Is your mapping drone the best for your needs? Here’s five ways to know

mapping drone and surveyor

Technology is bringing us closer together than ever before, seemingly shrinking the world. It’s simplifying processes and speeding up the way we work. And yet the size of the planet we live on, and the complexity of its terrain and climates,  remains as it always has been. 

So if land management, construction, mining, environmental research, earthworks—basically any sectors and research programs that depend on geoinformation—are to keep up with the pace of digital transformation, they’re going to need a really good mapping drone.

How do you know if you are investing in a good system for your current and future needs? This page will go a long way in helping you to answer that question with confidence.

Mapping drones: Fives ways to know you've got the right one

1. Your mapping drone is vertical take-off and landing (VTOL)

Whether you are mapping a large or small area, there are so many reasons why you want VTOL technology. The most important of these follow:

VTOL drone takes-off anywhere

Very little space is needed

VTOL requires only about two square meters of space, max.

It ensures that the drone rises straight up and lowers directly down during take-off and landing, respectively. 

So you don’t have to search for a big space, and your operations around take-off and landing are predictable. 

VTOL UAV lands safely

Each landing is safe even on gravel over many repetitions

Heavier payloads are protected, and they fetch you better data, faster.

With VTOL, your landing is controlled. 

This means that your payload is automatically safer, i.e., less subject to impact of belly landing.

Simply put, it’s much more feasible to integrate a heavier, more expensive payload into a system that won’t crash with it. And it’s these payloads that are the ones with higher resolutions and accuracy potential.

VTOL drone can be adjusted manually

Easy like with a multicopter

You can better predict and control what the drone will do in changing weather conditions and environments.

If you work with a hand/catapult launch and belly landing craft, a car parked in the landing area or strong wind gust during landing can mean the difference between a normal project wrap-up and a crisis. 

In most cases, VTOL allows for split-second decisions and manual control of the drone at all times of a mission.

What is drone mapping?

Drone mapping is the capture of detailed land features by an unmanned aerial robot that takes pictures, which are then stitched together via post-processing photogrammetry software. It fulfills a niche of data collection that is more accurate than satellite data capture and many times faster, and more precise, than surveying on foot. 

Fixed-wing VTOL technology is the most optimal choice for large-area drone surveying due to significantly longer flight times than multicopters.

Surveyors construction site with VTOL mapping drone hovering

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2. Your drone is easy to onboard your team with and use every day

Ideally, drones for mapping collect incredible data and save you time doing it. The truth is, some systems are not so intuitive and require trial and error, chatroom discussion mining and calls to vendors to map simple areas, let alone complex terrain and multiple-flight projects.

A good aerial mapping drone is accessible right out of the box. It intuitively leads you through the steps to get started on a basic project, and offers quick, in-app resources to answer questions without a hunt. 

Illustration showcasing the ease of use for the best mapping drone available on the market

While courses help pilots get certified and understand regulations and UAV operation in any airspace, you shouldn’t have to take loads of them or fly for months to feel confident with a good drone for mapping. On the contrary, it should give you time-saving results from the first flight. 

In the end, a reliable mapping drone should be a system that any certified pilot feels confident using each and every time so that they can tackle projects without a second thought.

3. A good drone for mapping features payloads optimized for max coverage and quality data

Let’s face it, there are a lot of mapping drones out there competing for their place in your workflow.

But a key difference in your ability to take on projects and impress with timely results will be found in how their payloads are integrated and function. 

The best drones for mapping offer seamless integration of a range of sensors that anticipate your most in-demand projects.

A good baseline RGB payload is fundamental to a mapping drone kit, with high-quality optics and a high enough resolution to ensure that all of your projects are captured efficiently and at the accuracies you require.

Almost any survey project, from topo mapping to construction site overview surveys, will benefit from this payload.

A high-resolution RGB payload option (see VTOL point one) will offer not only a much higher accuracy potential, but also a much speedier capture rate if you need to switch a bit of accuracy out for speed and coverage.  

Some companies have even optimized their high-accuracy RGB solution for reduced data load for faster post processing.  

So project time is reduced by faster flight times and data capture, as well as reduced data processing time. This is an essential payload for solar farm mapping, cadastral projects and anything requiring ultra-high accuracy.

A dedicated oblique payload configuration to capture 3D assets will simplify any project where vertical views and 3D modeling are important.  

With normal RGB payloads, you’ll need to fly the same area twice, in a cross-hatch pattern, to get the rich data that one flight with an oblique payload can.  

So this kind of payload helps cut down field time when drone 3D mapping, via a single-line flight plan, because it captures at an angle to optimize vertical accuracy and 3D detail. Such a payload is optimal for cases like urban planning and road construction.

Mapping drone with an oblique payload scanning objects

A dedicated oblique payload configuration means exactly what you might think: the payload is tilted. This enables better vertical data capture along with the horizontal and helps abide by regulations in cases of road mapping—you can map parallel instead of directly over populated roads. 

High-accuracy multispectral with RGB payload demand is on the rise, as agriculture, forestry and environmental applications are impacted by mapping drone technology. Professionals in these fields see that this data gives them the foresight and precision to track and manage resources like never before.  

A good multispectral payload offers the highest possible accuracy, all five spectral bands and a panchromatic option to extract RGB information at the same time. This cuts the number of flights in half while bringing the analysis to a life-like level. 

Environmental research and coastline monitoring, as well as all large-scale agricultural, among other, applications stand to benefit from multispectral data.

WingtraOne PPK module

Don’t forget high-quality data correction hardware to ensure high accuracy without the need for checkpoint setup. When you gather all that data, it will only be satellite-level accurate. So you either need a post-processed kinematic (PPK) or real-time kinematic (RTK) system on your drone.  

The difference between these two modes of data collection is highlighted in this article, and PPK is recommended for its reliability across all missions. 

4. Your mapping drone should be compatible with all drone mapping software.

A huge part of your workflow does and will always involve how the data is processed and made available after collection. So if you want the hardware, payloads and in-field workflow to be bulletproof, you need to know that your results can be plugged into the best software suites around. After all, they’re evolving just as much as the hardware, so each industry will find suites more tightly adapted to their needs

The processing tools, presentation capabilities, compatibility with and major planning software, as well as features that allow for precision analysis and intuitive and secure security around sharing, are always being refined.

What is drone mapping used for?

Drone mapping fills a niche that was left open by satellite data—which is not accurate enough or reliable enough during cloud cover—and airplane-survey data—which is cost prohibitive while presenting its own dangers. 

Indeed, with the dawn of the age of commercial mapping drones, a lot of opportunities have opened up, and industries have already been transformed. A few examples of how mapping drone data is used follow:

  • Streamlining infrastructure construction and maintenance via fast, high-accuracy data capture
  • Managing massive areas of vegetation via large-area, high-accuracy multispectral data capture
  • Monitoring ecosystems via aerial views of habitat and species
  • Optimizing mining and reclamation workflows via high-accuracy volumetrics and granular site updates
  • Clarifying land development and taxation via fast, survey-grade coverage of massive areas
  • Revolutionizing safety standards via distance from active site and regular, precise site updates
  • Founding a digital world via precise, up-to-date aerial insights

Processing of complex outputs, including 3D models, multi-flight maps, multispectral indices can range in quality. And the way that software services and cloud subscriptions work vary from company to company. 

Depending on the size of your organization, fleet management, project documentation, annotation, file sharing, and myriad needs can come up. Some software may suit your needs better than others. And in some cases a combination of software will be needed to accomplish your goals with your mapping drone data.

5. A great mapping drone’s manufacturer prioritizes your projects

You’re in the field, and you’re not sure why your drone is not connecting to the telemetry.

Where can you find resources to troubleshoot? Is there someone you can call or write to if a bit of written help doesn’t go far enough?

What lengths is the support team willing to go to to make sure you get your data in a short amount of time with minimum setbacks? 

These are really important questions, since even the simplest system will sometimes be operating in a complex environment. And even the most reliable system might present challenges in the field.

With the right mapping drone, you’ll experience several tiers of support:

  1. A robust and intuitive training program that answers all questions across everyday projects and graduates you to more complex, advanced scenarios involving changing terrain, extremely large areas and precise data capture needs. 
  2. A comprehensive knowledge base that is both intuitive to search and available on your base station in the field.
  3. Helpful and customer-obsessed dealers, i.e., vetted retail partners who prioritize your project and deadline over their immediate gains.
  4. A direct line to the manufacturer support team if a challenge is higher-level.
  5. Add-on programs to protect you from unexpected costs and delays.
  6. A high rating among customers who consistently cite the support they get as swift and exceptional.

So, what is the best drone for mapping?

Let’s not be shy here. All of the above was written with Wingtra in mind. The qualities mentioned above are those experienced by WingtraOne customers every day. 

Surely, a mapping drone will retrieve high-accuracy data over a large area fast. After that, the bottom line is actually uptime. How tightly does the system fit into your workflow and meet your needs?

  1. VTOL reduces search time for take-off and landing spot
  2. Simplified setup and intuitive workflow
  3. Optimised data capture for minimum processing time
  4. Quality airframe is wind-resistant and ensures reliable capture every flight
  5. High-end PPK for reliable accuracy based on just a few checkpoints
  6. Pre-flight checks prime every mission for success
  7. Highly-integrated electronics for minimum points of failure

How fast and frequently can you get it in the air when you have a busy workload? Moreover, what percentage of the time do you spend doing valuable work with it and its data vs. troubleshooting or waiting for repairs? 

Make sure you talk in-depth with sales people about these questions. Don’t be shy, because even if you save a bit of money on the bundle cost, you might lose much more in billable field time and other hidden costs. Also read what other people are saying about the system regarding the exact jobs you are doing.

ebee x fixed-wing drone
DJI phantom drone
DJI multicopter drone the Matrice 300

And which drone mapping software is best?

As alluded above, this is a trick question, because it really depends on what you need. Drone mapping software suites are becoming more diverse by the day, simply because the nature of projects based on drone data is complex. Just like hardware engineers, software engineers want to answer every possible customer need. So the first thing to ask yourself is:

What exactly do I need to do with this software, at every stage of the project? 

Make a list of all of the outputs you need, the industry software compatibilities you will need, the sharing capabilities you will require, the security you need, etc. Then start researching the best photogrammetry software for your requirements. 

For some examples, Pix4D is a widely used drone mapping software suite that is often embedded in other systems and is used by a range of industries to generate maps from mapping drone data. 

Propeller, features a solution that begins with your field setup. Specifically, AeroPoints are like mini base stations that serve as checkpoints or ground control points. When you send the data to Propeller, the company uses what’s collected from the aeropoints and the flights to generate your maps for you.

Agisoft MetaShape is also a leading software, heralded for its powerful yet flexible tools that can be customized for your needs.

Keep in mind your budget and subscription fees associated with software and their various tiers and have a look around. Make sure that you consider the costs the software can save you over the long run.

Here are some of the most impressive mapping drone case studies

FAQ

How do you integrate mapping drone data into demanding workflows?

A lot of companies start with contractors, because these folks know how all of the hardware and software work and can help you realize the savings potential and value of the data immediately, without any impact on your workflows. 

Eventually, however, many companies cross the learning curve and realize they can bring the hardware and software in-house and use the cloud and save a lot more money. The most important thing, then, is to make sure that the hardware and software answer to all the demands and challenges your projects present.

In the end, you want systems that are reliable, up-to-date regarding regulations, and future-proof, all of which will save more in the long run.

What are the regulations around mapping drones?

These differ depending on where you live. In Europe and the US, they are well-known and published widely. Generally, regulations are predictable if you are not flying over people, the drone is within visible line of sight, and you keep operations beneath a specific altitude above ground level. 

Check these based on where you are flying your mapping drone. Beyond this, certain permissions are required to fly missions that involve more calculated risk.

Additionally, in the US, regulations are based on security. For example, the US Department of Defense issued a Blue UAS cleared list of drones that operate within safety and security measures that government projects require. Drones that are on this list, including WingtraOne GEN II with its BLU software, are pre-cleared for a range of sensitive projects.

What’s the difference between RGB and LIDAR mapping drones?

First, and most fundamentally, RGB data collection is photography-based, while LIDAR is laser-based. So the outputs you will work with are fundamentally different. 

RGB offers life-like views that are zoomable and the option to correct the data down to cm-level accuracy for any point you see.

LIDAR offers a granular surface perspective based on millions of laser points bouncing off of it and being recorded. So the output is not lifelike, but is analytically powerful.

It is also more effective in cases of dense vegetation, although it doesn’t penetrate through vegetation, which is a common myth. Take a deeper dive and get most of your questions answered on the differences between LIDAR and photogrammetry.

What kinds of money can you save with mapping drones?

The answer to this depends on your current methods of obtaining aerial data.

Do you already use satellite imagery and terrestrial? Do you already use a team of multirotors?

In any case, upgrading to a dedicated mapping drone—i.e., one that is dedicated to covering large areas, fast, at a high accuracy—will cut down on your terrestrial field time dramatically. At the same time, a reliable mapping drone will give you more frequent and comprehensive views of any project you are working on for a fraction of the cost of airborne data. 

You’ll also have higher-accuracy views than satellite data, which enables better management of building progress and site safety as well as clear records to discuss with/as contractors when payments are due.

Do mapping drones replace human surveyors?

The short answer is no.

Just like all professions affected by digital workflows and artificial intelligence advances, the field of surveying will soon be split into those who use drones and those who do not.

The discernment and experience of the survey profession is invaluable. Surveyors are the ones set up the scene for the drone to capture at a high accuracy and know how to test for whether or not they do. They are also needed for quality control on sites, now that their walking field time has been reduced.

Human eyes and intelligence is absolutely essential to putting drone data in context and using it to its most comprehensive potential.

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