5 Reasons You Need a Drone for GIS Mapping

mapping gisDrone innovation has come an exceptionally long way in an extremely short period of time.

Although the first unmanned drones were launched in the mid 1800s (Austria attacked Italy with unmanned balloons loaded with explosives) the innovation of drone technology has really taken off in the last couple of decades.

Now anyone can buy and fly a drone, and it seems like each day there is a new use for drones. One of the newest uses for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) is GIS mapping.

In this article we’ll discuss the theory of GIS mapping and we’ll explore ways in which drones make GIS mapping faster, cheaper, easier, and more efficient overall.

We’ll also discuss a few of the best drones for GIS mapping projects. For the purposes of this article the conversation is going to revolve around GIS mapping performed when one or more UAVs are operating within a 100-2,500 foot range at an altitude of 100-1000 feet (unless special circumstances dictate otherwise.

What is GIS mapping?

Let’s start with the basics. GIS stands for “geographical information system.” A GIS is a computer program that can capture, store, organize and display data related to specific parts of the Earth’s surface.

GIS programs can show multiple types of data at once on the same map. This allows scientists, historians and others to see patterns that might have otherwise gone unnoticed.

GIS mapping allows us to recognize and analyze geographical relationships, and we can use such information to formulate plans to improve life on Earth, as well as the life of the Earth.

Examples of GIS benefits include the fact that the lead water pollution in Flint, Michigan was recognized and compartmentalized based, in part, on GIS mapping. Other common uses for GIS mapping include showing how education levels affect income, and GIS mapping can be used to show vegetation and produce levels in relation to rainfall.

If you’ve ever seen a map that shows the correlation between distance above sea level and temperature, for example, then you’ve looked at something that was created using GIS mapping.

GIS mapping is important because it affords us the opportunity to view multiple variables at the same time. If there is a common thread among variables then it will be noticed immediately. At this point, the appropriate people and/or departments can start to work on figuring out the correlation (if any) between two or more variables as detected by GIS mapping.

drone used for gis

How can drones help with GIS mapping?

The innovation of drone use for GIS mapping provides at least five benefits, many of which can be seen almost immediately.

  1. They’re time savers. Drones equipped with cameras that can transmit various types of GIS data lower costs on multiple levels. Camera-equipped helicopter fly-bys are no longer necessary in a lot of situations, and drones can remain just as steady as on-the-ground survey tools so you don’t have to re-measuring due to human error. On top of all that, GIS mapping drones are easy to program and operate, thus allowing you to save even more time on the job site.
  1. They’re environmentally friendly. Lots of GIS mapping involves drilling, material sampling, and interference with plumbing and well systems, and that usually doesn’t sit well with residents. When a company uses drones to map an area, however, the drone mapping aspect of the research is completely non-invasive. Mapping drones are built to observe, record, and interpret – nothing else.
  1. They can safeguard scientific personnel, members of the Armed Forces, and civilians. GIS mapping is often done in recently de-commissioned war zones, and private companies do regular sweeps of Revolutionary and Civil War battlefields. GIS mapping is also useful when evaluating an area where you suspect an enemy is or could be hiding. Knowing where every tree, bush and rock is in a location gives you a tremendous advantage over your enemy.
  1. Up-front costs are minimal and “green” technology is often eligible for financial reimbursement in that regard. You can buy a high-quality quadcopter for just a couple of hundred dollars, and the money you spend on the drone and its camera might even be tax deductions for you if the drone is a business expense.
  1. Long-term expenses could be lower as well, because the more you use the drone for GIS mapping the less you’ll need to rely on third-party sources that deplete the ozone layer, use fossil fuels and possibly cause irreparable harm to the area.

Popular GIS Mapping Drones

Specs: This drone can canvass up to 12 miles in a single flight, and it can acquire ground sampling images as minute as 1.5 centimeters per pixel.

The drone weighs just 1.5 pounds, and you can generate an entire flight plan with this drone before it ever leaves the ground. You can set GPS waypoints and use simulation mode to practice before you begin live flights.

This drone has a 38” wingspan and is made out of EPP foam and carbon composites. It uses a 160-watt brushless DC motor and records images using an 18-megapixel camera.

The eBee can stay in the air for up to 50 minutes at a time and has a radio link zone of 3 kilometers.

Pros: This drone is the epitome of what a good GIS mapping drone should be. It’s lightweight and it has an impressive flight time of 50 minutes. The 18-megapixel camera allows you to capture clear photos and videos, and the fact that it can identify specific sections of its coverage area that are as small as 1.5 centimeters is truly astounding.

Cons: This was a tough paragraph to write because I absolutely love this drone, as do most other pilots who’ve had the pleasure to operate it. It’s definitely on the more expensive side, but there is a lot of money in GIS mapping so most companies probably won’t have too much of a problem shelling out the cash necessary to acquire this model.

Verdict: This drone is the personal favorite of many GIS mapping professionals. If you’re just getting started in the business, if the project you’re undertaking is small and/or simple, or if you just want a recreational drone, then SenFly’s eBee is not for you. If you’re a GIS mapping pro and you plan to use the drone repeatedly and in a variety of situations then this model is right up your alley.

  • 3DR Solo Drone

Specs: This drone allows you to use GoPro cameras. The drone itself has a flight time of 25 minutes and a range of 0.5 miles.

It can reach a maximum speed of 55 miles per hour, and it can reach an altitude of 400 feet. This drone is Wi-Fi capable and it uses 880kV motors as well as 10” reinforced nylon propellers.

The 3DR Solo weighs 3.3 pounds and takes 1.5 hours to charge the lithium polymer battery.

Pros: Being able to choose your own camera (and switch cameras when the need arises) is a great concept, especially for GIS mapping. Different projects call for different camera types so it’s nice to not be stuck with the drone’s original camera. The 3DR is also surprisingly affordable, and the fact that it works with Android and Apple devices is the cherry on top.

Cons: Depending on the type of mapping you’re doing (and presuming you have advanced elevation permissions) the flight ceiling of 400 feet is somewhat disappoint for a GIS mapping drone.

To be fair, you can gather a lot of useful data from a camera that’s recording at 400 feet, but for some GIS mapping purposes this is a deal-breaker.

Verdict: Unless you have a need for high-altitude GPS mapping on a regular basis, the 3DR Solo is a solid choice. It doesn’t break the bank, and the 55mph max speed compensates for this model’s relatively short flight time for a mappnig drone. This drone is very easy to program and use, and if you’re already comfortable with using smart phones and tablets then this drone can make your life even easier.

  • DJI Phantom 3 Professional

Specs: The aircraft weighs 1280 grams and has a diagonal size of 35 centimeters (excluding the propellers). It has a top speed of about 36 miles per hour with no wind, and can achieve a maximum altitude of 120 meters above its takeoff point (up to 6,000 meters above sea level).

The Phantom 3 Pro can fly for up to 23 minutes at a time, and it can operate normally within temperatures ranging from -10 degrees Celsius to 40 degrees Celsius. This model has a 94-degree field of vision and uses a 12.76-megapixel camera – and the video quality is adjustable up to 2160p. DJI also equipped this GIS mapping drone with smart phone and tablet compatibility.

Pros: This drone’s list of advantages could be an entire article on its own. The adjustable video quality is extremely uncommon for GIS mapping drones, as is the wide range of modes from which you can choose while piloting this device (e.g. photo mode, video mode, rapid fire mode, time lapse mode, burst mode, etc.). This drone’s top speed is more than respectable, and its operation ceiling of 6,000 meters above sea level is breathtaking (as are the photos and videos taken at such heights).

Cons: The fact that the camera is rated below 14 megapixels is somewhat of a letdown, but the 12.7 megapixels overachieve to a degree that you wouldn’t expect. In my opinion, a GIS mapping drone could cost a little less considering this model’s “limitations,” but unless you’re working on an uber-advanced GIS mapping project you can count on this drone to do the job well, and the price isn’t too much of a concern when you consider the fact that DJI is known for manufacturing durable, long-lasting UAVs.

Verdict: If you have a standard GIS mapping project sitting on your desk or you want a reliable drone to teach GIS mapping to others then the DJI Phantom 3 Professional is an option that’s hard to argue against. It doesn’t have every single bell and whistle, but it is by no means a “basic” drone and lots of geographers use this drone to record data for various assignments and experiments. It’s an enjoyable drone because of its multiple modes and it can provide you with the information you need for everyday GIS mapping projects.

Stewart Lawson

Stewart Lawson

Stewart Lawson was born and raised in South Carolina, and attended the College of Charleston. A drone enthusiast that has written thousands of articles, blogs, news updates, press releases, tutorials and special reports for dozens of clients. Stewart currently resides in Puerto Rico.
Stewart Lawson

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