I get asked a lot what I recommend for a startup drone mapping business. Before answering the question we must consider the intent of the operation. After all, there are two types of drone mapping: generic 3D mapping and its much more intricate cousin, design level survey mapping.
3D mapping is done at various levels of accuracy and flying heights mostly with manned aircraft ranging from 1′ to 15′ contour levels. This type of mapping is generally not used by design engineers to create accurate man-made features. It is used for dirt quantities, layout and design of roads, highways, power lines, etc.
The lowest that manned aircraft can fly is at 1000′ AGL which equates to 2.5cm level mapping which is design level mapping but very expensive to acquire.
Design level survey mapping is also 3D mapping however the accuracy is within 0.07′ (2 cm) or better. Engineers and Architects can use this mapping to design man-made features such as buildings, parking lots, streets and so on that require a higher level of accuracy.
Drones can easily capture imagery for design level survey mapping if done right. One button solutions using automated flight software can achieve 3D mapping at various levels of accuracies depending upon the drone camera/sensor and software being used for processing.
Design level survey mapping is the next level which takes more than a one button solution.
More Than a One Button Solution
Having surveying knowledge is the key to getting professional design level survey mapping. You need to understand surveying datums such as State Plane Coordinate System, UTM Coordinate System, Ground vs Grid, Grid Adjustment Factors, Geographic Coordinate System, design constraints, grade breaks, planimetrics, contour generation and breaklines to mention a few.
Being a licensed Professional Land Surveyor is a huge benefit. Teaming up with a licensed professional will fill that gap as well.
A UAV (drone) is just a tool and in a surveyors hand is priceless when it comes to design level survey mapping.
Surveying Knowledge is Priceless
You need a drone with a camera/sensor that will meet sufficient accuracy requirements.
- I use a DJI Mavic 2 Pro and Inspire 2 with a x5s camera/15mm lens.
- I use the right number of GCPs set in strategic locations using a survey grade GPS to get a solid aerial triangulation solution.
- I use Metashape Pro to process the imagery and measure the ASPRS RMSE values. Breaklines are created along grade breaks, man-made features and extracted as a DXF file. A rectified orthomosaic is also created.
- The DXF is imported into Civil 3D to create a 3D surface. Planimetrics are added to create a design level survey map for engineers and architects to use for their design.
How to start a drone mapping business
I use both an iMac and Windows computer to process all of the data. So how to start a drone mapping business? In conclusion, here is my survey mapping equipment list:
- Survey knowledge (priceless)
- Survey grade GPS equipment ($20k+)
- Mavic 2 Pro ($2k) or Inspire 2 with x5s camera & 15mm lens ($8k+)
- Mini iPad with Litchi ($400+)
- Metashape Pro for breaklines and orthomosaic ($3500)
- Civil 3D to build a surface. ($2400 per year)
- Computer ($3000+)
Total = $37,300+ to get started
This does not include training, office, vehicle, insurance and all of the other factors it takes to run a business.
As you can see it is not cheap to get into design level survey mapping. It has taken me years to build everything I have to provide this type of service. Working with a company such as Cooper Aerial provides the necessary tools and clients to bring it all together.
You don’t have to have 46+ years experience in surveying but you do need to work with someone that does have surveying experience. Most states in the US require that design level survey mapping be done by or under the direction of a licensed professional land surveyor.
Anyone can fly a drone. Not everyone can deliver design level survey mapping.
LearnCST contributor Jim Crume created the Survey Mathematics Made Simple and Survey Mapping Made Simple book series to showcase the technical aspects needed to become a professional design level mapper.