A guide to drone surveying, deliverables, accuracy, and workflows

Drones are continually proving to be powerful commercial tools, simultaneously providing users with leaps in efficiency and safety. The surveying and mapping industry is no exception.

With their ability to capture data from above, drones have been successfully integrated into surveying workflows to perform land surveys, photogrammetry, 3D mapping, topographic surveying, and more.

Whether you’re an experienced surveyor looking to expand your toolkit, a drone enthusiast who wants to know more ways to use their drone, or are just generally interested in this awesome application of drones — we’ve got you covered. Read on as we go through everything you need to know to get started with drone surveying.

What Is a Drone Survey?

Surveying is the precise science of determining the positions of, and the distances between, points in 2D and 3D space. There is a big difference between aerial photography and surveying. Surveys provide critical information that enables informed decision-making, ranging from construction site planning to design and upkeep of infrastructure, delineating cadastral property boundaries, and more.

A drone survey is simply a survey conducted from overhead using a drone.

Recent technologies have significantly enhanced the capabilities of drones for surveying purposes, making them a cost-effective and efficient alternative to traditional surveying methods. Equipped with high-resolution cameras, GPS, and advanced mapping software, drones can produce precise measurements and detailed aerial imagery. This allows for generating accurate topographical maps, 3D models, and volumetric measurements.

Deliverables from drone surveying can vary based on project requirements but typically include orthomosaic maps, digital elevation models (DEMs), point clouds, and 3D reconstructions. These outputs are fundamental technologies within various sectors, facilitating tasks such as precise land measurement, construction monitoring, environmental conservation, and disaster management.

Why is Using Drones for Surveying Superior to Traditional Methods?

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or UAVs, excel at rapidly acquiring data from vantage points inaccessible to humans.

Drones make it much easier to survey challenging terrain that’s otherwise hazardous or difficult to reach by humans. Additionally, while traditional surveying methods require meticulous measurement, preparation, and planning, drones can capture comparable data in dramatically shorter timeframes.

For instance, STRABAG, a leading Austrian construction company, estimates drones enable them to conduct surveys with a 75% reduced GCP setup time.

Drone Surveying Models

The Matrice 350 RTK is a state-of-the-art drone designed for precision and efficiency in aerial operations. It features advanced capabilities such as a 55-minute max flight time, IP55 rating for operation in challenging weather conditions, and DJI O3 Enterprise Transmission for stable’ high-quality video feeds over long distances. These features, combined with the ability to support multiple payloads, enable the Matrice 350 RTK to quickly collect detailed, high-resolution data. 

Compared to traditional surveying methods, the Matrice 350 RTK enhances the efficiency and accuracy of data collection over large areas. By integrating advanced features, it reduces the reliance on ground-based survey teams and minimizes the risk of human error — offering a practical alternative to traditional surveying methods that is both time-efficient and capable of delivering precise data in across various environmental conditions.

Moreover, its high-precision RTK (Real-Time Kinematic) navigation system further enhances the accuracy of surveying and mapping data, making it significantly superior to traditional surveying methods in terms of efficiency and data quality.

Similarly, the DJI Mavic 3 Enterprise Series models — unlike traditional methods — offer advanced surveying capabilities with features tailored for various commercial applications. This series includes models like the Mavic 3E and Mavic 3T, both designed for high efficiency and precision in aerial surveying and inspection tasks. The Mavic 3E, equipped with a 4/3 CMOS Wide Camera and a mechanical shutter, is highly efficient in mapping missions by minimizing motion blur and supporting rapid interval shooting. While its RTK module ensures centimeter-level positioning accuracy, enhancing the quality of the data collected.

The Mavic 3T, on the other hand, adds a 640 × 512 px thermal camera to its arsenal, making it ideal for specialized applications such as firefighting, SAR, and night operations, among others. This model’s ability to measure point and area temperature, alongside its high-resolution zoom capabilities, allows for detailed inspections from a safe distance. Both drones feature a 56x hybrid zoom, omnidirectional obstacle sensing, and up to 45 minutes of flight time — ultimately ensuring extensive coverage and safe operation in complex environments.

What Deliverables Can You Achieve With Drone Surveying?

Depending on your choice of data sensors and surveying software, drone surveying can produce a variety of deliverables with use cases in many industries.

2D orthomosaic map: Surveying software can stitch together hundreds or thousands of digital photos captured by your drone and produce high-quality 2D orthomosaic maps. Importantly, these maps offer an accurate data representation of the surveyed area, with all objects correctly scaled and positioned as they are in reality — providing invaluable data for planning and analysis purposes.

3D orthomosaic map: Digital photos of the surveyed area can be compiled into a 3D orthomosaic map and provide actionable topographic data. These images are created using photogrammetry to process overlapping aerial photographs, resulting in detailed elevation models that can be used for various purposes, including volume measurements, terrain analysis, and 3D map visualization of landscapes.

3D models: Generate 3D models of targets in your surveying site for quick comparison with BIM. Unlike 2D models, these 3D models offer a comprehensive view, allowing for detailed analysis and virtual walkthroughs — fundamental for project planning, design adjustments, and stakeholder presentations.

Thermal mapping: Surveying with a thermal camera allows you to quickly identify targets with abnormal heat signatures. The Matrice 350 RTK offers night-vision capabilities and — when equipped with the correct thermal imaging payloads, such as the Zenmuse H20N — can conduct detailed thermal surveys. This is fundamental for applications where precise temperature readings are required, whether in agriculture for assessing crop health, construction for identifying insulation flaws, or energy sectors for monitoring power lines and substations for overheating components.

LiDAR Point Cloud: Equip your drone with the Zenmuse L2 LiDAR camera to produce a high-density point cloud. This means that every point within the area surveyed is captured, resulting in a highly detailed 3D model of the terrain and any structures. This works to create accurate data representations of physical spaces that can be used for various purposes, such as urban planning, environmental management, and the construction of virtual reality simulations. To learn more about drone LiDAR, click here. 

Multispectral mapping: Capture multispectral data from beyond the visible light spectrum to give insight into agriculture and crop management. Specifically, multispectral mapping is commonly adopted for environmental monitoring, assessing vegetation health, and efficiently managing resources more generally. This is because multispectral mapping drone technology can detect issues not visible to the naked eye, whether plant stress, water distribution problems, or pest infestations. By analyzing wavelength variations, this modern drone technology provides actionable data that can inform targeted interventions, optimize crop yields, and contribute to sustainable surveying practices.

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