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How to create maps using drones? This book may be your go-to guide

Looking to use your drone for something other than spying on your neighbors taking cool pictures? It’s time you consider using your drones to create maps — which can in turn make you money.

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While most people think of drones as a way to take cool selfies, one of the key value propositions when it comes to actually making money with drones is photogrammetry.

What is photogrammetry, and how does it apply to drones?

Photogrammetry is a process of creating full color, textured images of land by taking dozens, or even hundreds or thousands of photos and compositing them together.

Drones have made the steps of gathering those potentially thousands of images needed to create 3D maps into a fairly easy and inexpensive process.

And a wide range of applications rely on those aerial maps. We see them in precision agriculture, natural disaster assessment, pollution monitoring and facility inspections, and even mapping graveyards and Wild West towns.  It’s no secret that aerial data improves numerous business in terms of jobs they’re able to accept (and how much they’re able to charge). Learning how to use your own drone to create maps is the place to start.

But learning such a skill is also daunting. How do you start this business venture? And can you do it with something simple like a DJI Phantom?

A sample page from "So you want to create maps using drones?"
A sample page from “So you want to create maps using drones?”

This book on drone mapping might be your gateway

Journalist Kike Calvo,  known specifically in the drone world for his National Geographic Blog series “Drones and Small Unmanned Aerial Vehicles” created “So You Want To Create Maps Using Drones,” ($32.39). This 72-page field guide serves as an introductory primer to getting into aerial mapping and photogrammetry.

The book covers the basics of mapping, workflow, camera basics, processing information, a guide to the best drones for mapping (spoiler: even a Phantom you picked up off of Amazon will do!)

It’s not necessarily a complete how-to. For that, you’ll have to read your own system’s instruction manual. This book adds on to that as a set of guidelines for those getting into photogrammetry with drones.

Calvo writes in a way that’s free of jargon and full of graphics. Thus, this book is an ideal introduction into a world that might otherwise seem intimidating.

Gear needed to create maps using drones

The book doesn’t require you have multi-thousand dollar gear, either. The book speaks to using maps using a range of drones.

And in fact, the gear you need for a drone mapping project can be surprisingly cheap. What’s more, 84% of drone mapping is done with drones that cost $1,500 or less, according to one DroneDeploy survey. Many experts consider the DJI Phantom 4, which costs a hair over $1,500, to be the reigning king of photogrammetry.

Of course, you can certainly get far more advanced in terms of what drone you’re using. Many businesses prefer (or are required to use) American-made drones. Products like Santa Monica based Flightwave Aerospace’s Edge 130 Blue execute long-range mapping missions well. Montana-based Skyfish builds drones designed to carry the Sony Alpha series of cameras, and are ideal for missions like photogrammetry and infrastructure inspections that rely on LiDAR or thermal sensors. Or there’s Freefly’s Astro Base Industrial Drone with Mapping Payload & Pilot Pro Controller. Though realize these ones aren’t cheap. For example, the Astro drone with payload goes for $27,000.

You’ll also want drone mapping software. There are plenty of options, and some are even free.

Other ways to learn how to create maps using drones

A book is nice, but it might not necessarily be the best way to learn how to create maps using drones. It certainly won’t be as comprehensive. That’s where drone mapping courses come in.

These days, there are drone mapping courses for every budget and skillset. On the affordable end comes online drone training courses like the $499 Drone Mapping Essentials online course from UAV Coach. The same company also runs an in-person, 2-day drone mapping workshop. Though it costs $1,999, it includes the same online course, as well as hands-on activities (and lunch!).

Other competitors in the space include Pilot Institute and Drone Launch Academy. Check out my guide to the best drone mapping courses to find the best one for your learning style.

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