Drone mapping software can serve many purposes, including generating maps, point clouds, 3D models and DEMs. It’s used in many industries, including agriculture, oil and gas, urban planning, land management and more.
And there are tons of drone mapping softwares out there to know; DroneDeploy and Pix4D are two of the biggest names, both of which are cloud-based and extremely user-friendly. However, several other platforms exist as alternatives to these two giants, including Agisoft Meta Shape, Propellor and WebODM.
So which one is best for you? Aaron Parnell, owner and Chief Pilot of Unmanned Aerial Operations — which is an aerial imaging, aerial video and drone mapping company based in North Carolina — reviewed five major drone mapping software products to determine the best for each use case and budget.
All the mapping engines reviewed here offer tools such as volume, area, slope and distance measurements, and most also offer map outputs such as topographic maps, relief maps, and 3D Models. Some of these apps, such as Propeller, also offer additional measurements and map outputs.
DroneDeploy: The best for most people who aren’t on a budget
DroneDeploy ranks as one of the most user-friendly platforms there is — and it’s one of the biggest cloud software platforms designed for commercial drones that you’ll find. Its customers have mapped a combined 200 million acres since the San Francisco-based drone mapping company launched in 2013. DroneDeploy also claims that its software is used across more than 400,000 job sites in more than 180 countries worldwide.
Why DroneDeploy is great
Great reasons to use DroneDeploy include in-app flight planning, real time orthomosaic building, cloud based processing and sharing, and the fact that the software supports multiple brands of drones as well as multiple models made by those brands.
For many, DroneDeploy supporting many different drones is a massive factor in choosing DroneDeploy. DroneDeploy supports drones not specifically made for mapping, which is a big deal to the new pilots who may not own a $12,000 mapping drone.
Among the drones supported by DroneDeploy are some of DJI’s most popular (and not particularly expensive) drones, including:
DroneDeploy also supports the Skydio 2 drone. See the full list of DroneDeploy-supported drones here.
While drone is in its name, DroneDeploy doesn’t just limit itself to flying robots either. The company’s 360 Walkthrough software launched back in 2020 to function with both aerial and any on-the-ground 360-cameras (hand-held or robotic), targeted primarily at allowing users to build a comprehensive, digital reconstruction of any job site.
DroneDeploy has several plans to choose from, each with different price points that offer increasingly more features as you go up in price. Among these are Ag Lite (which is specifically designed for precision agriculture use cases), Individual, Advanced, Teams and Enterprise.
The fact that DroneDeploy is cloud-based is another huge advantage of the software. Even if your computer has terabytes of storage, you’ll likely benefit greatly from cloud-based mapping software. That’s because downloading maps and models puts an extreme toll on your memory usage. Unlike normal images such as JPEG’s and PNG’s, orthomosaic DSMs and DTMs use large amounts of data to retain quality and GEO referencing.
Another standout tool offered by DroneDeploy is the site comparison to previous surveys. Construction companies highly value this because progression is easily visible. Similar to how engineers will layer blueprints to see how the project will come together, DroneDeploy allows business to do the same as a digital model.
Since DroneDeploy is a paid service, the customer support you’ll receive is top-notch. Beyond extensive DroneDeploy support documentation, there’s also a DroneDeploy community forum. Or, you can click ‘Help’ from inside your DroneDeploy project to chat with a DroneDeploy employee.
Why DroneDeploy might not be a fit for you
DroneDeploy is among the most expensive drone mapping softwares out there, and its price tag is not exactly transparent either.
Individual plans start at $329 per month, but that’s only if you commit to a year. If you want to use it without the year-long commitment, you’ll pay $499 per month. Plus, the upgraded version of the software with more bells and whistles will run an even heftier $599 per month (that’s more than $7,100 per year).
What happens if you’re not a sole proprietor or entrepreneur? If you’re looking for a version for your entire team, you’ll have to call DroneDeploy to request a demo. While it’s more expensive than the individual plan, DroneDeploy is not transparent about the actual price — you’ll have to call to find out, and it’ll vary based on your team.
Pix4D: the best drone mapping software if you’re on a tighter budget
Pix 4D is a cloud-based mapping software program designed for photogrammetry, which is a style of mapping that creates images of land by using large numbers of photos. Those photos are then composited together as full-color, textured images.
Pix4D has been around since 2011, when it started as a spinoff of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne Computer Vision Lab in Switzerland.
Why Pix4D is great
Pix4D is especially useful given its high degree of customization, allowing you to avoid paying for features you don’t need (and only paying for the ones you do). Unlike DroneDeploy, which offers subscription tiers, Pix4D lets you buy the pieces of the software you want, such as the flight planner, the processing platform, or a map editor. Within these options, more advanced tools are available based on a tier system similar to Drone Deploy.
Since Pix4D is a paid service, the customer support you’ll receive is top-notch with a support line to call, a help center to message, and plenty of online forums to skim through.
Pix 4D’s cloud software is similar to Drone Deploy in that it is shareable and your maps will all be stored on their servers. However, you do have the option to download onto your drive. Pix4D’s outputs, specifically their orthomosaics, are very impressive. This software’s ability to produce excellent and accurate orthomosaics is somewhat unmatched in the arena of cloud-based processing software.
Something special about Pix4D is the LiDAR processing tools. The other mapping engines on this list do not offer LiDAR processing. While you can visualize the point cloud from the LiDAR scan in all the mapping engines on this list, using Pix4D allows you to process, visualize and export a LiDAR dataset into Autocad.
Why Pix4D might not be a fit for you
Despite being our budget pick, realize that this software is still relatively expensive to run. With plans ranging in price from $58 a month to $315 a month, you’ll spend less money than you would using DroneDeploy, but it still won’t come cheap.
Propeller: The best for construction companies
Propeller is a platform that is based on a model of pay-per map process. (For example, Propeller provides their aerial mapping solution at $250 per map).
Why Propeller is great
You will receive all map outputs from this one processor such as your orthomosaic, DTM, 3-D model, plant health, along with a vast array of measurement tools to examine and analyze your job site with.
The drones recommended for usage with Propeller software include the Phantom 4 RTK and the Wingtra One.
Since Propellor is a paid service, the customer support you’ll receive is top notch. Similar to the other paid apps listed, Propeller offers a support call line that responds swiftly. They also include a messaging platform for support, and you can request a call if necessary.
While DroneDeploy and Pix 4D both offer measurement tools as well, Propeller blows them both out of the water with tools such as:
- Elevation Difference
- Road Grade
- Surface Area
- Design to Design
- Volume from Lowest Point
- Earthworks Progress
- Elevation History
- Cross-Section Comparison
- Compare to Previous Survey
- Berm Check
- Compare to Latest Design
This software is geared more towards companies using an internal drone within their mapping department, as opposed to a pilot looking for a mapping software to use for their own business. That’s because paying $250 for a map is only a smarter financial move if you only plan on conducting a mapping mission, say, once a month. For a company that intends to make many more maps than that, the per-map cost of Propeller is likely not financially worth it.
Why Propeller might not be a fit for you
The biggest drawback of Propeller is that It requires you to use what’s called an Aeropoint (which is a highly-precise, smart ground control point) in order to process your imagery with any accuracy. While Aeropoints are great for both beginners and survey veterans given their easy use and high precision, they’re far from wallet-friendly; an Aeropoint costs just over $1000.
Another drawback of this software is that you’ll need to find a flight planning app to execute your automated flights (propeller does not offer one). The drones recommended for usage with propeller software are the Phantom 4 RTK and the Wingtra One. Which are both expensive drones costing upwards of 10,000 dollars.
WebODM: The best free drone mapping software
For those with a background in GIS, using WebODM in tandem with another software QGIS, OpenDroneMap may be the right choice for you. Consider this software duo to be the best alternative for those who may not want to invest thousands of dollars into a cloud-based mapping software.
Why WebODM is great
WebODM is a local drone mapping software (meaning it runs on your hard drive) that provides users similar map outputs as that of Drone Deploy, Pix4D, and some of Propeller. It also allows for an array of measurements to be taken in the software. In order to use WebODM, you should have a grasp on GIS. GIS is short for Geographic Information Systems, or in other words: digital mapping. Unmanned Aerial Operations (UAO) uses web ODM in tandem with the open source GIS platform, QGIS. This allows UAO to process drone imagery into maps, models and measurements, with an accuracy higher than most platforms.
Why WebODM might not be a fit for you
Given that it’s an open source platform, WebODM requires some knowledge of coding for installation.
WebODM’s support line is not the same as these other mapping engines. To get help, you’ll need to post in the WebODM forum and hope someone answers your question.
While cost-effective, these two softwares are not exactly the most user-friendly.
Agisoft Metashape: Great for creating 3D models
Agisoft Metashape is a cloud based and local imagery processing platform focused on processing and delivering 3D models. While this software does offer a measurement tool, it’s limited when compared to Propeller.
Why Agisoft Metashape is great
Agisoft Metashape’s 3D model outputs are a homerun, and are by far the best in this group of drone imagery software.
Since Agisoft Metashape is a paid service, the customer support you’ll receive is top-notch. You’ll be able to call the support line if you run into trouble, send an email to support, or check the forums used by Agisoft’s users
Similar to Propellor in the plethora of unique tools that Agisoft Metashape offers are:
- Dense point cloud: editing and classification
- Terrestrial laser scanning (TLS) registration
- Ground control points / scale bar support
- Stereoscopic measurements
- Hierarchical tiled model generation
- 4D modeling for dynamic scenes
- Automatic power line detection
- Satellite imagery processing
Why Agisoft might not be a fit for you
Agisoft is a paid service, ranging from $179 to $3,499. Like the other softwares, the more you pay, the more you receive. However in this case, you only have two options: Pay $179 for the processing tool — allowing you to take your drone imagery and create a model — or pay $3,499 for the full package which includes tools that may not be relevant to you as a drone pilot such as 3D modeling texture tools used for industries like video game design.
Unlike the other companies listed here, Agisoft is a Russian company. For those wishing to use products made in the United States, avoid this one.
The bottom line
Most of these platforms offer free trials, allowing you to try out each one to personally determine which software is best for you.
Before making a decision, understand your budget, how often you plan on using the software, and your ability to navigate and leverage the software to your needs.
While many of the software solutions offered by these drone mapping companies are incredibly pricey, it could turn out that many of them eventually fall in price to remain competitive.
-By Aaron Parnell
Visit Unmanned Aerial Operations for more from Aaron. If you’d like to submit a guest post, contact The Drone Girl here.
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