Drone Mapping Software – How to Choose (Explained for Beginners)

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Drones have come a long way since their debut as children’s toys at Hobby Lobby or RadioShack. Today, drones are used in almost every industry, including survey-grade data collection, and that’s not going anywhere anytime soon. 

You’ll need mapping software to process the data you’ve collected, and this article will help you find the one that best suits you.

Since drone mapping can be used for a plethora of purposes, there is a plethora of drone mapping software available. In this article, we’ll discuss what software may be right for you. 

There are some heavy hitters in the drone mapping software field. DroneDeploy and Pix4D are the two big names that most people know. This is for good reason, as they are cloud-based and extremely user-friendly. 

However, several other platforms exist as alternatives to these two giants. Namely, Agisoft Meta Shape, Propellor, and WebODM. 

All the mapping engines listed in this article possess tools such as volume, area, slope, and distance measurements. Along with these tools are map outputs such as topographic maps, relief maps, and 3D models.

Some of these apps, Propellor, for instance, possess even more measurements and map outputs.

DroneDeploy

DroneDeploy ranks as one of the most user-friendly platforms there is. However, the price tag attached to the software isn’t very wallet-friendly.

There are some great reasons to use DroneDeploy, such as in-app flight planning, real-time orthomosaic building, cloud-based processing and sharing, and the fact that the software supports multiple brands of drones as well as multiple models made by those brands.

For many, the last reason is a massive factor in choosing DroneDeploy. DroneDeploy supports drones not specifically made for mapping, which is a big deal to the new pilots who may not own a $12,000 mapping drone.

The fact that the software is cloud-based is another huge advantage of the software. You may be asking yourself, “My computer has terabytes of storage. Do I really need cloud-based software?”

Short answer? It really helps. This goes for all cloud-based mapping software.

Downloading maps and models puts an extreme toll on your memory usage. Unlike normal images such as JPEGs and PNGs, for the mosaics, DSMs and DTMs use large amounts of data to retain quality and GEO referencing.

As mentioned in the introduction, DroneDeploy offers many tools. One special tool is the site comparison to previous surveys. Construction companies highly value this, so keep that in mind when choosing your mapping engine.

Since DroneDeploy is a paid service, the customer support you’ll receive is top-notch.

DroneDeploy has several plans to choose from. Among these are Aglite, Individual, Advanced, Teams, and Enterprise. These plans each come at a different price point and offer more features as you go up in price. 

Pix4D

Pix4D is a mapping software program that is also cloud-based. However, the customization of the product that you are purchasing varies much more than that of DroneDeploy.

For instance, while DroneDeploy offers some tiers of subscription, Pix4D gives you the option to buy only the flight planner, the processing platform, or a map editor. In these options, more advanced tools are available based on a tier system similar to DroneDeploy.

Since Pix4D is a paid service, the customer support you’ll receive is top-notch.

Pix4D’s cloud software is similar to DroneDeploy in that it is shareable, and your maps will all be stored on their servers. However, you do have the option to download them onto your drive.

Pix4D’s outputs, specifically their orthomosaics, are very impressive. This software’s ability to produce excellent and accurate orthomosaics is somewhat unmatched in the arena of cloud-based processing software. Once again, this software is quite expensive to run.

Propellor

The next software we will be discussing is called Propeller. Propeller is a platform that is based on a model of pay-per-map process. For example, Propeller provides their aerial mapping solution at $250 per map. 

You will receive all map outputs from this one processor, such as your orthomosaic, DTM, 3-D model, or plant health, along with a vast array of measurement tools with which to examine and analyze your job site. 

Since Propellor is a paid service, the customer support you’ll receive is top-notch.

This software is geared more toward companies using an internal drone mapping department than a pilot looking for mapping software to use for their own business.

While DroneDeploy and Pix4D both offer measurement tools as well, Propeller blows them both out of the water with tools such as: 

  • Elevation Difference  
  • Road Grade  
  • Surface Area 
  • Design to Design 
  • Volume from Lowest Point
  • Earthworks Progress
  • Elevation History
  • Cross-Section Comparison
  • Compare to Previous Survey 
  • Berm Check  
  • Compare to Latest Design

The drawback of Propeller is that It requires you to use an Aeropoint (a smart ground control point) in order to process your imagery with any accuracy. The price point of this Areopoint comes to just above USD 1,000.

Another drawback of this software is that in order to use it, you’ll need to find a flight planning app to execute your automated flights because Propeller does not offer one.

The drones recommended for usage with propeller software are the Phantom 4 RTK and the Wingtra One.  

WebODM

For those with a background in GIS, a combination of two open-source, free software may be the right choice for you. A software called Open Drone Map or WebODM is a great alternative for those who may not want to invest thousands of dollars into cloud-based mapping software.

» MORE: Best Free Drone Mapping Software

WebODM is a local (runs on your hard drive) drone mapping software that provides users the same map outputs as that of DroneDeploy, Pix4D, and some of Propellor’s tools. It also allows for an array of measurements to be taken in the software.

However, being an open-source platform requires some knowledge of coding for installation. To use WebODM, it’s also wise to have a grasp of GIS. GIS is short for Geographic Information Systems, or in other words: digital mapping. Unmanned Aerial Operations (UAO) uses web ODM in tandem with a GIS platform called QGIS. 

WebODM’s support line is not the same as these other mapping engines. To get help, you’ll need to post in the WebODM forum and hope someone answers your question.

This allows UAO to process drone imagery into usual maps and measurements, with an accuracy higher than most platforms.

While being cost-effective, these two software programs are not user-friendly and, as mentioned before, require some knowledge of GIS. 

Agisoft Metashape

Agisoft Metashape is another cloud-based drone imagery processing platform that is more focused on processing and delivering 3D models.

While this software does possess measurement tools, it’s limited when compared to Propellor. 

Its 3D model outputs are a homerun and are by far the best in this group of drone imagery software.

Since Agisoft Metashape is a paid service, the customer support you’ll receive is top-notch.

Similar to Propellor in the multitude of unique tools that Agisoft Metashape possesses are:

  • Dense point cloud: editing and classification
  • Terrestrial laser scanning (TLS) registration
  • Ground control points/scale bar support
  • Stereoscopic measurements
  • Hierarchical tiled model generation
  • 4D modeling for dynamic scenes
  • Automatic powerlines detection
  • Satellite imagery processing

Why Agisoft might not be a fit for you

Agisoft Metashape is mostly a program made for 3D modeling. Compared to the other mapping engines, this is what it excels at, and if your main goal is not 3D modeling, you may not wish to pay for the software at its price point.

Similar but different

Most of these platforms offer trials, so you’ll be able to try out which software is best for you before you purchase. It really depends on your budget, how often you plan on using the software, and your ability to navigate and leverage the software to your needs.

As more mapping software comes onto the market, these platforms discussed above will likely fall in price to be more competitive. It’s important to try out new software as it becomes available to drive this process forward.

Just because you like one doesn’t mean that there isn’t one that is better. There could even be one that’s more affordable and provides you the same quality.

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