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What is Drone Mapping?

The Ultimate Comprehensive Guide to Drone Mapping, Acquisition & Processing Software

Drone mapping is already becoming a powerful “tool” to create 2d maps and 3d models that deliver extreme value for many types of companies from surveying, to engineering, to general contracting, to construction. In stark contrast to traditional, outdated methods, drones are expediting workflows and saving significant time and money as they are increasingly used to map small and large areas. It’s a niche any serious drone pilot should consider.

This is one of the most common questions we get for the Ask Drone U podcast is, “What is drone mapping and how does the data generated help companies?”

Therefore, we highly recommend that anyone interested in drone mapping learn the systems involved in data acquisition and the nuances of photogrammetry processing applications. While it may seem like a vast amount of information one needs to absorb (and it is, to be fair), the best informed pilots will be able to create deliverables in situations where most cloud-based applications fail. An educated drone pilot and “mapper” can provide much better data than someone who is just counting on a mobile all-in-one application to provide them with accurate results!

To that end, we have pooled together the collective knowledge and wisdom of our mapping pilots to provide you with the most comprehensive, experience-based information available today. If you follow our “map” to drone mapping, you’ll have a clear understanding of drone mapping, software used to process mapping data, tips and tricks from actual pilots doing this for a living, and a path forward to add mapping to your list of drone piloting skills.

So are you ready? Let’s power up and get going!

HISTORY

It was not all that long ago that the only way to get an orthomosaic of a large property with high accuracy was to fly in a cessna or helicopter! With the rapid advancement in drone technology, as well as the decreased cost of high accuracy RTK GPS, the cost and time to obtain these same orthomosaics has, likewise, decreased significantly.

Drone mapping is powerful because we’ve taken the age old science of photogrammetry (1867) and merged it with a fast, seamless, and autonomous process to acquire data and gather measurements. Further, due to the remarkable speed of data acquisition and the powerful resources of high end computers, we can now create survey grade (ASPRS Standard) data in a fraction of the time.

That data can also be showcased as a point cloud, orthomosaic, digital surface model, topographical map, digital terrain model, and visualized through a 3D textured mesh. Here are some examples of projects we’ve done to demonstrate for you the power of the deliverable for a client:

(Embed this 3d model into the website with this iframe code found in comments)

DATA

“Better data equals better decisions.”

As you can see from those examples, drone mapping provides a truly unprecedented level of detail and data for companies. This helps them make better, more informed decisions, which leads to increased profitability, which can then lead to increased opportunities, and the cycle goes from there. Drone mapping is powerful! How many problems can drone data help solve? The possibilities are almost limitless.

To give some sense of form to that limitless space, here’s a great article to check out by Propeller Aerobotics. It will give you some ideas of what can be measured with drones and volumetric tools.


To give some sense of form to that limitless space, here’s a great article to check out by Propeller Aerobotics. It will give you some ideas of what can be measured with drones and volumetric tools.

APPLICATIONS

Construction
Land Surveying & GIS
Real Estate & Ranching
Accident Reconstruction
Powerline & Cell Tower Inspections
Insurance & Claims Adjustment
Mining & Quarries
Solar Inspections
Forestry
Agriculture
Disaster Relief & Emergency Management

TERMINOLOGY

Now that you have a firm understanding of the value and benefit of drone mapping, let’s take a look at the key terms in this drone niche. As we do that, don’t get overwhelmed with all the vernacular! There are many terms here so you can get familiar with the “language”. It takes time to get these down, so bookmark this page and refer to it when needed.

Drone Mapping/Modeling -

Creating 2D maps and 3D models from aerial pictures via a process called photogrammetry.

Data Acquisition Plan -

It summarizes the acquisition planning discussions and identifies milestones in the acquisition process.

Photogrammetry -

The use of photography in surveying and mapping to measure distances between objects.

GCP-ground control point -

is a characteristic point whose coordinates are known. Their coordinates have been measured with traditional surveying methods or have been obtained by other sources (LiDAR, older maps of the area, Web Map Service). GCPs are used to georeference a project and reduce the noise (check out our GCP Landing Pads to help with this).

Tie-point -

An Automatic Tie Points is a 3D point and its corresponding 2D key points that were automatically detected in the images and used to compute its 3D position.

Manual Tie Point -

A Manual Tie Point is a point without 3D coordinates that is marked by the user in the images. It can be used to assess and improve the reconstruction accuracy.

Densified Point Cloud -

The densified point cloud is a set of 3D points that reconstruct the model. The X,Y,Z position and the color information is stored for each point of the densified point cloud.

Classified Point Cloud -

can showcase the differences between vegetation, road surface, ground surface, and man-made structures. Classified point clouds make it easy to show only specific parts of a model.

Mesh (Triangle Meshes) -

The 3D textured mesh is a representation of the shape of the model that consists of vertices, edges, faces and the texture from the images that is projected on it.

Orthomosaic -

The orthomosaic is a 2D map. Each point contains X, Y and color information. The orthomosaic has uniform scale and can be used for 2D measurements (distance, surface). It corrects the following problems of the input images:

  • Perspective of the camera.
  • Different scale based on the distance that each point of the object/ground has from the camera.
DTM -

The digital terrain model (DTM) is a 2.5 D model of the mapped area after filtering out the objects, like buildings. It can be exported in GeoTIFF raster file format.

DSM -

The digital surface model (DSM) is a 2.5 D model of the mapped area. It can be exported as two different types of files:

  • Raster GeoTIFF.
  • Vector point cloud (.xyz, .las, .laz).
KML -

KML is a file format used to display geographic data in an Earth browser such as Google Earth.

NDVI -

The normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) is a simple graphical indicator that can be used to analyze remote sensing measurements, typically, but not necessarily, from a space platform, and assess whether the target being observed contains live green vegetation or not.

Thermography -

Infrared thermography, thermal imaging, and thermal video are examples of infrared imaging science. Thermographic cameras usually detect radiation in the long-infrared range of the electromagnetic spectrum and produce images of that radiation, called thermograms.

GSD (Ground Sampling Distance) -

The Ground Sampling Distance (GSD) is the distance between two consecutive pixel centers measured on the ground. The bigger the value of the image GSD, the lower the spatial resolution of the image and the less visible details.The GSD is related to the flight height: the higher the altitude of the flight,the bigger the GSD value.

Example:
  • A GSD of 5 cm means that one pixel in the image represents linearly 5 cm on the ground (5*5 = 25 square centimeters).
  • A GSD of 10 m means that one pixel in the image represents linearly 10 m on the ground (10*10 = 100 square meters).
Absolute Accuracy -

It is the accuracy that is defined by the difference between the location of features on a map/reconstructed model/orthomosaic and their true position on the Earth.

Relative Accuracy -

It is the accuracy that is defined by comparing individual features on a map/reconstructed model/orthomosaic with other features on the same model. For example, two points of the model can be 2 meters away from their real position on the earth but if their relative accuracy is high, then the distance measured between these points will be very accurate as it is related with the relative position of the points.

GIS -

A geographic information system (GIS) is a system designed to capture, store, manipulate, analyze, manage, and present spatial or geographic data.

GPS -

The Global Positioning System (GPS), originally Navstar GPS, [1] is a satellite-based radionavigation system owned by the United States government and operated by the United States Air Force. [2] It is a global navigation satellite system that provides geolocation and time information to a GPS receiver anywhere on or near the Earth where there is an unobstructed line of sight to four or more GPS satellites. [3]

RTK GPS -

Also know as Real Time Kinematic satellite navigation, this is a centimeter-accurate technique of obtaining GPS (or any GNSS) data. Essentially, the RTK receiver analyzes the GPS radio signal to calculate this data.

Note:

Not all RTK drones actually utilize the onboard RTK data and write that on the images to create highly precise models. Currently only the Phantom 4 RTK can create drone maps without GCP’s if the conditions are perfect and network access is available.

SOFTWARE

It's a common misconception that all drone mapping apps complete the same job. To be clear, they do NOT. In fact, all drone mapping apps fall into one of three categories, with each app performing different functions and for different type projects.

Acquisition Software

Assist in planning autonomous missions to acquire aerial imagery. Examples in this category are Maps Made Easy, Pix4D Capture, and UCGS.

Processing Software

Use photogrametric calculations to create point clouds, maps, orthomosaics, and other deliverables from imagery. Examples in this category are Pix4D Mapper, Photoscan Agisoft, gently, and Inpho.

All-in-One Software

Can plan autonomous missions to acquire data, transmit the data to a cloud server, and then autonomously process that data in the cloud to create output deliverables. Examples in this category are Skycatch and DroneDeploy.

The differences between desktop (acquisition and processing) and cloud processing (all-in-one) software are the cloud processors typically have less customization so as to ensure results containing higher accuracy and consistency. Cloud processing solutions also typically use an industry standard desktop-based app for processingdata in the cloud. It is, therefore, great for companies doing significant, large-scale mapping jobs.

Software Details

Let's dive deeper into some of the different drone mapping software applications available today (including some of our favorites). Please note that this list does not include every mapping software on the market, some of which weve mentioned above.

Maps Made Easy is a web-based company out of San Diego that offers “pay-as-you-go” mapping solutions. Their application has become the industry standard for autonomous mission planning requiring terrain awareness, which is an important solution to have for solving the problem of acquiring data in areas with extreme elevation change. It can control DJI and other select drones.

Pix4D is a Swiss company offering a suite of photogrammetric software. Their mobile app is Pix4Dcapture and will automate the mapping process with DJI, Parrot, Yuneec, and other select drones.

This app has become the industry standard for capturing drone mapping data, with multiple features for orbital capture, double grid capture, nadir flights, and free fly mode. The Free Flight Mode is especially valuable to drone mapping pilots who need to map complex areas. This mode will automatically calibrate overlapping images captured during manual flight as the pilot controls the drone.

UGCS is a Latvian company that offers an easy-to-use software to plan and fly drone survey missions, it supports almost any UAV platform, providing convenient tools for aerial and linear surveys and enabling direct drone control. UGCS enables professional land survey mission planning using photogrammetry technique.

Pix4D’s most well known software in their suite of photogrammetric mapping tools is Pix4Dmapper. It processes any image and creates 3D point clouds and 2D maps.

Known in the industry as the most powerful, capable, and customizable solution on the market, Pix4D has become the gold standard for photogrammetry processing software. It is technically the most statistically accurate as well.

RealityCapture is photogrammetry software which creates 3D models out of unordered photographs or laser scans without seams. The most common fields for its current use are cultural heritage, full body scanning, gaming, surveying, mapping, visual effects, and virtual reality in general.

RealityCapture has become the industry standard for creating highly detailed graphical representations of maps or 3D models. It creates the most life-like 3D textured meshes on the market.

DroneDeploy has become the industry leader for all-in-one photogrammetry solutions. With multiple purchase options, it’s able to serve a wide audience of users. The only negative aspect of using a cloud based service like this is the inability to control many settings that can increase the output quality of the deliverables.

Skycatch is a San Francisco-based company founded in 2013 that primarily focuses on enterprise grade solutions for construction based applications. Skycatch has developed a new element to drone mapping by providing an on-site processing solution. Utilizing pre-designed templates, it’s able to process data onsite via hardware that communicates with the drone, vastly increasing the speed of processing.

Agisoft’s photogrammetry software, known as Metashape or Photoscan, creates panorama stitching and support for fisheye lenses. Using the professional version of their software, you can make point clouds, digital elevation models, take measurements, and process RGB, NIR, thermal, and multi-spectral imagery. Agisoft is great for professionals who need an all in one package for photogrammetry and 3D modeling (like architects, GIS professionals, civil engineers, and media professionals).

LEARN

The best way to learn drone mapping is from those who have already been doing it. You can glean from their experiences, both good and bad, and substantially lower your learning curve. With Drone U, there are two ways you can do just that:
  • Online – with the top drone community in the world, you can join a growing base of like-minded pilots so you can continually learn from one another. You can also access all of our online drone training courses, like several mapping specific courses, so you can learn at your pace. Check out all the courses you can get started with right now.
  • In-Person – learning live from some of the top drone mapping pilots in the country is the best way to expedite your mapping education. Our trainings are not only deep and thorough, they are very practical. You will learn by actually doing when you take this important step with Drone U. Check out our upcoming mapping trainings and learn more about the many benefits.
No matter what you do, get started! We are here to help walk you through this process so you get get started or grow your drone mapping business. You will not find a place with better tools, experts, and community than here at Drone U. See you soon!
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