Best photogrammetry drones for mapping and surveying

What’s the best drone for your photogrammetry needs?

Before we launch into the pros, cons and comparisons of the leading photogrammetry drones, let’s explore what these systems do. Photogrammetry drones work by capturing pictures that overlap so that post-processing software can stitch them together and produce life-like orthomosaic maps, digital elevation models, digital surface models, 3D models and more. The quality of the optics and the onboard GNSS system, as well as the design of the drone, will determine what kinds of projects you can repeatedly tackle with it.

Our field-tested best drones for aerial mapping

WingtraOne Gen II
Best photogrammetry drone for most mapping projects
Ebee X
Best classical fixed-wing for thermal mapping
DJI Matrice 300
Best multirotor for using custom payloads over medium areas
DJI Phantom RTK
Best budget multirotor for small projects requiring hover image capture and video

Table of Contents

The best photogrammetry drones can now collect data for maps that will give you the details on a coin. These models also provide location data down to centimeter-level accuracy. A key benefit, drone photogrammetry-based orthophotos and 3D maps are lifelike, providing intuitive views of mines, construction sites, road projects and cities, to name a few.

How does photogrammetry work?

Photogrammetry illustration
Photogrammetry is the process of stitching together images captured by a manned aircraft or a drone. In-flight, the photos are timed with a percentage of overlap so that they can be stitched together for a continuous image map containing digital information. One type of map is an orthophoto—a data-rich image of an entire area that can be zoomed in on to explore deeper levels of life-like detail, depending on the resolution.

Since they can fly closer to the ground, drones enable higher resolution and accuracy than manned aircraft. Some can cover great distances in a single flight to produce the needed maps. Resolution, absolute data accuracy (reflecting real coordinates on the ground) and dependable results depend on the quality of the photogrammetry drone’s camera as well as its onboard GNSS system. Post-processing software and data correction methods will also factor into the quality of the results. 

Photogrammetry drones are excellent solutions to complement or replace satellite data and LIDAR. In fact, they are creating more demand for mapping products that couldn’t have existed without them. Choosing the right drone starts with identifying your projects in the foreseeable future via critical questions and answers. Will these projects cover large areas? Will there always be open space to take off and land? Will high absolute accuracy, even survey-grade, be needed? What solution offers the smallest learning curve? Answering these will mean the difference between buying a drone that limits you and investing in a system that gets your jobs done. Indeed, the right drone can even expand your opportunities. 

Quickstart guide to choosing the right photogrammetry drone (based on field tests)

WingtraOne GEN II Sensefly eBee DJI matrice 300 - drone for mapping and surveyingDJI Matrice 300 DJI PHANTOM 4 multicopter drone for mappingDJI Phantom Pro
Drone type
VTOL
Traditional fixed-wing
Multirotor
Multirotor
Coverage in one flight
1.2 cm/px (0.5 in/px) GSD
110 ha
70 ha
55 ha
8 ha
Max RGB resolution
42 MP
20 MP
45 MP
20 MP
Take-off / landing
Vertical/ controlled / flexible
Toss, belly land / requires large, soft areas
Vertical / controlled / flexible
Vertical/ controlled / flexible
PPK/RTK
PPK
RTK with PPK backup option
RTK
RTK
Hover image capture /vertical inspection
No
No
Yes
Yes
In-flight control and RTH
Yes
Yes
Yes
Yes
Pre-flight plan safety check/checklist
Yes
No
No
No
In-flight plan adjustment
No
Yes
Yes
Yes

This chart is based on some of our basic findings in the field and is by no means comprehensive. It does, however, give a quick idea of the strengths and limitations of leading systems on the market today. For more details, check out our individual comparisons. To understand the benefits of PPK vs. RTK read this article.

Choosing the best photogrammetry drone for specific applications

Drone photogrammetry is a key part of more and more workflows across industries. It’s solving problems businesses didn’t even know they had. From offering life-like 3D views and accurate location data on vertical assets across large areas, to offering a new level of precision around tracking volumes, data-rich maps transform the way professionals work. It’s no longer a matter of whether you will incorporate drone photogrammetry into worksite operations. The question is now which system makes the most sense for your current and future jobs. Choosing wisely will secure your operations as the field adjusts to a huge influx of precision data. So too will it bring you the biggest ROI.

Mining

Most mine sites are massive and involve fast-changing topography and stockpiles. A drone offering large, efficient coverage; reliability for on-demand, repeat surveying, and high accuracy for precise volumetric measurement will be a sure asset. Demanding mining operations operate on monthly cycles. So teams have little time for anything but business. For this reason, a drone needs to offer ease-of-use with a minimized learning curve. Last but not least, lots of system checks engineered into the drone will go a long way to guarantee safety.

Surveying and GIS

As they gain exposure to it, client expectations are shifting around the quality of aerial data. The turnaround time expectations are growing tighter also, as more robust drones become mainstream. Since survey firms tackle a range of projects in a competitive environment, it’s critical to ask the right questions when targeting a photogrammetry drone. Can your system tackle projects of any size and offer insights at the quality your clients will request? Can it meet deadlines repeatedly? Can it offer functionality that will put you ahead of the competition when bidding on projects? You will likely have several different drone platforms at your disposal, but make sure efficiency (fastest coverage over any area), reliability and ease of use are all covered. 

Why use drone photography?

Drones carrying high-resolution payloads offer an unmatched aerial view of targeted areas with life-like, granular detail available on a zoom in. When they carry high-quality GNSS receivers drones also offer data correction to give absolute accuracies in the centimeter range. Ground surveying is still required for many applications, but it is time consuming and limited in its perspective. Professionals across industries are finding that drone imagery and data offers a way for teams to inspect and align on details of a project based on up-to-date visual information that can be captured in a matter of hours instead of days. This FAQ page explores point-by-point the benefits and implications of drone mapping. 


Construction and infrastructure

You are coordinating a lot of teams across a complex project that is advancing by the day. You need on-demand, detail-rich maps that offer you a life-like view of all the details as you zoom. You also need data that is precise so that your crisp orthophotos along with CAD renderings give you a real-to-planned comparison as building progresses. Highly-accurate also enables calculation of volumes and reconciliation of contracts with clear evidence. This data can be shared across devices and annotated in real time across teams so that misalignment and great delays in projects become less and less likely. For maintenance, annual high-accuracy photogrammetry drone surveys can offer detailed inspection from the comfort of a remote office chair.

Environmental monitoring

You’re working close to nature, so you need a system that is flexible about where it can take off and land. You might need multispectral photogrammetry drone data for vegetation monitoring, or high-quality RGB for feature identification on individual animals without having to fly too close. Along coastline, it may be helpful to get some insights from up to a meter under the water in some cases. The right drone can provide all of this. The easier it is to tackle the learning curve of the system, the better for your projects. In cases of research, higher-resolution and accuracy data will progress whatever projects benefit from life-like detail and topographical analysis.

Agriculture

How are the crops fairing with the seasons’ rainfall and irrigation plan? Any disease creeping in? Pest problems? Why are some areas thriving and others slowly withering? You can pinpoint health issues with plants when you gather high-quality multispectral data. With this insight, you can change your approach immediately. To see how the new plans are working, you’ll want to re-run multispectral drone surveys on-demand to track progress. A drone that can carry a good sensor, safely and reliably, is key. So is efficient coverage to ensure drone flying improves workflows rather than interrupts them.
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