Since the invention of the total station in the early ’70s and the base and rover in the ’90s, surveyors hadn’t had any major advancements in their tools until very recently.
Thanks to cloud computing and affordable commercial drones, we are witnessing the next step-change in the surveyor’s toolkit. When used correctly, they can help surveyors get their job done faster and safer than ever before, without compromising on accuracy.
There are many options available to surveyors in this space in terms of hardware and software, and it’s important that you get the right set up from the beginning to maximize the return on your investment.
In the same way that a hammer won’t help you undo a screw, there are different combinations of hardware and software for different drone surveying jobs. This article is to help you select the right tools for the job you’re doing.
drone for surveying price
DJI PHANTOM 4 RTK
This is the best overall surveying drone on the market right now. The camera is of high quality, the RTK capability leads to very high accuracy, and it is highly reliable and easy to use. The main advantage of the Phantom 4 RTK, when compared to the Phantom 4 Pro V2.0, is that you will need to shoot far fewer ground control points to achieve 0.1’ vertical accuracy. Read more: Comparing the Phantom 4 RTK and the Phantom 4 Pro V2.0. When deployed properly, the DJI base station paired with the Phantom 4 RTK is capable of calculating image geolocation with high precision, but low accuracy. Aerotas has developed a workflow that enables surveyors to lock the relative accuracies in photogrammetry processing and shift the entire project to match a single ground control point. This ensures full-site accuracy without the need for manual PPK processing or ground control distributed throughout the entire site. Fewer ground control points translate to significant time savings in the field. However, the supply chain for the Phantom 4 RTK has been significantly disrupted. So if it is in stock you should buy it because availability is difficult to predict.
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BEST ALL-AROUND, NON-RTK: DJI PHANTOM 4 PRO V2.0
The Phantom 4 Pro V2.0 is the best non-RTK drone for the creation of topographic and planimetric surveys. This platform is cost-effective, easy to use, durable, and dependable. The Phantom 4 Pro V2.0 is the best non-RTK drone for surveying because it just works. The main drawback of the Phantom 4 Pro V2.0 is that it has consumer-grade GPS and so you need a lot of ground control in order to anchor and correct the model; the quantity and distribution of ground control is critical to achieving survey-grade accuracy with this drone. On smaller 5 acre sites the difference between the Phantom 4 Pro V2.0 and the Phantom 4 RTK is negligible in terms of the number of control points needed and time saved. But, as the size of the site increases (e.g., 20+ acre sites), the Phantom 4 RTK quickly differentiates itself. Read more: Comparing the Phantom 4 RTK and the Phantom 4 Pro V2.0. You will get 0.1′ vertical accuracy with both the Phantom 4 Pro V2.0 and the Phantom 4 RTK because they have the same 1-inch 20MP CMOS sensor with a mechanical shutter.
MOST COST-EFFECTIVE / PORTABLE: DJI MAVIC 2 PRO
This is the cheapest and most portable option that is still capable of achieving 0.3’ – 0.4’ vertical accuracy. However, a combination of image quality and geolocation issues make the Phantom 4 series far superior to any of the Mavics for survey purposes. Plus, the geolocation issues with the Mavic 2 Pro lead to longer data processing times than the Phantom 4 Pro V2.0. While the drone itself is the same price as the Phantom 4 Pro V2.0, the Mavic 2 Pro touts less expensive batteries, cases, and accessories so your all-in number comes in under the Phantom 4 Pro V2.0. However, the small lens and rolling shutter have led to lower accuracy than any of the other drones we recommend. But, its extreme portability, ease of use, and low cost are attractive to many surveyors. It is recommended for surveyors who work in dense environments and for whom an average project is under 10 acres. It also serves as a good first drone for those looking to get started with drone surveying.
BEST NON-DJI DRONE UNDER $5,000: YUNEEC H520 + E90
The Yuneec H520 is very comparable to the DJI Phantom 4 Pro, with the added benefit of being run on open-source software. Aerotas recommends the E90 1” sensor camera for surveying. Further, Yuneec is an Intel portfolio company, so it can be used when DJI products are not allowed for security reasons. The software takes a little more experience to use than DJI’s, but it is a totally capable surveying drone. The quality of the data is better than the Mavic 2 Pro, but not quite as good as the Phantom 4 RTK. The Yuneec H520 is a great buy at $1,999.99 for the drone and $1,299.99 for the E90 3-Axis Gimbal Camera.
BEST FIXED-WING: SENSEFLY EBEE X + SENSEFLY S.O.D.A.
Fixed-wing drones have always been a niche in the drone surveying market, but if you fit into that niche, they provide immense value. If a typical site is above 50 acres, then using a fixed-wing aircraft will save a lot of time, and the senseFly eBee X is the best of the fixed-wing aircraft out there. We recommend the senseFly eBee X with RTK/PPK Activation paired with the senseFly S.O.D.A. 1-inch 20MP sensor. With high quality, swappable payloads, the data quality is great. The only downsides are the price, and the inability to fly small sites or at low altitudes — fixed-wing aircraft just cannot fly low and slow.
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BEST OF THE BEST: DJI M210 RTK V2 + ZENMUSE X7 + 24MM
DJI really needs to work on their naming conventions, as the name of this drone is insanely complicated and getting even a single letter wrong may result in you buying a drone that is worthless for surveying. However, if money is no object, then the DJI M210 RTK V2 with an X7 sensor and a 24mm lens is just about the best overall surveying multirotor you can possibly buy. You aren’t getting a huge amount more capability than the Phantom 4 RTK which costs half the price, but the camera is (slightly) better, and there are swappable payloads with lots of other possible use cases. So if budget isn’t an object, this is the best drone out there.