There are many kinds of drones on the market, but today we point our magnifying glass to a particular drone breed. We are going to look at drones that can assist those who are looking to enhance their professions in the mapping and surveying industries.
What is Drone Mapping?
Mapping with a drone uses a technique known as photogrammetry, which is the process of gathering measurements from photographs. This is how run-of-the-mill maps and 3D models of real-world scenes are created. In fact, many of the maps we utilize today were created with photogrammetry images taken from manned aircraft and drones.
UAV drone mapping is similar to mapping by manned aircraft, with the only difference being a lower altitude, which often allows higher-quality images to be captured.
There is enormous potential for drone mapping in sectors like real estate, infrastructure inspection, agriculture, mining, and construction. Decision making is much easier when you have a 3D or detailed photographs of a project area with measurements.
The main features that you need to consider when shopping for a mapping/surveying drone are:
- Camera and video resolution
- Flight time
- Intelligent, easy-to-use flight modes
- Internal storage capacity
Choosing the Right Mapping Drone
Businesses who are just beginning their search for the perfect mapping drone often are left confused on which type would fit their needs the best. The right mapping drone is dependent upon your particular needs, so let's cover some basics to assist you in making an educated decision.
Multi-Rotor vs. Fixed Wing Aircraft
There are two main types of map drone models, known as multi-rotor and fixed-wing. Each has their pros and cons that make them suited for specific uses, so you must grasp their differences.
Multi-rotor drones are the most common kind of drone for creating maps and models. These drones are built with a central body, paired with four motors (sometimes more) that power corresponding propellers.
When in the air, these drones use fixed-pitch propeller blades to control their motion by changing the speed of each rotor. This process alters the torque created, which allows a very unique range of motion. This gives commercial mappers a specific advantage, especially in capturing tough terrain.
- Agile – Multi-rotor drones can navigate small spaces with ease. The GPS receivers in the drones allow them to hover in place and maintain a set course by means of waypoints.
- Maneuverability – These drones require less space to fly, hover mid-flight, and can quickly move around objects for easy mapping and inspection.
- Great choice for those on a budget – You can purchase a multi-rotor drone for $1,500, which is much more budget-friendly than fixed-wing drones that can be up to 10 times as expensive.
- Portability – These drones don’t need the wingspan that fixed-winged ones do thanks to their ability to maneuver in small areas. They can fold down to pack in smaller cases which makes them easy to transport.
- Easy to learn & use – Easy to maneuver and fly, are capable of making movements in all directions, and quick to learn for beginners.
- Bigger payload capacity – Multi-rotor drones are able to support more weight thanks to their design. If you intend to carry anything significant, such as a DSLR camera, keep in mind that you will need to invest in a bigger drone.
- Accuracy – No matter what you're mapping, precision is key, especially in cases involving agriculture, where you need to have the ability to fly to the correct areas that you need to get a closer eye on. When there is an area in a field that isn't growing as great as well as others, a multi-rotor drone can be flown to that spot with total accuracy to capture photos in high-resolution that are up close and personal, helping to identify the issue with that problem area.
The biggest downfalls of multi-rotor drones are their speed and restricted endurance. This makes them unfit for mapping areas of a larger scale that require long endurance monitoring, such as roads and pipelines.
- Shorter range – This is the biggest limitation when you fly a multi-rotor aircraft since most of them have just one battery. You can fly them for about half an hour in good weather conditions before having to return to exchange the battery.
- Not stable in windy conditions – Their aerodynamics leaves multi-rotor drones very vulnerable to wind changes. If you plan to use the drone in windy places, you will need a much more expensive, heavier multi-rotor drone to handle the job.
Just like a traditional aircraft, fixed-wing drones are designed to look more like an airplane. They are built around a central body made up of two wings and one propeller. When in flight, the two wings compensate for its overall weight, which helps it remain in flight.
Fixed-wing drones are not as common since their primary purpose is to map agriculture and oil, but they do present their own unique set of pros.
Fixed Wing Pros
- Good stability – Their fixed frame design provides great stability when flown in high winds, which makes them better than multi-rotor if you expect to fly in frequent winds.
- Better range – Fixed-wing drones can fly for longer periods of time on a single battery charge, which makes them amazing tools for mapping large areas.
- Linear flight – Fixed-wing drones are great if you plan to fly them long distances, such as for pipeline inspections.
- Safer recovery – In the event of motor power loss, this aircraft can glide its way to safety, which gives it a much better chance of surviving any falls.
Fixed Wing Cons
The biggest disadvantage of fixed-wing drones is that they are incapable of hovering in one spot, which makes them unsuitable for general aerial photography work. As you can imagine, there is also a learning curve when it comes to launching and landing, depending on the size. You will have to have the equipment to launch the drone into the air or have a runway for takeoff, as well as a parachute or a runway to ensure a safe landing.
- Not wallet-friendly – Fixed-wing drones are more costly, which can impact your overall return on investment.
- Not portable- With the advantage of the longer-range comes the con of packing away a fixed-wing drone, as it does require assembly before use.
- Less efficient for mapping – These drones are not suited for mapping where many turns are needed to achieve the grid pattern that happens when target areas are overlapped.
How to Choose?
- Do you plan to map smaller areas or make 3D models of structures? Then a multi-rotor drone is best suited for these projects.
- Do you plan to map large areas that consist of hundreds or thousands of acres or flying along linear plans such as roadways or pipelines? Then a fixed rotor mapping drone is best for the job.
Aerial Imaging and Cameras
No successful mapping job can be completed with poor imaging, which is why the camera on your chosen drone is vital for these projects.
First, let’s talk about the different kinds of imaging that mapping drones are capable of:
- Visible spectrum (RGB) is the most common kind of image used in mapping and surveying where high-quality definition in imagery is needed. This type is created by a digital camera sensor that is available on almost all drones and is what we are used to viewing in standard pictures.
- Near-infrared (NIR) is used in agriculture to help calculate the health of plant vegetation. It can identify this by reflecting light from plants, which correlates directly with the amount of chlorophyll within the vegetation.
- Thermal images are used in a wide variety of industries and help detect heat signatures within an environment. It’s mainly used to see “hot spots” on roofs and roadways and can even see wet spots in irrigation.
Now that you understand the types of imaging, let’s explore the various cameras that make those images happen:
- RGB cameras are standard and come equipped on most drones. These cameras can be used to capture photos and videos to create HD 2D maps as well as 3D models for industries.
- There are two kinds of NIR cameras: Modified RGB cameras for Near-Infrared and Multispectral Cameras. These are used in agriculture to determine crop health. Of course, they are pricier than RGB models since they can capture more bands of light.
- Multispectral cameras are RGB cameras modified with NIR filters capable of delivering very accurate imagery. As you can imagine, they are quite an investment ranging from $2,000 to $7,000 and up.
- Thermal cameras can detect radiation and can create long-infrared images known as thermograms. They are commonly used in industries that frequently inspect, such as transportation, construction, and public safety.
Why Mapping Drones Are Great Tools in the Surveying Industry
Just like carpenters utilize electric drills, surveyors need GPS, infrared reflectors, theodolites, and other tools to conduct surveys of the land. As you can imagine, having a perspective of the land from the sky can greatly complement the work these engineers do from the ground.
Land surveyors are paid nicely, but there are a few aspects of the job that are less than ideal:
- Required to always work outdoors, no matter the weather conditions
- Long commutes
- Tough/unexpected terrain can lead to injury
- Dealing with heavy equipment
Survey companies that invest in mapping drones not only eliminate all these issues but further automate the entire process with a simple push of a button. These commercial drones can survey sites, gather aerial mappings, land back at their launch location, and upload all the data to a secure cloud in just minutes. This can keep surveyors much safer than traditional methods.
Speed of survey
Traditional land survey methods cannot compare to the speed of drone mapping. While land surveying requires employees to work long, hard hours carrying required equipment from one location to another, drone mapping takes a few minutes and achieves the same accuracy.
As you can imagine, this makes it a heck of a lot easier to gather required intel on entire sites and project areas easily and on a regular basis.
Isn’t this everyone’s favorite word?! Budgets are important to the success of all companies, and when you actually have the tools available to stick to a set budget, well, everyone wins. Drone technology has made it possible for even small survey companies to fit many projects into their yearly budget.
Traditional survey teams typically need a month to survey a project, which a survey drone can do in just thirty minutes. Thanks to their speed and automation, drones are giving survey companies the ability to take on more projects per year.
Instead of hauling around tons of heavy equipment, land surveyors can now carry just one tool that is capable of providing the same (if not better) results as all bulky equipment. This gives surveyors the ability to be safer, spend less time on each site, and save their company money.
5 Best Drones for Mapping and Surveying
It doesn’t matter what you’re purchasing a professional drone for – even if you’re a renowned UAV pilot, you can only expect your results to be as good as the equipment you use. Poor camera quality and instability can be overcome by your amount of flying skills.
Below we will showcase our top 5 professional drone choices that you should consider if you’re a professional UAV pilot, the big kahuna of a surveying company, or want to make some real bank conducting mapping services for businesses.
#5 Marlyn VTOL
The Marlyn VTOL is a photogrammetry drone of an industrial-grade that creates an efficient and straightforward mapping and surveying process.
As a vertical take-off and land (VTOL) drone, Marlyn eliminates the risks and issues that arise with fixed-wing drones without putting its overall performance in jeopardy. With efficient built-in mapping features capable of mapping a surface area of 1 km.sq with a GSD of 3cm/px in under thirty minutes, Marlyn can map up to 12 km² in one flight.
Reasons To Choose the Marlyn VTOL:
- Quick & efficient mapping
- Vertical take-off & landing (you only need 2×2 m of space!)
- Dual battery system
- Fully autonomous flights
- Wind resistance up to 12.5 m per second
- Doesn't require ground control points (GCPs) thanks to post processed kinematics (PPK)
- Speed: 95 km/hour (59 mph)
- Wingspan: 1.60 m
- Maximum payload: 0.8 kg.
- Maximum height: 5000m.
- Maximum flight time: up to 60 minutes
- Sensor: Sony QX1 camera
- Multispectral, thermal & other sensors upon request
- Launch method: Vertical take-off and landing that’s 100% automatic
- Software: Marlink flight planning software
- Correction services: [PPK, RTK]: PPK.
#4 Delair UX11
This drone is the perfect solution if you’re looking for safe, precise mapping within agriculture, transportation, mining, utilities, oil and gas, construction, or surveying.
The Delair UX11 has a number of features that you can utilize before, during and after operating in the sky, like innate analytics and data reporting, global shutter camera embedded within, and 2.4 GHz wireless and 3G/4G cellular connection capabilities.
The end-to-end system, paired with its overall operational performance can greatly lower the cost for companies in the mapping industry.
Reasons to Choose the Delair UX11:
- Dual communication systems allow for farther flights
- Long flight autonomy capable of mapping large areas
- Cloud-based data processing
- Easily portable
- Fast to setup
- Easy to navigate by tablet
- Fully automatic flight options
- Accurate auto landing feature
- Speed: 54k/hour (33 mph)
- Wingspan: 1.1 m
- Weight with payload included: 1.4 kg
- Maximum flight time: up to 59 minutes
- Sensor type: Distortion-free global shutter
- Take off & landing:
- Hand-launched with an angle of 30 degrees
- OR belly landing with a 30-degree angle
- Communication: 3G/4G unlimited within network
- GNSS: PPK optional (software activated), L1/L2, GPS+GLONASS+SBAS
#3 HiTEC Xeno FX
This fixed-wing drone is not only cost-effective but built for high efficiency for surveying and monitoring missions, thanks to the ability to program your flight plan before launching into the sky with ease.
This drone can be launched with just a simple hand toss and can fly for up to an hour at a time. The hardware used is great for many kinds of mapping needs and supports interchangeable payload and sensor packages.
The hardware comes with a 12MP MAPIR Survey3 Sensor which has filters ranging from RGB, RGN(NDVI), OCN(NDVI), NGB(ENDVI), NIR, and Red-Edge by default.
Reasons to Choose the HiTEC Xeno FX:
- Modular payload system
- “Safe Launch” feature
- Easily portable with collapsible wing
- Fully autonomous flight
- Light weight
- 1-hour fly-time per battery
- Speed: 27 to 45 mph
- Wingspan: 49 inches
- Weight with a standard camera: 2.35 pounds or 1.1 kg
- Flight time: 1 hour
- Maximum survey range: 675 acres per flight
- Software: HiTEC Mission Control Application
- Sensor: 12MP RGB (RAW+JPG, JPG)
- Filters: RGB, RGN (NDVI), OCN (NDVI), NGB (ENDVI), NIR, Red-Edge
#2 SenseFly eBee X
This fixed-wing drone is designed to boost safety, quality, and efficiency of mapping and data collection, which makes it an ideal drone for any mapping needs. It comes with a camera built for any job that can work virtually every kind of site you can imagine.
Thanks to its virtual features, the SenseFly eBee X can work every site, no matter how demanding, with its built-in Steep Landing technology, live air traffic data, and robust design. If that wasn’t enough, the price tag ain’t too shabby either – you will spend between $1,099 to $1,200 (plus the sales tax, of course.)
This mighty drone can fly for 90 minutes without hesitation while covering 1,235 acres at 400 feet high with pure accuracy thanks to the built-in Precision on Demand. You can expect accurate imagery down to 1.2 inches without GCPs (ground control points).
Reasons to Choose the SenseFly eBee X:
- Built to boost the quality of data collection
- Can fly up to 90 minutes
- Achieve total accuracy with High Precision on Demand
- Steep landing technology
- Live air traffic data
- Good range of cameras to choose from for any need
- Multitude of accessories available to configure the perfect drone for your business
- Speed: 25 to 68 mph
- Weight: 2.2 to 3.1 pounds, depending on the camera & battery you use
- Maximum flight time: 90 minutes
- Maximum range of flight: Standard – 30 miles / Endurance: 60 miles
- Wind resistance: up to 28.6 mph
- Maximum coverage: Single flight – 1,250 acres (with senseFly S.O.D.A. 3D / Endurance Extension)
- Automatic landing: Linear landing with steep landing technology (5 m/16.4 ft) accuracy in 35° angle cone)
- Software: eMotion (Flight planning & control software (supplied))
Our Top Pick: DJI Phantom 4 RTK
The DJI Phantom 4 RTK (Real-Time Kinematic) is a business version of the DJI Phantom 4 Pro. The RTK positioning system paired with GPS, GLONASS, Galileo, and BeiDou positioning systems help to offer users ultimate positioning accuracy.
This drone comes with its own built-in flight planning app, which was designed just for photogrammetry. You can expect to pay around $6,500, which is a whopping $5k more than it’s Phantom 4 Pro cousin.
Survey pilots have a full solution to optimize their workflow without much effort due to the planning app and RTK data collection. Since it’s built like many other typical DJI drones, there is not as much of a learning curve when learning to pilot this powerful drone.
Reasons the DJI Phantom 4 RTK is Our #1 Choice:
- Horizontal & vertical mapping accuracy
- Centimeter leveling system
- Ability to collect accurate data with TimeSync, which aligns the controller automatically
- Precise imaging system
- Access to a large variety of applications
- Reliable and stable HD image and video transmissions, even from up to 7 km away
- Speed: 31 mph
- Weight: 1.391 kg.
- Camera: 1-inch 20 megapixel with CMOS sensor
- Maximum flight time: 30 minutes
- Software: GS RTK App (Purpose-Built Flight Planning Application)
- Accuracy: Positioning accuracy of 1cm+1ppm (horizontal), 1.5cm+1ppm (vertical)
The drones we've talked about in this article are meant to be flown and used by professional pilots. We recommend that if you want to purchase one of these powerful drones for yourself that you invest in a smaller, less pricey model to practice your flying skills. This way, you can feel at ease manning one of these more expensive, dynamic drones.