Choosing the Right Tools for Your Surveying Business

by Afiq Iskandar
A surveyor controlling DJI Phantom 4 RTK in a construction site

Find out how to choose the right UAV solution for your survey & mapping business.

Drone technology is being adopted on a more widespread basis than ever before in various economic sectors due to its capability to dramatically increase efficiency and productivity. By bringing drones into their workflows, businesses are able to reduce cost, save time, improve safety and provide direct ROI.

As such, the construction industry, through the surveying and mapping procedure, has been revolutionised by UAS technology. Drone integration in mapping and surveying processes is crucial, as drones are able to produce the same accurate results as conventional surveying methods but in a timescale of a few hours, compared to the days and weeks it took before.

This has led to a booming demand for UAV technology in the industry even though the technology only emerged very recently.

For businesses, investing in new technology can be intimidating, and with abundant options in the market, making the right choice for your business can be a hassle.

This buying guide will give you a breakdown on the UAV surveying and mapping tools and solutions to familiarise you with everything you need to know to make an informed decision.

First, let’s review some key information that would come in handy when you are considering adopting a drone into your workflow. After that, we will continue with some recommended drone platforms and payloads for your consideration based on your business needs.

For Surveyors, What Do Drones Bring to The Table?

Knowing what drones can deliver is important when you are considering introducing drones into your company operations to ensure the deliverables meet your business needs.

When choosing a drone solution, one trade-off to recognise is between the accuracy and speed.

Mapping, with a focus on geography and notable features,usually does not require high precision and accuracy, and tends to take less time to be completed. A survey, however, is used to measure positions and distances accurately, and therefore requires accurate values which can take a longer time to complete.

Speaking of accuracy, however, what does it really mean? One way to explain it is: how accurate is your survey results compared to the reality of your surveying site?

This can be explained in the photogrammetry concept of Ground Sample Distance (GSD). GSD is the distance between the centres of sample points of each sample taken of the ground and in this case of photogrammetry, the pixels of the mapping picture.

For a clearer picture, if a drone can achieve a photo resolution or GSD of 5cm/pixel, then we can understand that one pixel on the digital map corresponds to 5cm of distance in reality. A map with smaller GSD has higher resolution and more accuracy.

Photogrammetry ground sample point, GSD zoomed in
Image via Propeller

In the above image, if we zoom in on the image on the left, we can see the individual pixels that make up that image. In the above example, each of these pixels represents a 0.82cm square in the real world.

When conducting photogrammetry data collection, a number of factors can affect the GSD output, mainly your camera quality (focal length, resolution) and flight altitude. A suitable camera would be able to capture higher resolution images which imply higher accuracy. Flying at a higher altitude allows you to cover a wider area in a shorter time, but the resolution is compromised.

Different drone platforms and solutions offer different degrees of accuracy, When selecting your surveying drone, it is important to recognise your demands, your clients’ expectations and the trade-off between speed and accuracy.

Workflow Changes

When introducing a new instrument such as a drone into your workflow, it will see changes and alteration to fit in the new apparatus in. Changes in a workflow are also crucial, as it might impact your financing, human resource, and quality.

In the diagrams below you can see how your workflow would look like after drone integration.

New on-site survey workflow after drone tech introduction.
New on-site survey workflow after drone tech introduction.

A flowchart describing aerial data processing in photogrammetry
Aerial data processing workflow for reporting and visualisation.

Choosing Your Surveying Solution

Before we jump into the details, there is one aspect that will be the deciding factor in choosing your surveying solution: the data that you need.

With drone solutions, you have a wide selection of surveying and mapping techniques which can be overwhelming. Thus, it’s best to start by defining the data or results that are most suitable for you or your client’s requirement.

Some of the solutions and types of data that are available are:

a. Photogrammetry

Aerial photogrammetry data collection process in a construction site.
Aerial photogrammetry data collection process in a construction site. Image via Sculpteo

Most aerial survey operations would call for photogrammetry, the creation of 2D visuals or 3D models of surveyed sites through a combination of many, overlapping digital photos.

Surveying drones are equipped with a powerful digital camera or RGB payload to capture high-resolution photos.

After flight, your photos will be stitched together using photogrammetry software such as Airamap or DJI Terra, and the resulting models can be used to identify and measure features such as distance, area, volume and more.

b. LiDAR or light imaging detection and ranging

 Elevation model from LiDAR mapping
Elevation model from LiDAR mapping. Image via EcolChange

LiDAR mapping and survey is an aerial technology that uses calibrated laser returns from the earth’s surface that are reflected to an overflying GPS-monitored aircraft equipped with on-board positional and IMU sensors.

Post-flight production can yield results that contain the precise elevation and geospatial locations of features on the earth’s surface. LiDAR data is an accurate and effective method for creating three-dimensional topographical aerial maps and highly accurate aerial surveys of both surface terrain elements and man-made structures. Many analytical products can be created from LiDAR data.

c. Multispectral

Aerial photogrammetry data collection process in a construction site.
Multispectral imagery of a plantation captured by Phantom 4 Multispectral

Multispectral imaging is widely used in the agriculture sector as it provides invaluable insights. Surveys are conducted to measure crop growth and health. Multispectral data is especially helpful for providing critical, actionable information.

Now, after choosing the type of data or map that you would want to utilise, it’s time to consider two options of aerial solutions: engaging an external provider, or setting up an internal UAV operations team.

A. Engaging a Turnkey Solution Provider

If you are hesitant in investing in drones or are interested in trying aerial surveying solutions can provide without purchasing hardware, aerial solutions service providers, ourselves included, provide end-to-end turnkey solutions for clients.

Engaging aerial mapping solution providers can avoid the need of high capital for initial investment in drone platforms. Aerial mapping service providers normally offer comprehensive services, which means they will execute the processes from start to finish and deliver the final reports and visualisations based on your requirements.

All you need to do is to specify the intended mapping area and the type of results that you would like to see.

If you are interested in learning more about our services, click on the button below:

B. Setting Up an Internal UAV Operations Team

If you are looking to invest in drone solutions and would like to set up your own internal drone operations team for aerial mapping and survey, you will have a few considerations.

Firstly, consider the range of RTK technology which is readily available in commercial drones. In the table below is a breakdown of the methods that you can use in aerial mapping with drone integration.

GCPs Only (Conventional Method) Drone without RTK Drone with RTK Drone with RTK + GCPs
Accuracy High Low High Highest
Speed Low High High High
Cost High Low Low Low

Next, consider the drone(s) that you will be buying. Here are a few choices of enterprise-quality drones in the market that we recommend.

DJI Phantom 4 RTK
Aerial photogrammetry data collection process in a construction site.
DJI Phantom 4 RTK

The Phantom 4 RTK is specifically built for surveyors with an integrated RTK module for centimeter-level accuracy for improved absolute accuracy on image metadata.

In addition to optimized flight safety and precise data collection, the Phantom 4 RTK stores satellite observation data to be used for Post Processed Kinematics (PPK).

DJI Matrice 600 Pro
DJI Matrice 600 Pro
DJI Matrice 600 Pro

The Matrice 600 Pro is a multifunctional heavy-lifter and heavy-duty drone, fitted for meter-level accuracy surveying. Matrice 600 Pro is a versatile drone, compatible with a range of payloads to capture multiple data types.

Among the payloads that can be mounted with Matrice 600 Pro are: LiDAR, multispectral sensor and oblique camera (3D modelling sensor), in addition to the default RGB camera.

After deciding on the drone platform, you can choose from a processing software to visualise your data that was collected by the drone platform.

Our Recommendation

Airamap Software

An advanced aerial mapping analytics software, Airamap is used in industrial applications to monitor your on-site situation so you can do swift and accurate decision-making.

Airamap is equipped with an artificial intelligent (AI) data processing engine that cuts the processing time short while maintaining the quality of the processed results.

DJI Terra
DJI Matrice 600 Pro

Capture, analyze and visualize your environment with DJI Terra – an easy to use mapping software developed to help industry professionals transform real-world scenarios into digital assets.

We hope this information has helped direct you towards making the right decision to integrate drones into your workflow. Whether you or your clients demand accuracy or accuracy, we have the right drone solution for you.

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