For centuries, cartographers have sought to accurately map the world around us. From hand-drawn maps of ancient civilizations to satellite imagery of today, the field of cartography has constantly evolved with new innovations and technologies. In recent years, one technology that has had a particularly huge impact on cartography is the drone.
Drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are revolutionizing the process of mapping and surveying land. Equipped with cameras, sensors, and mapping software, drones can rapidly gather highly detailed aerial data and images to create precise maps and 3D models. As drones become more advanced and affordable, they are becoming an essential tool for surveying and geospatial professionals.
In this blog post, we’ll explore the many benefits drones provide for cartography and mapping, the types of drones used, and how they are transforming the field.
How Drones Have Modernized Aerial Surveying
Traditionally, cartographers relied on methods like ground surveying and aerial photography from planes and satellites to survey land and create maps. While these techniques worked, they had several limitations:
- Ground surveys were time consuming, labor intensive, and often inaccessible to remote or difficult to traverse areas.
- Aerial surveying from manned aircraft was expensive and required extensive planning.
- Satellite imagery lacked real-time capability and fine resolution for detailed mapping.
Drones overcome many of these challenges. They allow rapid, cost-effective, highly detailed data collection from the skies:
Increased Efficiency and Accuracy
- Drones can survey in a fraction of the time compared to ground crews traversing land by foot. Projects that took weeks can be completed in days.
- Automated flight planning enables drones to systematically scan survey areas with precise overlap and positioning.
- Onboard cameras capture imagery with accuracy down to 1-3 centimeters pixel resolution, vastly improved over satellite imagery.
Access to Difficult Areas
- Drones can safely survey dangerous, difficult to reach areas like rocky terrain, steep hills, or disaster sites.
- Their small size allows them to fly and gather data in tight, enclosed spaces.
- Drones eliminate the expense of fuel, pilots, and aircraft maintenance required for manned aerial surveying.
- Consumer and commercial drones range from $1,000 to $50,000, far less than the costs associated with traditional methods.
- Drone software allows pilots to view and process images in real-time to immediately verify if any data needs to be recaptured.
In essence, drones provide a cheaper, faster, safer, and more efficient means of gathering aerial data than ever before possible. Their advantages over older cartography methods allow for mapping at new levels of detail, frequency, and accessibility.
Drone Applications Across Cartography
Drones have opened new possibilities for aerial surveying and mapping across diverse industries and use cases:
Land Surveying and Cartography
- Highly detailed topographic surveys and terrain mapping, updated far more frequently than satellite maps.
- Surveying of boundaries, infrastructure, and natural features like ridges, rivers, and tree canopy.
- Regular inspections of rails, roads, pipelines, etc.
Agriculture and Land Management
- Surveying crop health and generating prescription maps for variable rate fertilization, irrigation, etc.
- Monitoring livestock, fences, water systems, and facilities across large properties.
- Volumetric measurements and topographic updates to track earthworks progress and site changes.
- Inspection of structures, spotting any defects or deviations from design.
-Habitat, vegetation, and wildlife surveys for conservation groups and parks.
- Monitoring of coastlines, erosion, deforestation, and natural disasters like volcanoes, floods, and wildfires.
Urban Planning and Development
- Highly detailed 3D city mapping for infrastructure planning, construction, and design projects.
- Surveying of potential development sites for feasibility studies.
These examples highlight the wide range of mapping applications drones enable across many different fields and specializations. Their flexibility and data collection abilities open many new opportunities for aerial surveying compared to traditional methods.
Key Drone Types Used in Cartography
Not all drones are built the same. Different airframes, sensors, and software suit different mapping applications and environments. Here are some of the main types of drones used in surveying and mapping work:
Fixed-wing drones have longer flight times and cover ground quicker than multirotors, making them ideal for large area surveys. Their design resembles a small plane with stationary wings and a propeller at the back. Popular fixed-wing mapping models include:
- senseFly eBee X – Covers up to 500 ha (1,235 ac) per flight thanks to a 90 min flight time. Has RTK/PPK upgrade for centimeter accuracy.
- Delair UXC-200 – Dual sensor drone captures ultra-sharp RGB and thermographic video, lidar, or multispectral imagery for a wide array of surveying applications.
Multirotor drones use multiple rotors to takeoff and land vertically. Their ability to hover in place and maneuver in tight spaces makes them versatile for detailed surveys:
- DJI Phantom 4 RTK – Integrated RTK provides real-time centimeter-level accurate positioning without ground control points.
- senseFly eBee SQ – Captures highly detailed RGB imagery thanks to a 1-inch sensor, and an ultrasonic altimeter provides exact altitude data.
- WingtraOne – VTOL fixed-wing hybrid provides the vertical takeoff/landing of a multirotor with the efficient mapping of a fixed-wing.
Sensors and Cameras
The sensor and camera payload largely determines the type of data a drone collects. Common options include:
- RGB cameras – Capture highly detailed visual imagery, available on most drones.
- Multispectral sensors – Measure light reflectance in discrete spectral bands for agricultural and environmental applications.
- Thermal cameras – Identify heat signatures like leaks, electrical faults, missing insulation, etc.
- LiDAR sensors – Emit rapid laser pulses to map terrain and structures for 3D models and point clouds.
- Photogrammetry software – Processes overlapping drone photos into detailed 3D maps, point clouds, and models through structure from motion algorithms.
Getting Started with Drone Mapping
Interested in incorporating drones into your surveying or geospatial work? Here’s a quick overview of what you need to get started:
Choosing a Mapping Drone & Software
- Consider your budget, required flight time, and desired sensors to select the right drone.
- Look for models with automated flight planning for efficient mapping.
- Choose photogrammetry software like Pix4D, DroneDeploy, or Maps Made Easy for post-processing imagery into maps.
Obtaining Permits & Licenses
- In most countries, commercial users must obtain an operator license such as a Part 107 in the U.S.
- Research local regulations on drone use in your area. Permits may be required for flying in certain zones.
Flight Planning Best Practices
- Plan missions based on site size, shape, obstacles using planning apps.
- Use minimum 60% frontal and 80% side overlap for optimal photogrammetry.
- Capture ground control points for accuracy validation and georeferencing in software.
Following local regulations, getting the proper training, and utilizing precision flight planning will ensure you safely and successfully integrate drones into your surveying and mapping programs.
The Future of Drone Mapping
Drones have completely reinvented aerial surveying in just a few short years. Exciting developments on the horizon will further expand their mapping abilities:
Enhanced Autonomy & Automation
- Improvements in computer vision and sensors will enable fully automated mapping with little to no pilot input required.
AI Data Processing
- Algorithms like deep learning will facilitate near real-time data processing, analysis, and information extraction from drone imagery.
Advanced Lidar Sensors
- More compact, high-resolution, lightweight lidar suitable for drones will proliferate for highly accurate 3D mapping applications.
- Photogrammetry will expand from visual data to thermal, multispectral, and hyperspectral imagery for mining richer information from drone images.
Next-Gen Power Systems
- Battery technology improvements will enable longer drone flight times for surveying larger areas more efficiently.
- Cloud-based drone mapping platforms will allow seamless management of drones, data, analytics, and collaboration across teams and locations.
Thanks to these types of upcoming enhancements, drones are poised to become an increasingly integral part of the modern cartography toolkit. Already an indispensable technology for surveyors, construction managers, farmers, conservationists, and more, drones will generate even more transformational impacts on geospatial data collection in the near future.
As this article shows, drones have had a revolutionary effect on the field of cartography and aerial surveying. Their ability to quickly and efficiently gather highly detailed, accurate aerial data has enabled mapping applications never before possible. Drones provide tremendous benefits in terms of cost, safety, accessibility, and ease of use compared to traditional surveying methods.
Today, surveyors, mappers, and geospatial professionals across many industries rely on drone technology to elevate their work. And continued improvements in areas like autonomy, sensors, and data analytics ensure that drones will become even more capable and critical mapping tools moving forward. The future is bright, as drones take cartography and surveying to unprecedented new heights.
- Drones enable rapid, cost-effective, and highly detailed aerial data collection for superior cartography.
- Key benefits include increased efficiency, accessibility, real-time data, and centimeter-level accurate mapping.
- Drone types like fixed-wing and multirotors equipped with diverse sensors like RGB, LiDAR, and thermal excel across many mapping applications.
- Following proper licensing, training, and flight planning allows users to safely incorporate drones into their surveying programs.
- Ongoing drone technology developments will drive automation and other enhancements to further transform geospatial data collection.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: What is drone surveying?
A: Drone surveying is the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to collect data and create maps of the terrain.
Q: How do drones collect data for mapping?
A: Drones use sensors and cameras to capture images of the ground from multiple angles. This data is then processed to create maps and 3D models.
Q: What are the benefits of using drones for mapping?
A: Drones offer increased efficiency, accuracy, and cost-effectiveness compared to traditional mapping methods. They can also access hard-to-reach areas and provide real-time data.
Q: What types of drones are used for mapping?
A: Fixed-wing and multirotor drones are commonly used for mapping. They are equipped with sensors and cameras to capture data.
Q: What is photogrammetry?
A: Photogrammetry is a technique used to create 3D models from overlapping geotagged photos. Drones can use photogrammetry to collect data for mapping.
Q: What is LiDAR?
A: LiDAR is a remote sensing technology that uses lasers to measure distances. It can be used in drone mapping to collect data on elevation and terrain.
Q: What is GIS technology?
A: GIS (Geographic Information System) technology is used to analyze and visualize spatial data. It can be used in conjunction with drone mapping to create detailed maps and models.
Q: What are orthomosaics?
A: Orthomosaics are high-resolution aerial images that have been corrected for distortion and stitched together to create a seamless map of the terrain.
Q: What is topographic surveying?
A: Topographic surveying is the process of mapping the physical features of a piece of land, including elevation, contours, and natural and man-made features.
Q: What industries use drone mapping?
A: Drone mapping is used in a variety of industries, including land surveying, construction, environmental monitoring, and land management and development.