depending on the country you’re in, there are differing regulations regarding the operation of commercial drones. These regulations vary from non-existent, to regulations so tight that it’s almost the equivalent to operating a passenger aircraft. Furthermore, each drone varies in terms of range, battery life and storage abilities. There are many factors to consider when considering using drones.
Working with Drone Mapping Tools
Once you have checked your local regulations regarding drone operation, sourced the drone you need, and determined the type of mapping you want to complete, you then need the software to process and analyze this specialized data.
Important Drone Software Features to Consider
It’s important to make note of the type of software available for drone mapping. Some software includes both flight planning and image processing functionality, while others are solely focused on one or the other.
In order to operate a drone most efficiently you need some sort of flight planning software. This is the software used in the field to direct the drone, and perform the image collection. In order to get the most out of the results of the flight, you need to process and analyze the imagery collected in a drone photogrammetry application.
The most important factors to consider are cross device and cross platform functionality of the software. What types of drones and devices is the software compatible with? Can the flight planning be done on a desktop computer and then opened on a mobile device in the field? Does the software offer offline access? While this offline compatibility is usually not required for image processing, this is a helpful feature for flight planning software where pilots may be in remote areas.
A robust, all-encompassing flight planning software should enable you to complete all the functions you need without having to use multiple apps. As a bare minimum, you should be able to create and schedule missions, manage your mission calendar, assign pilots and equipment, and check airspace and weather conditions all in the same software. You should also have the ability to run manual and automated flights.
We’ve collated a list of the best and most popular drone mapping software available.
Pix4D is a photogrammetry software designed for use with any type of imagery, whether it comes from a satellite, drone, or other aircraft. The team provides a flight app, desktop, and cloud-based platform, so it encompasses both flight planning and image processing all within the same ecosystem. It’s renowned for being quick to grasp, and easy enough to use for even the most amateur operator. Despite this, it will churn out detailed 3D models that are bound to keep the professionals happy. The results can be fine-tuned to less than a centimeter in accuracy ,and they have developed tools specific to industry type (e.g. Agriculture, mining, engineering). It certainly does not come free, but you can trial Pix4D for free for 15 days. After that, pricing varies depending on the access type or bundle selected.
DroneDeploy is a major player in the drone mapping and survey scene. They provide a versatile cloud-based software suitable for both beginners and professionals. The software is compatible with a range of devices, be it a table or mobile in the field, or a desktop computer in the office, you can take DroneDeploy with you anywhere. Imagery can be processed with survey grade accuracy, so you can publish detailed 2D maps, 3D models and even 360 panoramas. Frequently repeated analysis can be automated for ease of use, and clever AI technology is harnessed to improve outputs tailored specifically to your needs.
DroneDeploy is compatible with ANY drone and includes a flight planning application that enables automated flight mission development or manual control. The software comes with a 14 days trial in case you’re still not sold.
Naturally, ESRI does not want to be left out in the race to provide drone mapping technology. ESRI’s Drone2Map allows you to bring your drone collected data straight into the ArcGIS platform. The powerful tools process high-quality orthomosaic and digital terrain models with ease. Drone2Map can be used both online and offline. You have all the processing capabilities of ESRI at your fingertips. Once you’re done processing your drone data, you can produce and publish professional quality maps and models through any number of applications within the ArcGIS suite. As with most ESRI products, Drone2Map is far from free, but it is possible to procure a trial license by contacting sales. Drone2Map Standard licensing is $1,500, and supports 2D products (orthomosaics, DTMs, DSMs). Drone2Map Advanced is $3,500, and offers both 2D and 3D products (meshes and point clouds).
Site Scan for ArcGIS
Another product by the team at ESRI is Site Scan, a cloud-based drone mapping software that incorporates both flight planning and image processing functionality. It provides an end-to-end solution, from a pre-flight checklist to flight planning, fleet management and production of 2D or 3D maps and models that are instantly accessible, and portable to ArcGIS Online or ArcGIS Enterprise. It’s easy to use, and if you’re already working across ArcGIS platforms, it’s easy to integrate into your existing work systems.
Learn more about the benefits of working in the geospatial cloud with Chris Holmes from Planet.
DJITerra is a great starting point for those beginning their drone mapping skills. DJI Terra allows you to plan, view and import/export images. It’s intended for use with DJI drones specifically, and they have developed all the required software in house. DJI offers a variety of software compatible with their drones, including a flight planning software. You can plan missions based on waypoint locations, adjust parameters like altitude, speed or gimbal pitch, or automate a mission to follow a ‘corridor’ like a road or railway line. These features help in making flight planning easy, and accurate. You guessed it, DJITerra is also not free, although they frequently include free trial periods with purchase of some of their more advanced drones.
Precision Analytics, formerly known as Precision Mapper by Precision Hawk, is particularly useful for drone imagery processing for agriculture and civil engineering specialties. It supports a wide range of data types, so you can be reasonably confident it can handle the data from your existing drone, or the one you plan to purchase. It also has some powerful and ever-expanding analytical capabilities, with the ability to process even high-resolution drone data to create detailed maps, models, and measurements. It’s very user-friendly, with a bit of a plug and play type system. Simply upload the data, and select the type of map or analysis you want. Combine with Precision Flight and automate both your flight planning and data processing.
OpenDroneMap is a free open-source geospatial software that will enable you to convert imagery collected from a drone or other UAV into 3D mesh, point cloud data or a Digital Surface Model. The software is web based or can be used offline. It’s created in a command line-based format which makes it easy for those in the know to develop custom made plugins to adapt the software to suit their own specific needs. It comes with an analytics function, but you can also export data to analyze in separate more specialized software if need be. OpenDroneMap doesn’t have any flight planning functionality, however it is open source which is a major plus.
Want to know more? Listen to our recent podcast episode where we talk to Stephen Mather, the co-founder of OpenDroneMap.
UgCS provides a highly detailed flight planning software. You’ll find a range of drones are compatible with this software, and it runs offline. This means you can get everything done out in the field if needed. For lightweight processing and analysis, they have UgCS Mapper which will produce 2D maps and elevation models (DEMs, DSMs, and DTMs). The intention is for you to be able to validate the data collected while still in the field so you can repeat the survey then and there if it’s inadequate. As with most of the options in the article, for more detailed analysis work you’ll need to export the data into another software.
Wingtra are a bit different to the others mentioned here. Wingtra offer an all-encompassing package sale process. You purchase their drone in combination with the software and control tablet. This might not be the cheapest option, but it avoids the hassle of researching compatibility options with drone types and software. Of course, it all comes with a high level of customer support.
Make That Drone Work for You
Drones are becoming a popular sight across nearly every industry, with seemingly almost every amateur photographer using one. Despite this, drones are exceedingly underutilized. Part of the reason for this is the complexity in use, and compatibility of software to process and analyze drone mapping data. On top of this, there is a high cost to getting started with drone photogrammetry and mapping. You have to pay for the drone, your pilot certification, flight planning software, photogrammetry software, and then a desktop GIS software for further analysis. Despite all this, costs for these things are dropping, and we continue to see open source options entering the market, improving industry accessibility overall.