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Old Company, new Drone program  

Posts: 4
Joined: 3 months ago

Hey everyone!

Our company is about take the dive and get in to drone Surveying. I've managed to convince the managing partners to get a phantom 4 pro as our first drone.

They've given me free reign on the software decisions; this is where I have a problem. As background information, our company is made up of surveyors and traffic/land development civil engineers. We hope to beef up our bridge, dam and roadway inspection skills, as well as our typical topographic survey procedures.

I've heard great things about Pix4D but it's expensive and not entirely user friendly. 

As a guy trying to prove a concept to the company and trying to keep costs down, CAN SOMEONE... ANYONE HELP figure out which photogrammetry software to choose, do I need something like virtual surveyor? 

I'm hoping this post will help figure things out and lead to more questions about how to prove this concept!

8 Replies
Norman Oklahoma
Posts: 4625
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Joined: 4 years ago

Some people have used Aerotas for training to get into droning and have reported here that it was worthwhile.  I haven't done it yet but expect to soon.  Aerotas has been represented at the last two annual Oregon conventions and sound like they are on the up and up. 

VA LS 2867
Posts: 364
250+ posts
Joined: 9 years ago

The biggest thing is to make sure your GCP's aren't too spaced out.  I would recommend looking into the Phantom 4 pro RTK.  You will see better results in the processing.

Posts: 125
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Joined: 8 years ago

The P4P is a good choice. Use it as a tool in the right circumstances. In my experience, I would stay away from the online services. I feel like it's better to have more control, but that means learning and having a decent desktop. The top 3 programs are Pix4D, which I use, Agisoft Metashpe, and Bentley ContextCapture.

All three have their strengths. Workflow is easy in Metashape, but I have not found a way to draft polylines in the program to export to cad. If your engineers and drafters are using Revit, then perhaps that does not matter, in which case probably Metashape is for you. I am not as familiar with ContextC, but know it is pretty expensive but seems like it produces excellent point clouds and seems to work really well for inspection modeling in particular, though your P4P is not the best platform for that. Pix4D is in the middle. I do the month to month license. That way if I don't have a use for it, I don't pay. Plus I get two seats. The $350 is pretty easy to absorb into a topo project considering the time saved. Just price the job as if using traditional ground crews and fly it instead. 

I stay away from the online processors also because of the smaller density point clouds you get back and if you don't already know how to draft in a point cloud, you will have to figure that out as well as add a program to do that. Pix4D allows you to draw points and polylines that can then be exported as dxf files for direct import into cad programs. Some prefer not to do the polylines, but just points and draw the lines as normal in cad. 

Frankly they are all difficult to learn at first, and you will have to bite the bullet and attend training or get it somewhere. The simple jobs can be done by the subscription houses, but handling any issues that will come up and difficult scenarios is another matter. And things do come up.

I would avoid the P4RTK for now unless you are only going to be doing NADIR flights. Start of using your own in house RTK GNSS system, and it you feel the RTK can help, then try is out. I find myself flying more and more Free Flight in order to capture improvements on a site better using oblique angle images, so RTK does not help me there.

Learn different acquisition techniques for different types of projects. Figure out what controller software you want to use, or use a bunch. They are pretty cheap. Get 8-10 good large gcp targets and know how to apply them to a site and apply them correctly in processing. 

5 Replies
Joined: 3 months ago

Posts: 4


I appreciate the feedback! I was thrown for a loop when researching software. I was reading on a drone deploy review that I needed a program to handle polyline extraction; I guess I assumed all software packages can handle that. I've had a few people suggest Pix4D and I believe I convinced the managing partners to go that route. If it can handle drawing polylines then I won't have to worry about yet another program to learn.

Do you have any suggestions for gcps? The Drone U heavily pushes there targets over the black and white squares with grommets it checkered tiles from a hardware store.

If we wind up using Pix4D, should we just use their control app or something like Drone Deploy ... Or is there yet another software option out there you would suggest?

Joined: 3 years ago

5+ posts
Posts: 8


I have been working with the drone for almost two years.  I have a Phantom 4 Pro.  You can't go wrong starting with the Phantom.  I have tried a number of different processing software and settled on Pix4D.  I have a very poor internet connection so even the upload of photos makes the online option difficult.  I also use Pix4D's flight App.

I strongly believe in personalized training.  It is more expensive but can work around your workflow and give you the information you need at the level you are working at.  Pix4D does have good online support but you need a good introduction and some time-in to get the full benefit of any online support.  Pix4D also tends to be more surveyor friendly when dealing with ground control points.

I definitely would recommend Virtual Surveyor.  The interface and the visuals make it very user friendly.  You download the orthophoto and overlay the surface and you have a 3D representation of your site that allow you to walk the site just like you were in the field.   Is is also helpful in ground truthing your drone data with your conventional topo data.

The one critical thing I have learned is that the drone is just one of your tools. Depending on what level of accuracy and what kind of cover you have on any given site, you will need to supplement with traditional survey data.  I have also learned that the just the orthophoto as a background to your topo plot in your CADD program, is very useful with creating breaklines/feature lines while developing a surface.  Also, I can't count the times that the available detail in the orthophoto has saved me a return trip to the site.

As a final note, flying the drone and getting the pictures is the easy part.  You can spend a lot of time trying to evaluate different software options.  Pick a processing software that has a monthly subscription option and has an interface that you like, and start working.  The more you do the faster you learn and the more efficient the workflow.

Joined: 3 months ago

Posts: 4


I'll have to look in to virtual surveyor and see if I can convince the owners to go along with that program too! They've told me to finish getting my FAA license, then they'll order the drone and pick up whatever software and equipment we need to get rolling!

D Bendell
Joined: 2 years ago

100+ posts
Posts: 108


Here's a few things to consider. You're not gonna make it all happen at once. Many people doing what you're describing have already spent years working through these questions. There's going to be things you'll need to do, and learn in order to answer questions for your situation. Get the part 107, and I would not suggest spending a ton of money initially. Here's why. The more you spend up front, it's likely there develops pressure to deliver results right away. I would suggest telling your leadership this is a progression that will require an ongoing effort to cultivate a program for drone mapping and inspection. Don't dive super deep right away from a spending or expectations standpoint. Plan 3-6 months of working up to a baseline of experience & knowledge to really start off. 

I agree Pix4D is the gold standard for processing. Their trial is good, and I would take advantage of that to begin with. If you take any of their training courses regionally be sure to ask if they're being instructed by Pix4D team members or a third party. The personalized training is going to cost you, so perhaps you should devote time to their video academy, and tutorials which doesn't have a cost other than the time you bill towards that learning. I went to one of their courses, and it was valuable for basics. Be sure you have a laptop that can process datasets okay. Down the line you will need to be sure you have a pretty robust machine for processing. The Pix4D user conference in Colorado coming up might be a decent investment if you take the training course there(that will be taught by Pix4D teams), and soak in as much as you can for a couple thousand bucks that week. Not sure where you're located, but another good idea might be to find somebody who's already doing this and try to learn/absorb wisdom from them if they'll oblige you. 

Cloud based processing is just okay in my opinion. You don't truly have control or know what is going on behind the curtain so to speak. I'm more comfortable knowing I control the parameters, and settings. I can make adjustments or tweak the processing if I want and I'm involved in it compared to uploading data and getting back a result. For a simple ortho or volumes perhaps I can't be too negative.

DroneU likes to pump the tires on their landing pads, but I just use paint for my GCPs most every time.(That's what I would suggest if you already have GPS units available within your company.) Their monthly subscription to online classes, webinars, and video resources is worth $50bucks. In one month you can extract a lot of value.(More than a stack of landing pads IMO.) If you expense that $50 your company shouldn't complain. There's a solid amount of information there. Between that, and Pix4D videos you can learn a lot quickly if you devote the time to it. My suggestion would be to spend a month using all the inexpensive or free resources before you spend $1K+ on training or instructional courses.(For $150/Part107 plus $50/DroneU you will be much smarter in a month.) Bosses should give you credit for good stewardship of the company's dough.

The Phantom4Pro is a good drone to start with, and relatively inexpensive. The RTK model has some sticking points that make it a less desirable unit to begin with IMO. You can still achieve very good accuracy with the P4P using good ground control and lots of checkpoints.(Ground truth.) I personally like DroneDeploy for flight planning/acquisition but Pix4D capture is okay and I use that for some missions. You should check out Maps Made Easy, and Litchi which are good for mission planning based on your particular need. Totally a preference thing. Android tablets are notorious for glitches, and issues VS. an iPad. Do enough research you'll find it's worth a few hundred for an iPad dedicated to drone projects. You might want to get a internet hotspot/modem too. I cache all my mission plans so I can fly without internet. Sometimes WiFi on can interrupt things and cause you trouble. I turn it off every time, but sometimes on site it's valuable to have internet in case I get hung up with FAA authorizations or I need to troubleshoot a problem.

Virtual Surveyor is nice to have too. It can speed up workflow and offers tools/exports that Pix4D does not. 

Estimate you'll spend $2500 on Phantom4Pro, batteries, etc. $3500 for Pix4D annual. $1500 for training if it's nearby. $1800 for Virtual Surveyor, and considering whether or not you have a good computer you're looking at $10K for a basic startup. If you use trials, and perhaps some monthly subscriptions you can spend less initially while you're improving. Once you've become more comfortable and have some ideal jobs to generate revenue, then I would look at more expensive drones and sensors. For example, if you're looking at bridge and dam inspection you want to look into thermal, and something better suited for that type of work. The P4P is a very good mapping drone with good photo & video capabilities, but is perhaps less suitable for serious inspection where different sensors are required. If you can encourage the bosses to get the drone right away you can begin to practice and become familiar with basic stuff. Then get heavier into the software and processing once you have some datasets to learn on. Preferably from a site or two where you have traditional survey data, and good control to make comparisons. 


If you want, give me a call. - Derek (763)274-9700 DroneU's podcasts are pretty decent too if you find time to go through a hundred of them and you can tolerate Paul's know-it-allishness. He's not the only one who has that problem.


Joined: 3 months ago

Posts: 4


I've been going through those DroneU podcasts, and you're right; I got that same feeling of know-it-all from Paul but there's a wealth of information on that site. I haven't gotten around to asking the owners about training and getting a definite budget for training or if I can just pay for the subscription to their site and get reimbursed later.

Im gonna push hard for a flight training by dart drones. They seem to be decently priced and they offer courses in the Scranton, PA area (which is where I live) fairly regularly. I've heard great things about their local training.

And once I get flying and using the free trial programs, I'm sure I'll find something that works well enough for the company!