Of the several industrial uses of survey drones, mapping appears to be the most natural fit. Using a drone, surveyors must spend several weeks or days walking throughout the survey area and taking measurements manually. Not only do drones make surveying duties easier, but they can also produce data and models that are more accurate.
However, doing a drone survey will take more than simply buying any conventional commercial drone.
Accountants use calculators; carpenters use electric drills; surveyors use infrared reflectors, theodolites, GPS, and much more. Though, mapping drones may be changing how soil surveyors conduct polls from the sky rather than by land.
There are many reasons for this, the most important one being that information recorded via drone mapping properly complements what engineers could see from the earth.
Benefits Of Using Survey Drones
Safety of Workers
Although land surveyors are paid above the national average, their job doesn’t necessarily consider weather conditions or physical exhaustion. Land surveyors’ job is always outdoor regardless of weather and is formed of a lot of stamina and possibly long commutes. There’s also an extra threat of rough or unexpected terrain. Using a drone mapping solution allows for autonomous flights removes several dangers related to land surveying, such as heavy equipment and poisonous injuries.
With the press of a button, a drone can survey a site, obtain a complete aerial mapping of the site, land back in its launch location, and upload its model and information to a protected cloud in a couple of minutes. Plus, this whole process doesn’t put anyone at risk of severe injury.
Regarding speed, there is no comparison between land surveying and drone mapping. Land surveying needs long hours and carrying heavy equipment from one place to another. Rather than weeks or days, drone mapping takes minutes to complete a site survey with the same quantity of precision as you would on foot. Drone mapping makes it feasible for ad hoc flights of the whole site or specific areas of jobs to get easy access to the very up-to-date details on a site website regularly.
Budget — everybody’s favorite word. The ability to make the best use of a budget is at the forefront of most folks’ minds. The appeal of drone technologies as you probably already have the budget. Drone mapping can go seamlessly into your preexisting budget allocations and raise the business budget and time to spend on other jobs. A conventional ground survey team might require a month to map a dangerous 100-acre site, but a mapping drone may complete the same job in less than 30 minutes. The greater rate and automation which drone mapping supplies allow companies to safely take on and complete more tasks for more customers, on more site, in less time.
One Piece Of Equipment
Rather than theodolites, GPS, and infrared reflectors, land surveyors can now use drones that pilot with the push of a button. These drones can provide equivalent results as the above tools without all the heavy-lifting and fatigue. This would allow the surveyors to be safer, spend less time on each site excursion, and save or re-budget money.
Though there are tools that have conventionally been used for land surveying, it could be time to give them an update — to drones. With a few budgets refactoring to allow for no extra cost, using drones would let land surveyors get data as precise as before but in a safer, more manageable, and time-efficient method.
What To Start Looking For In Mapping And Surveying Drones
To help us narrow down the wide choice of commercial drones, let us look at the qualities we should consider in a mapping survey drone. These features prioritize the quality of information that the drones can accumulate and their ease for large-scale aerial surveys.
1. Fixed-Wing Or Multirotor
Although Multirotor drones are more prevalent today, mapping surveys may also benefit from fixed-wing drones’ unique capabilities. Selecting one over the other will depend on your budget, how big your survey area, and your level of expertise for a drone pilot.
Multirotor drones are a lot easier to fly and move, mostly because they can hover in place. Because they are so common nowadays, they’re also much more economical than professional-grade fixed-wing drones. Though, they suffer concerning battery efficiency as they rely on rotors to create both lift and propulsion. If you are surveying a region that only measures a couple of acres wide, then a multirotor drone might be the practical option.
Fixed-wing drones really shine if you’re surveying a couple of hundred hectares of land. The plan of fixed-wing drones lets them create lift by the mere act of gliding through the air. Since their rotors are responsible for providing propulsion, they could stay airborne much longer on a single battery cycle. However, they also require a more skilled pilot at the helm.
2. Autonomous Flight Capacity
More frequently than not, aerial mapping surveys will need you to fly over a place multiple times to ensure data consistency and accuracy. To do so, you need to make sure that the drone flies along the same flight path every time. Doing this manually is virtually impossible, so you will have to use a drone that may be programmed for autonomous flight.
Autonomous flight isn’t a quality that you can activate on any drone. You will likely have to use another software (for instance, Litchi) to make these flight paths, which will then be sent to the drone’s remote control. By eliminating heavy pilot input, errors due to human lapses could be averted.
3. Long Battery Time
It’s not rare for mapping surveys to cover regions that are several hectares big. Despite the rate with which drones can fly, a normal drone can’t complete an entire survey on a single battery cycle. Therefore, there’ll surely be a demand for the drone to fly back to a designated landing place so that its batteries can be swapped.
As you can envision, deploying and landing the drone several times in one survey will take plenty of precious minutes. To improve the time that you spend in the area, you’ll want a drone that could fly for a minimum of 30 minutes uninterrupted. This is pretty much a normal number for many modern drones.
4. 4K Camera
Photogrammetry is the most common method used for aerial surveying. The technique employs a set of overlapping geotagged photos taken by the drone to infer all of the features’ dimensions on the floor. Though photogrammetry has limitations, it is a widely preferred option because of how affordable and accessible it is.
The key to data quality in photogrammetry is the resolution of this camera. You’ll want to use a camera that could capture as many of the fine details about the floor as you can, allowing the software to recreate these attributes during 3D modeling. Cameras that can record 4K videos and 12 MP photographs are standard nowadays, though you can go for as high a resolution as possible.
5. RTK Compatibility
All drones that are commercially available now include an integrated GPS receiver to allow location tracking. This GPS feature offers flight stabilization along with tracking the drone requirements for independent flight. When performing mapping surveys, the GPS receiver further automatically geotags pictures. By implanting the pictures with spatial information, the mapping software can recreate an entire 3D model by “stitching” the photographs together.
Based on several states, GPS data may have errors of up to a few meters. Though this might not be important to some applications, fields like urban planning and structure may benefit from more precise measures.
In recent years, drone makers have approached this issue by combining RTK tech into mapping drones. RTK is Real-Time Kinematic, a method where differential measurements could improve GPS data. RTK relies on a continuous correction of GPS data relative to a fixed ground station. Through this technique, locational accuracy can be enhanced to centimeter-level.
RTK drones provide a massive jump concerning data accuracy for surveying and mapping. Although, the upgrade from standard GPS to RTK will also be extremely costly.
6. Interchangeable Payload
While photogrammetry is the common mapping method used, it is far from being the ideal. If you want more detail in your version, an alternative is to use a Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) sensor. This detector releases pulses of light that bounce off solid objects in the survey area. By estimating the time it takes for these pulses to go back to the sensor, LiDAR more accurately finds the size and shape of individual characteristics.
Drone mapping technology may be combined with other imaging technologies like multispectral imaging and thermal imaging to yield various data maps. This has proven useful in several businesses, from the management of crop farms to surveying utility pipes.
Drones that include built-in LiDAR thermal cameras or sensors are infrequent. If you would like these functions, you’ll need to go with third-party accessories along with a drone that could include various kinds of payloads. Such drones are surely at the luxury and a great deal more expensive than many commercial drones.
However, mapping is an extremely technical application of drones, and it does not exactly take an extremely sophisticated drone to perform the job. At the minimum, you will require a drone with a fantastic camera, a GPS receiver, and autonomous flight capabilities. Scaling up functionalities with more advanced gear will take a huge investment but will also let you charge premium prices.
Top 5 Best Drones For Surveying And Mapping
1. DJI Phantom 4 RTK
For an extremely long time, the Phantom 4 drone from DJI was considered the standard of professional-grade drones. Following the RTK version of the Phantom 4 was released two years ago, it immediately changed the game so far as mapping professionals were worried. This is a drone that came with the industry-defining characteristics of the Phantom 4 and expanded with RTK technology.
The Phantom 4 RTK retains all of the best qualities of the normal Phantom 4 — a 1-inch CMOS sensor, a 5870 mAh battery, and a 3-axis gimbal that can keep the drone airborne for up to half an hour. Located at the peak of the drone is the attribute RTK module. Together with the D-RTK2 ground station, this aerial drone may collect spatial information at centimeter-level precision.
The Phantom 4 RTK also includes an upgraded controller using a hot-swappable battery, an option for 4G connectivity for cloud-based backup, and a slot for a microSD card to store survey data. The exceptional GS RTK app was created especially for this drone, supporting intuitive flight preparation and effortless implementation on the field.
The main limitation of the Phantom 4 RTK is how it wasn’t supposed to be compatible with a Post-Processing Kinematic (PPK) workflow. Plus, it doesn’t have an interchangeable payload that confines you to mapping by photogrammetry.
2. senseFly eBee X
Few firms have as much expertise in aerial mapping as senseFly, so it only makes sense for one of the drones to be included in this list. Our preference is the eBee X, a fixed-wing drone that gives enough flexibility for any mapping requirements.
The eBee X is a very versatile drone. It can accommodate both RTK and PPK workflows and can be used with various payload choices both from senseFly and third-party firms. These cover the Parrot Sequoia multispectral sensor and the SODA 3D mapping camera, amongst others.
As we have discussed, the best thing about flying a fixed-wing drone is that it can remain airborne for a very long time on a single battery cycle. In the event of the eBee X can fly up to 90 minutes uninterrupted — a huge value if you are surveying a wide area. When it comes to organizing your polls, the eBee X is compatible with the popular Pix4D package of mapping platforms.
The last thing you will need to know about the eBee X is that it is very expensive — the drone with all the accessories can cost around $15,000. It’s a huge sum, but we are positive that many drone mapping experts will not mind the cost of such a reliable and high-quality drone.
3. DJI Mavic Air 2
Thus far, we have concentrated on high-end drones which were specifically created for mapping. However, the mapping does not always have to be done with a costly drone. With a small amount of tweaking and several compromises, even the Mavic Air 2 can perform some light mapping work.
The Mavic Air 2 is the trendy ultra-portable drone by DJI and follows the hugely thriving Mavic Air. This upgraded version has a camera that could capture 48 MP photographs and 4K videos at 60 fps. This is one of the most reliable cameras in the prosumer drone marketplace and is certainly robust enough for photogrammetry.
It will be hard for the Mavic Air 2 to cover a good deal of ground being a small drone. This limits the usefulness of this Mavic Air 2 for mapping. In case you have several hundred hectares of land to survey, you may need to obtain a larger and stronger drone than the Mavic Air 2.
The Biggest challenge of utilizing the Mavic Air 2 in mapping is how to think of a flight plan. In the end, even DJI Terra mapping software does not support flight planning with the Mavic Air 2. The best bet lies in Litchi, as its programmers have said they are working on compatibility with both the Mavic Mini and the Mavic Air 2.
4. Yuneec H520 RTK
The H520 RTK is Yuneec’s inclusion into the field for mapping drones. Sporting the Helicopter build of Yuneec, the H520 RTK delivers a wide assortment of mapping professionals’ options. As its name suggests, the drone includes an integrated RTK module and a Network RTK base station.
There are a few things about the H520 RTK which make it unique. First off is the fact that it doesn’t have a fixed payload. Yuneec presents various high-class accessories for the H520 RTK, such as the E90 20MP high-speed camera and the CGOET thermal camera. These are sold individually but can certainly expand the options of the drone.
The H520 RTK was also made to be compatible with a PPK procedure. PPK is useful for mapping surveys in areas where communication between the drone and the ground station isn’t assured. Rather than doing real-time corrections to spatial information, PPK allows for coordinated data collection so they may be adjusted during post-processing.
5. DJI Matrice 210 RTK
Part of the DJI Matrice 200 series, the Matrice 210 RTK is easily among the most premium drones ever issued by DJI. Not only does it have a provision for both a downward and upward gimbal, but also, it includes an integrated RTK module. The Matrice 210 RTK is strong enough to carry two accessories — ideal for doing a double visual and thermal mapping survey.
As with additional Matrice 200 drones, the 210 RTK can be used with Zenmuse cameras. These are some of the greatest payload options the industry offers. The selection contains the Z30 zoom camera, the XT2 thermal camera, and the X4S high-speed camera. The drone can also accommodate third-party payloads through the DJI SkyPort V2 adapter.
The flight planning capacities of the Matrice 210 RTK are a lot more flexible than other mapping drones. The Matrice 210 RTK offers customization and programming through the Onboard SDK and Mobile SDK rather than a normal flight planning software. This gives you virtually endless opportunities for automating the drone’s flight. DJI also provides a different Payload SDK to manage the functions of the camera or sensors.
Purchasing a complete Matrice 210 RTK installation can cost $10,000 or more between the drone and accessories. Additionally, it is far from being user-friendly. Purchasing a drone like this is a serious business, but a good deal of professionals will testify to its value.
Aerial surveying and mapping are some of the most productive fields in the age of commercial drone flight. It’s also amongst the most technically difficult, creating a large barrier to technology and skill entry. While this article does not touch on the ability, you will need to be a professional drone mapper, and we hope that we’ve pointed you in the right direction concerning the hardware you will need.