How to Choose the Best Drone Mapping Software
The first of our ‘How to’ series aims to help you choose the best drone mapping software for you and your application. Whether you are an absolute beginner or seasoned pro, chances are you’ll have specific goals in terms of what you want to get out of your data.
Drone mapping software can vary massively in terms of cost and complexity. If you’re just starting out, it can be difficult to decide between a future-proof solution and one which satisfies your current needs.
Drone mapping software continues to develop at a rapid pace so even those who have been in the business for a while may be surprised at the new features available since we last covered this topic back in 2018. Unsurprisingly, the major players in the market are racing to keep up with the ever-increasing demands of the drone surveying world so here’s our pick of the Best Drone Mapping Software options for 2020.
Source: Global Mapper – Blue Marble Geospatial
Best Drone Mapping Software for Beginners: DroneDeploy
Price: Limited Functionality via a Free App or from $99 per month (Billed Annually) – 14 Day Free Trial
DroneDeploy are perhaps one of the most progressive drone mapping software companies. Unlike some other software companies, DroneDeploy live to serve the drone market. They have a vested interest in making sure that their software remains innovative and dedicate themselves to making drone mapping accessible to all.
A totally scalable solution, DroneDeploy offers both open-source options for iOS and Android as well as Enterprise options for the more established drone surveying business. The paid options obviously offer more features such as the ability to group GCPs (Ground Control Points) and export data to third-party packages but if you want to test out the usability and interface, the free app is a great place to start.
The downside: The biggest downside to DroneDeploy is that it currently only works with DJI drones so if you fly anything different, you’re out of luck. (Fact check please Jim as this may have changed – I’ve looked but can’t confirm)
Best Drone Mapping Software for Enterprise: Bentley ContextCapture
Price: On application. Dependant on whether you have other Bentley software.
Bentley class themselves as a software company for “infrastructure professionals”. They offer dozens of different software packages with drone mapping software representing a small percentage of their annual revenue. Chances are, if you work within a larger engineering, surveying or GIS business you’ll already have a Bentley subscription for one of their software packages which may make ContextCapture more accessible and affordable.
ContextCapture is billed as a ‘Reality Modelling’ solution – enabling you to capture a real-life representation of a physical asset or assets. It doesn’t just work with photogrammetric data either. You can also use LiDAR derived point clouds to create truly incredible 3D models and maps.
In the context of ContextCapture, ‘reality modelling’ means building a three-dimensional mesh model. For the uninitiated you can find a great definition of 3D mesh modelling here.
The downside: Bentley ContextCapture can appear to be over-engineered for many drone mapping applications. It’s complex and the scope for data manipulation is huge. Best left to those who already have a certain level of GIS data processing experience or experience of other Bentley packages.
Best All-Round Drone Mapping Software: Agisoft Metashape
Price: Standard Edition – £179 (node-locked). Professional Edition – £3499 (node-locked) Compare the features here.
Founded in 2006, Agisoft has the benefit of existing as an innovative software company both before and during the drone revolution. Their roots lie in advanced photogrammetric algorithms which have more recently been adapted for the drone market.
Unusual in the digital age, once you buy your subscription for Metashape, you have it forever. There’s no annual renewal to pay. The Standard Edition provides plenty of features for the amateur and professional drone mapper, but you’ll need the Professional version if you want to create georeferenced elevation models and orthomosaics. The Professional version also allows the use of NIR, RGB, thermal and multispectral imaging.
An easy-to-use, intuitive interface means that Metashape is great for beginners and more experienced drone surveyors and Agisoft also offer a free trial for 30 days or limited use, with Save and Export modes disabled, for as long as you need to make the decision that you need this drone mapping software in your life.
The downside: Functionality is pretty limited unless you choose the Professional Edition.
Best Drone Mapping Software for Industry Specific Applications & Technical Support: Pix4D
Price: Free 15 Day Trial, then scaled from £195 for one month up to £3699 for a lifetime licence
Pix4D has been in the drone mapping software game for a while. Pioneers of innovative photogrammetry software, Pix4D Mapper was designed specifically for professional drone mapping applications. As with Agisoft’s Metashape, Pix4D Mapper has functionality for RGB, thermal and multi-spectral imaging.
Pix4D Mapper allows you to automate both your drone flight and image data transfer and provides survey-grade results to sub-centimetre level. If your project is relatively simple, default templates allow for simple and automated processing of photogrammetric point clouds. It’s simple to measure surface, distance, volume and elevation but if you struggle, Pix4D’s support is second to none. There’s a thriving ‘Community’ forum and online tutorials which are available free to anyone. Subscribers then also benefit from email support within 24 business hours. For Enterprise customers there’s the option to pay for phone and screensharing support.
By far the most unique thing about Pix4D is the development of industry specific drone mapping options. There are solutions for Civil Engineering, Agriculture, Engineering, Mining, Public Safety, Education and Construction. Each package has been created to answer the specific challenges of drone mapping in each sector as well as find solutions to inherent problems. For instance, the Mining software package can help to identify issues with slope stability and other geohazards whilst performing automated stockpile calculations. If you’re looking for drone mapping software for construction, you’ll find options for cut and fill calculations, excavation comparisons and topographic surveys.
Pix4D’s Pay-As-You-Go model is a great feature and isn’t offered by any other drone mapping software company. The 15-day trial gives you access to all of the features to be able to make an informed decision. You can then choose to pay as you use (one month at a time), pay annually or buy a lifetime licence.
The downside: Because of the wealth of features, Pix4D software can be a little overwhelming. Despite the excellent support it can be difficult to know where to start if you’ve never used quality drone mapping software. If you want to accelerate your drone mapping expertise, COPTRZ offer a 2 day PIX4D Mapper training course. This course was developed in response to requests from customers who wanted to get the most out of their subscription. The course takes you all the way through from data collection to processing and is great for beginners and more experienced drone surveyors.
Best for a Tight Budget: Global Mapper
Price: $549 for a node-locked licence plus $549 for the LiDAR module if required
Global Mapper has been around for years. Originally created as a geospatial data viewing utility, Global Mapper has developed into an incredibly intuitive drone mapping software platform. If you’re looking for ‘bang for your buck’, Global Mapper will provide the most for the least.
With support for ‘virtually every known spatial data format’, as well as access to common spatial databases, Global Mapper is an exceptional tool for the GIS professional. For beginners, their support has excellent reviews and the forum is a fantastic source of information.
With tons of features and options such as cut and fill optimization, contour generation, volume measurements and line of sight modelling, Global Mapper can be used by almost anyone looking for a powerful tool to get the most out of drone data. The optional LiDAR module provides enhanced point cloud processing tools such as automatic point classification and feature extraction – great for asset mapping and infrastructure surveys.
Global Mapper also has versions available in different languages. You can download it in French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Polish, Spanish, Portuguese and Turkish.
The downside: Compared to the other options, the Global Mapper model, interface and support options are a little antiquated. Standard support is via a ticket system but only if you pay. If you do not continue to pay for support and maintenance, you also don’t get access to the latest updates and versions as and when they are released.
Source: Global Mapper – Blue Marble Geospatial
It goes without saying that there will be more advancements in drone mapping software within the next 12 months. BVLOS, drone safety and security all remain hot topics where software will undoubtably play a part in fulfilling the potential drones have to offer. If you want to find out more about the latest software innovations, click below to download our Whitepaper Report: How LIDAR is revolutionising mapping and geospatial data