drone mapping

Drones are fun… It is hardly news that cartography and remote sensing are moving away from heavy payload carriers such as airplanes and helicopters to smaller, unmanned systems. Commercial UAVs are now used in all kinds of sectors, not just the military.

I have been flying a DJI Spark for a few months now and I’m quite surprised at the quality of this small consumer drone when it comes to mapping. In this blog post I want to outline the drone, my workflow for processing the images and the resulting 3d maps.

With a take-off weight of approx. 300 grams, the Spark is the lightest and smallest drone of the consumer market leader dji from China. I often take it with me in a small backpack and take it out spontaneously for a flight. Flight preparation takes only about one minute: You boot the drone, then the remote control and connect your phone or tablet to the remote control.

To create a 3d scene, I fly several times around the object of my interest in a constant height and take about 50 photos. The Spark has a flight time of approx. 15 minutes per battery pack, whereby you have to subtract take-off and landing and achieve a realistic duration of 12 minutes per flight. This is sufficient to fly around even complex objects. The battery pack is easily exchangeable (I bought 3 packs so flight time is usually not a problem).

Back home I check the pictures first and delete blurred pictures manually. Then I use 3DF Zephyr, a software to reconstruct 3d models from pictures or videos. The software is quite simple, but has powerful features. Up to 50 images can be loaded and processed in the free version. In contrast to software, which I used in the past, you don’t have to manually set fixed identification points between images any more. The complete reconstruction is fully automatic. At the end, different products such as point clouds, meshes or textured models can be exported. A nice feature is the direct integration into Sketchfab, a service for hosting 3D models on the web.

Sketchfab offers the possibility to manually adjust lighting, color and contrast to create a video game like style for the models that I believe has a nice effect while still providing enough detail about the object.

Of course, not only 3d models are valuable results of a drone flight. Often it is more interesting to create orthophotos from the individual images. I intend to have a look at the Open Drone Mapping Project in the coming months and will report on the results.

Until then: Happy flying!