When you first get your hands on a drone, you’re excited. If local laws allow it, you start to fly it around your home. You take pictures of your roof, your car, and your lawn. You start to get comfortable navigating the drone during strong winds. It’s fun! However, after a few weeks of doing that, you might be wondering, “what else can I do with my drone?”
Introducing 3D Mapping with Drones
Have you ever used Google Maps Street View or Google Earth? These applications give you a whole new perspective on your streets. There’s just one problem with these applications: they tend to contain older data, sometimes several years old. It’s frustrating when you use Google Maps to see where buildings or companies are on a map, but they’re no longer actually there.
There’s a way to create better maps of your own: 3D mapping with drones! You simply need a drone with a camera and GPS to get started. After you assemble a set of photos, the next step is to use a 3D mapping application such as DroneMapper RAPID or DroneDeploy. If you’re already a geographic information system enthusiast, these applications will be straightforward to use.
Are you concerned about the health of a nearby fields? You can use DroneDeploy to create maps to monitor plant health. See this capability in action in the screenshot below:
You can also create 3D models of your neighborhood using DroneDeploy. The image below comes from a 3D model of a property created using DroneDeploy:
You can also check out this video to learn how the drone 3D-mapping works.
If you still feel like a novice while using your drone, don’t worry; a bit more background reading may be all you need. We recommend the following two books for a broad introduction to drones: Getting Started with Hobby Quadcopters and Drones by Craig Issod, and Drones for Dummies by Mark LaFay.
Why Are People Getting into Mapping with Drones as a Hobby?
Explaining why people find a hobby interesting is a bit challenging, but a few reasons exist in this case that are easy to pinpoint. When you simply fly your drone around in your neighborhood, there’s very little variety. Worse, there’s not much sense of progress. Unlike crafts or maker projects, you don’t have anything to show for your efforts at the end of the day. In contrast, pursuing a 3D mapping hobby with your drone is a focused activity; you can see progress in charting a new area.
There’s even more to the story here. If we can get philosophical for a moment, 3D mapping with drones lets you become an explorer. Your city might have simple street maps. However, detailed 3D maps showing every building and tree? That surely doesn’t exist. You can be the first to create these maps. If you publish your 3D maps online, your maps might even be used by scientists. How’s that for an awesome hobby!
Choosing the Right Drone: Step 1 to 3D Mapping with Drones
To get into 3D mapping with drones, you need to have the right equipment. Specifically, you want a drone that has high-end cameras and sensors. In addition to this technology, your drone must be compatible with a drone mapping application. We recommend choosing two 3D mapping applications (e.g., DroneMapper RAPID and DroneDeploy) first and then testing your drone with the software. The software is just as critical as the drone itself.
Specific features to look for when shopping for a 3D mapping drone:
Camera: You need a robust camera to create 3D maps. For resolution, we recommend a 12-megapixel minimum resolution. For data storage, go for as much as you can afford; Computerworld reports, “A 25-minute drone flight can produce 120GB of data.”
Flying time: Some drones are capable of flying for nearly half an hour. To make progress, you want a drone that lasts.
Stability:When you’re taking a large number of photos, stability improves your results. Read reviews to see if customers complain about unsteady performance. Keep in mind that wind, rain, and other weather events can disrupt even the best drones.
Controls: To produce high-quality maps, the drone’s controls need to be easy to use. Specifically, you need a way to control the camera easily during flight.
Recommendations from photographer drone enthusiasts: Do you have some photographer friends who also happen to like drones? If so, ask them for their perspective on the subject.
Tip: Shopping for drones for the first time? Check out PCMag’s “The Best Drones of 2018” for an overview of options.
Choosing the Right Place to Produce Your 3D Maps
You have your drone and 3D mapping software; what’s next? You have to choose where to visit first. There are no hard and fast rules here. If no ideas come to mind, use the following tips to plan your first 3D mapping adventure.
Urban or rural: Choose what excites you more: mapping the concrete jungle or mapping natural features. If you’re a novice, a park or country environment might be better because you are less likely to have distractions or complaints.
Weather conditions: Clear skies, sunshine, and minimal wind are what you want to see.
Your local passions: What do you wish was better understood in your community? You might be passionate about historic buildings. In that case, you can use your drone to fly around those buildings, creating detailed 3D maps of those structures.
Make Your First 3D Map with Drone: Getting Started in 7 Steps
The following steps will get you started with 3D maps using your drone:
Choose Your location: Choose a location with good sunlight, minimal wind, and few distractions. For example, a public park in the early morning may be a good choice. If you don’t have a park nearby, look for a backyard.
Test your drone and 3D map software compatibility: Before launching the drone, take a few drone photos while your drone is on the ground. Make sure you can transfer the photos to your computer. If you have problems at this stage, contact the producer of the 3D map software (e.g. DroneDeploy) for support. You’ll also want to test that the GPS capability of the drone is working; see if the device correctly displays your current location. If you are using Drone Deploy, review their “What Do I Need to Start Mapping?” guide for software specific tips.
Launch your drone and start taking photos: With the compatibility test completed, launch your drone and start taking photos. You’ll need storage space to take at least 100 photos.
Take drone photos from many different positions: For your 3D map to be detailed, you’ll need to take photos from as many different positions as you can. The only limit is your flying time (assume you’ll have 20 minutes of flying time as a baseline but verify this amount for your specific drone) and digital storage space.
Transfer your drone photos to your computer: Follow your drone’s directions to copy the photos to your computer.
Use the 3D map application to generate a 3D map: Use the 3D mapping application’s instructions to generate a map. The exact steps will depend upon the specific software you use.
Improve your map by taking more photos: You may not be satisfied with your first 3D map because it might lack in details. Don’t give up! Charge up your drone, take more photos, and see how you can improve your next 3D map.
There’s one more important factor to consider when you organize your 3D mapping adventures, and we’ll turn to that point next.
3D Mapping: Solo or with Friends?
Depending on your personality and mood, you might want to look for a local drone club. These organizations are a great way to receive recommendations on gear, find out about competitions, and make new, like-minded friends. On the other hand, you might prefer to fly your drone solo. For new drone enthusiasts, we recommend trying both methods over the course of a few weekends. Search for a local drone club and attend a few meetings. Then, go exploring on your own. You’ll likely learn quickly which you prefer.
Get Started with 3D Mapping
Creating 3D maps lets you understand your community in a way no one else does. It’s also a way to apply your drone skills and monitor your progress over time. Pick your drone, get your 3D mapping software, and get started this weekend!