Drones have revolutionized numerous industries over the last few years, chief among them is mapping. What was once a long process for ground mapping teams can now be done effortlessly and in a fraction of the time via drone.
Drone mapping technology has given companies in industries like construction, oil and gas, and mining an innovative way to solve problems, work more efficiently, and save money.
Mapping is one of the more industrial uses for drones that has emerged in recent years. It might sound too complex, but in truth, mapping is relatively simple to start doing with the right equipment and software. This guide will talk about how you can get involved in drone mapping and make money doing it.
Remote Pilot Certificate (Part 107)
If you're doing drone mapping for business purposes, you'll need the Part 107 certification. Simply put, this license lets you legally make money with a drone.
We've created the ultimate guide to the Part 107 certification to help you through the process.
What's more, when it comes to working with companies in the more industrial industries, the Part 107 certification is crucial; most clients will likely ask for a copy of your license.
What Exactly Is Drone Mapping?
You might be wondering what drone mapping is exactly. In simple terms, drone mapping is the process of creating 2D maps and 3D models of terrain and/or structures using a drone's camera.
To do this, the drone takes a lot of pictures of the area, and with the help of advanced software, the photos are stitched together to create a map. The photos taken by higher-end drones are geotagged, which means each photo contains data that lets the computer know where exactly it was taken. This gives the software the information it needs to stitch these photos together based on where each one was taken. The technical term for this process is photogrammetry.
Uses For Maps
Now you're probably wondering how these maps are useful and why anyone would pay for them. After all, it's just a map, right? This is definitely a fair question, and we'll talk about why exactly these maps are so useful.
Drone maps are most often used by construction companies and other players in the land development industry.
When it comes to big construction projects, high-resolution maps and models of the area help planners better understand the area they're working with. It's one thing to look at a big swath of land from the ground and another to see it from a bird's eye view.
These maps are also useful tools for tracking the progress of a construction project. Having an updated map of a construction site made every couple of weeks can help project managers better track the progress on the ground. This way, they can gauge whether or not the project is on track, and they can even identify potential hazards or issues that would otherwise be difficult to detect.
What's more, some mapping programs allow you to measure things like distance, surface area, volume, and more with just a few clicks. This is extremely beneficial for construction companies and land developers because it provides them with strategic and actionable data quickly and accurately. In turn, this saves companies man-hours and money.
Drone maps are also useful in agriculture. Programs like DroneDeploy (which we'll talk about more later) allow you to view maps with a plant health filter. In other words, these maps provide data that shows how healthy plants are.
This might seem like a peculiar feature, but when it comes to agriculture, it can be extremely useful. The data gleaned from these plant health maps can reveal issues with irrigation or pests that simply can't be detected from the ground. If a farmer has fifty acres of crops, it can be very difficult to tell which plants are healthier than the others. The computer software can detect subtle differences in plant coloration in the photos, and it translates those differences to actionable data on a map.
Things to Consider When Choosing a Drone for Mapping
Now that we've covered how maps are useful, we'll talk about some of the features that make a great mapping drone.
Camera. Camera quality is the most important factor to consider when it comes to a mapping drone. Better cameras produce higher quality images, and higher quality images create better maps. Additionally, the camera's shutter also plays a role in the quality of the map. Images taken with cameras with mechanical shutters will have less distortion. When mapping, the drone will be moving when each photo is taken, so cameras with a rolling shutter are more prone to cause warped maps due to slightly distorted photos. However, cameras with rolling shutters can still create decent maps, you'll just need to fly slower to reduce distortion and warping. We'll talk more about mapping with a rolling shutter later and how to minimize distortion in your maps.
Flight time. If you're going to be mapping larger areas, having a drone with a longer flight time per battery is helpful. A longer flight time means fewer stops to land and swap out batteries. Flight time really comes into play when mapping huge swaths of land.
Flight planning capability. To effectively use a drone for mapping, it needs to be supported with software that allows you to plan autonomous flights. For example, most DJI drones are compatible with DroneDeploy, an app that allows you to create pre-planned routes for the drone to fly. This program lets you adjust parameters like flight speed, altitude, and amount of overlap. When it comes time to fly the mission, DroneDeploy will take control of the drone and fly it for you. In sum, the ideal mapping drone is supported with a flight planning feature, whether it's within the manufacturer's app or with a third-party app.
The Best Mapping Drone
We've talked a little bit about what features make great mapping drones, but now we'll talk about a drone that's praised as the best mapping drone on the market for under $2,000.
DJI Phantom 4 Pro
The DJI Phantom 4 Pro is widely esteemed as the best mapping drone on the consumer market. The Phantom has all of the features we mentioned — it has a 30 minute flight time, the camera has a mechanical shutter, and it's supported by DroneDeploy. Drone pilots that have been using this drone for mapping agree that it's an incredible mapping tool.
Check current pricing for the Phantom 4 Pro on Amazon here.
Getting Started Making Maps
Now that all of that's out of the way, let's talk about how to actually go about creating these maps.
One thing to consider before getting started is drone insurance. Since you'll be flying a drone around a lot of expensive equipment and machinery, liability insurance is crucial, and some clients may even require it. Check out our drone insurance comparison guide for more information.
The first thing you'll need to do is open your flight planning app and find the area that you'll be mapping.
Once you find the area, go ahead and create your flight path. This process will be slightly different depending on the flight planner you're using, but the process is fairly straightforward. The flight path will be a set of gridlines overlaying a map of the ground below.
Now you can adjust the size and orientation of the flight path by dragging the adjustable points on the grid. The best approach to this is to situate the long axis of the flight path parallel to whatever you're flying over. For example, if you're mapping a soccer field, you want the drone to fly down the length of the field. Once you're satisfied with the size and orientation of the flight path, you can adjust the drone's flight height, speed, and overlap.
Generally speaking, the lower the altitude, the higher the map's resolution, so set the height as low as you can while still being able to clear all obstacles. In regard to overlap, the more the better. This just refers to how much the photos will overlap each other. Try to aim for 70-80% overlap for the best results.
If you're using a drone with a mechanical shutter, you can set the speed higher. However, if you're using a drone with a rolling shutter, set the flight speed around 4-10 miles per hour. You'll spend a little bit more time on site running the mission, but it's a necessary sacrifice to make sure you get a good end result. We'll talk more about how this comes into play later.
Some third-party flight planning apps will make the drone automatically land when the battery is low and pick up the route where it left off once you swap batteries. But if the mapping planner you're using doesn't let the drone pick up where it left off (i.e. Autel Explorer), be sure to break up your route into several smaller missions that can each be flown on one battery. If you don't, you'll have to start the mission over from the beginning. Simply put, be mindful of your drone's maximum flight time and the estimated time it'll take to complete the route.
On Site Procedure
The great thing about drone mapping is that it's virtually effortless. Planning the flight is really the only pilot input needed in the whole process. The only other thing you might need to do is set up ground control points, which we'll discuss next.
Ground Control Points
Ground control points are big markers that you can place on the ground that make the map more accurate. Simply put, if you can get the exact GPS coordinates of these points and plug them into the stitching software, the map will be more accurate.
Ground control points are very important if the map you're creating needs to be extremely precise in terms of the locations on your map corresponding with real GPS locations. In other words, ground control points synchronize maps with the rest of the globe.
That said, ground control points aren't always necessary. If pinpoint global accuracy isn't pertinent, these points aren't needed.
Making your own ground control points is actually pretty easy. They just need to be big enough to be seen in your photos with a discernible centerpoint. If you're mapping a construction site, even a large spray-painted ground control point might suffice. If you don't want to make your own, you can find some for sale online.
In order to use ground control points effectively, you'll need an accurate way to find the coordinates at the center. It's recommended that you use a Real-Time Kinematic (RTK) or Post Processing Kinematic (PPK) GPS receiver to do so. Simply using a smartphone to find coordinates might lead to small inaccuracies. There are a number of cost-effective solutions on the market that'll help you get you accurate results.
If you opt for ground control points, be sure to space them out throughout the area. Be sure to leave plenty of space between the control points and the perimeter of the map. For maximum accuracy, it's recommended to use at least 3. When you fly the mission, make sure the drone is low enough to be able to pick up the control points on the imagery.
For more information about GCPs, check out DroneDeploy's mapping guide.
Running the Mission
When it comes time to run the mission, one thing to consider is the time of day the mission is conducted. The ideal time to do a drone mapping mission is in the middle of the day when the sun is at its highest point in the sky. This serves two purposes: it maximizes visibility which means the camera can capture more details and information, and it minimizes shadows. If you run a mapping mission in the morning or evening and the particular location has trees, buildings, or other structures nearby, you'll end up with long shadows that'll ruin the map.
Once you're on site and ready to run the mapping mission, turn on the drone and the remote controller and go through your preflight checklist. Next, just set the drone's home point, get it in the air, and tell whatever program you're using to run the mission.
If you're using a drone with a rolling shutter, angle the gimbal somewhere between 50 and 70 degrees. Due to the way the shutter works, flying slower and with a more oblique gimbal angle minimizes distortion. With a rolling shutter, if the gimbal is pointing directly at the ground, the drone's movement will be much more pronounced, resulting in more distortion.
At this point, you can sit back and relax because the drone will fly the route autonomously. The great thing about drone mapping is that generally speaking, no piloting finesse is required. Since you've set all the flight parameters, you simply let the drone do its thing. That said, it's still important to keep an eye on your drone to make sure that it doesn't run into obstacles.
Once your drone has run its route, it'll come back and land on its own. At this point, you can pack up, head home, and get ready to create the map.
Creating the Map on DroneDeploy
Now it's time to upload the photos to the stitching software of your choice and create the map. Perhaps the most popular programs for mapping is DroneDeploy. For the purposes of this guide, we'll just discuss the ins and outs of DroneDeploy.
DroneDeploy is a cloud-based mapping program. In other words, the map isn't stitched together using your computer, but rather it's done on the cloud once you upload your photos to the DroneDeploy website. This is beneficial because, once your photos upload, you don't have to leave your computer running for hours as the map is made. In this way, it's much easier on your computer's processor.
DroneDeploy is so popular for many reasons, one of which is that its interface is very user-friendly. When making a map, you aren't bombarded with complex settings and options to choose from. In other words, this program does most of the work for you to create a stellar map. Most other mapping programs are simply not easy to use, and this is where DroneDeploy has a leg up.
Once DroneDeploy creates the map, you'll have access to helpful tools that allow you to measure things like distance, surface area, and volume. You can also easily toggle between the 2D map and 3D model. What's more, you can easily turn on the plant health filter that we talked about earlier on any 2D map.
Another helpful feature of DroneDeploy is the ability to make reports. Let's say a client wants to count something on the map, measure the surface area of a few locations, and find the distance between a few points. You can easily find these measurements on the map and neatly organize them in a report to send to the client.
Another benefit of DroneDeploy being a cloud-based program is that, when it comes time to deliver the map to the client, each map has a shareable link. This makes it super convenient to give clients their maps. Most clients won't be very tech savvy, so the simpler, the better. The only downside to this is that clients need a DroneDeploy account to access all of the maps' measuring tools and other features. Without an account, clients will be limited to a “view only” map.
Now that we've talked in-depth about how to actually make maps, let's discuss how to go about getting clients.
Just like any drone service, the challenging part about securing clients for drone mapping is getting them to see the value in the service. Most companies will think that, since they've made it just fine without this technology for so long, they don't need it. As drone pilots, it's easy for us to understand how this technology can benefit these companies, but the challenging part is conveying these benefits to them.
The best way to go about this is to figure out what your target client's needs and problems are and how a drone map can meet those needs and solve those problems.
For example, in the construction industry, three of the biggest problems are safety, losing money from delays and hiccups, and missing deadlines (which means more lost money). Now that we know what problems plague construction companies, we know where we can step in and offer an innovative solution.
So when it comes to approaching clients in our target industry, the goal is to thoroughly but concisely show them how we can help. For example, you can explain that a drone map can give managers a more strategic perspective of their job site. This perspective can help them identify potential hazards, hiccups, or other issues before it ends up costing them money. A map can give them a comprehensive overview of every part of their site, from progress on the ground to the location of different pieces of equipment. This can help them better plan, work more efficiently, save money, and meet their deadlines.
If you want to target clients in agriculture, your tactic would be similar. Farmers often suffer losses from pests and irrigation issues, and drone maps with plant health overlays are a relatively cheap way to pinpoint those issues before it's too late.
In conclusion, drone mapping is a great field to get into. As long as you have the right drone and software, there's virtually no barrier to getting into the industry. That said, don't feel like you have to get the best drone on the market. Any kind of entry-level professional drone should be able to deliver good results with the right flight parameters.
Mapping is one of the more fascinating and technically complex drone applications, yet it's essentially effortless. What's more, the majority of clients in these industries will want regularly updated maps, which means there'll be plenty of work.
Given the growth in industries like construction, oil and gas, and mining, there's a cornucopia of drone mapping work to be done.