Phantom 4 Pro Drone For Aerial Mapping

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ABOUT US

Welcome to our blog. Lightwave Aerial provides professional drone services in aerial photo/video, mapping, and inspection. We’ve learned a lot building this business and we’re still learning.

My goal is to present drone technology in a way that’s easy to understand. Also, to give you the real-world practical business perspective we’re learning as we build our company.

Table of Contents

We use the DJI Phantom 4 Pro for all of our mapping jobs. The price-performance trade-off is great for our small business. But there have been a lot of new sexy drones released lately, so it’s a good time to see how the old P4 Pro compares.

The Phantom 4 Pro is a proven, reliable drone for aerial mapping. It has a mechanical shutter to minimize distortion and a 1″ 20MP camera that can provide 3″ ground resolution when flying at 175 feet AGL. All this can be purchased for under $2000.

We’ll compare the Phantom 4 Pro’s performance to potential competitors. As always, the article discusses technical performance from a business perspective.

Drone Mapping Introduction

Drone mapping is a process of capturing data from the air to create high-resolution maps and 3D models. This is a form of remote sensing where data are collected through aerial photogrammetry or LiDAR (Light Detection And Ranging).

Aerial mapping with drones offers many advantages over land-based methods, such as higher accuracy, faster data collection times, and lower cost. Drones also offer a much safer way to map hazardous terrain compared to traditional land-based mapping methods.

From a business perspective, photogrammetry gives a much better return on investment (ROI). In photogrammetry, the drone takes overlapping georeferenced photos. The photos are processed to create a geo-referenced terrain map called an orthomosiac map. These maps are used for a variety of applications such as detailed ground measurement, stockpile analysis, earthwork predictions, and digital terrain analysis.

Aerial Mapping product

Comparison of Drones For Mapping

Phantom 4
Pro
Mavic 3
Enterprise
Air 2SMavic 3
Pro
Inspire 2
w/X4S
Phantom4
Pro RTK
Resolution
@ 175 AGL
3.4″4.4″3.7″4.4″5.3″1″
Mechanical
Shutter
YesNoNoNoYesYes
Flight
Time
25 min47 min35 min40 min27 min25 min
# Jobs To
Recover Cost
12208152945

Phantom 4 Pro Mechanical Shutter For Aerial Mapping

A unique feature of the Phantom 4 Pro is its global mechanical shutter. A mechanical shutter is particularly important for aerial mapping because it reduces rolling shutter distortion. This distortion occurs when the drone is moving or if the subject of the photograph is moving.

Most drones have electronic shutters. These shutters work the way we read, images are scanned by row across the sensor. During the time it takes to complete the photo the drone has changed position and the image is distorted. This is a general problem in photography and it can significantly degrade the quality of aerial mapping images and video.

In contrast, a global shutter works like your eyelid where it snaps the entire picture at once.

Because of this, the Phantom 4 Pro images do not have the jello or wobble effects seen with electronic rolling shutters.

image of shutter effect

Phantom 4 Pro Sensor Size For Aerial Mapping

The Phantom 4 Pro has a 1” onboard camera sensor which is much larger than the typical 1/2.3″ sensors found in most drones of comparable size. A larger sensor size captures more detail and depth. It also provides better performance in low-light conditions. Newer drones like the Mavic 3 Pro have larger sensors, but they do not have mechanical shutters.

Phantom 4 Pro Camera Resolution For Aerial Mapping

The Phantom 4 Pro camera has a 20-megapixel resolution which relates directly to ground sampling distance (GSD). GSD is the size of one pixel within an aerial image relative to a given unit on the ground. For example, a GSD of 4 cm means that each pixel on your aerial image will cover an area measuring 4 cm x 4cm on the ground. This means you can not distinguish between items that are closer than 4 cm.

Phantom 4 Pro Flight Time For Aerial Mapping

Longer flight time means more coordinated data collection without requiring a battery swap. Required mapping times can vary depending on flight altitude, photo overlap, weather conditions, and your flight pattern. Our mapping jobs typically require from 20 to 60 minutes.

Mapping flight time

The Phantom 4 Pro flight time is 25 minutes, so we always have three batteries. I’ve calculated some flight times for different measurement areas. The Phantom 4 Pro is a multi-rotor drone. If you need to map a very large area, at some point we recommend switching to a fixed-wing drone. All of our mapping business is in construction, so the Phantom 4 Pro flight works well for these jobs.

Phantom 4 Pro Cost For Aerial Mapping

When starting a commercial drone business the cost of the drone is an important factor. To be profitable you have to get enough jobs to pay for the cost of your drones. We’ve analyzed several mapping drones to show how many jobs you would need to recover the cost.

For more details on the impact of drone cost on your business see our article “Aerial Mapping With Drones: A Business Perspective“.

Drone recovery cost

Phantom 4 Map Resolution For Aerial Mapping

Map resolution determines the map’s detail. The orthomosaic map is a digital image made up of pixels. Each pixel represents a small area on the ground. The distance between pixels is called the ground sampling distance (GSD) and tells you the resolution of your map. A smaller GSD means better map resolution.

The GSD depends on your camera quality and the altitude of your flight. The best-case map resolution roughly equals twice the GSD. We’ve calculated the resolution for Phantom 4 Pro at different flight altitudes. We typically shoot for 3″ to 5″ resolution.

Map resolution vs map area

Aerial Mapping Software For The Phantom 4 Pro

Once you take your images you need software to combine your photos and create an orthomosaic map. There are a number of excellent software services that range in price and capability.

All of the software listed here provide high-quality 2D orthostatic maps and 3-D models from your drone images. The difference will be in price, ease of use, compatibility with other software, and extra bells and whistles.

Maps Made Easy (Our Recommendation)

drone flight software

Maps Made Easy (MME) is our choice because it’s super easy to use, provides excellent products, and has a fantastic price. It’s a completely cloud-based service. There’s no upfront cost, all jobs below a certain size are free so you can practice as much as you want, and you only pay for what you use.

Each map costs us anywhere between $5 dollars to $15, and you have a unique option of reducing the price in exchange for a lower resolution. They have awesome technical support.

Their flight planning software is just OK, but for mapping missions, you don’t need too much capability.

Pix4D

Pix4D

Pix4D is the industry standard software for serious aerial mapping. Pix4D can be difficult for beginners to learn since the software does have a steep learning curve. Pix4D provides automated flight planning software (for free) but they’re relatively new to the market with this product compared to Drone Deploy or maps made easy.

Most importantly, Pix4D is very expensive compared to other drone mapping solutions available in the market. My experience is that it’s difficult to learn, I would not recommend this unless you have deep some GIS experience and deep pockets (if you don’t know what GIS means, then you do not have enough experience).

Drone Deploy

Drone Deploy

Drone Deploy is another industry-standard software for drone mapping. It is known for ease of use, a cloud-based platform, and really well-integrated flight planning software. However, sometimes restrictions on the amount of data that can be stored may limit users when working with large datasets.

I tried Drone Deploy, it’s good and the flight planning software is great. But the cloud workflow was a little complicated and I felt like it should have been cheaper given that it’s cloud-based.

WebOMD

ODM Mapping Software

WebOMD it’s free, open-source software for drone mapping. They have developed a full suite of services that are on par with other software products. Be aware, it is more of a hands-on application so you may need a little bit of technical ability to use it, although it has gotten much simpler since it started. And the price is right.

Phantom 4 Pro Accessories For Aerial Mapping

Propellers

Phantom 4 Pro propellers

Your propellers determine how well your phantom four pro flies. Without an extra set of propellers for your drone, you could find yourself grounded with a drone that no longer works properly. Drone propellers tend to wear out over time. Also, minor crashes such as tipping over during take-off in a strong wind can damage the propellers.

Even small nicks or chips can impact the drone’s flight stability. Having an extra set is always a good idea.

Batteries

Phantom 4 prop battery

There’s nothing worse than not knowing if you can finish your mapping flight because your batteries are going to run out. I always take three batteries I’m all mapping jobs. Typically in addition to the mapping flight, I’m taking a video in photos. Weather conditions are rough then the drone uses more power to fly the mission which will drain your batteries. Phantom four pro batteries are not cheap, but it’s worth the investment.

Neck Strap

Drone Controller Neck Strap

This is something I didn’t appreciate until I bought one. The Phantom 4 Pro controller is heavy, you do not want to hold this thing for 30 to 40 minutes. The next strap frees up your hands to work the controller touchscreen. Plus the neck strap makes you look super professional.

Wetsuit

image of Phantom 4 Pro wetsuit for flying in rain

The wetsuit is designed to protect your fandom for Pro went flying in the rain. I do not recommend flying in the rain even with a wetsuit, our standard safety procedure is to postpone the flight if the weather is bad. But the wetsuits work, and if you have to fly in the rain you absolutely need this accessory.

Drone Hood

drone controller hood

A drone hood can be useful. I don’t use one because they seem to be a bit bulky. But there are many times when the sun’s glare makes it very difficult to see the screen. This usually forces me to find some shade where I can stand.

Landing Pad

drone langing pad

Landing and takeoff pads are great to have if you’re flying in an area with ground debris. As the drone takes off or lands, it kicks up loud dust and dirt which can get inside your drone chassis or it can damage your propellers. The landing pad provides excellent protection for your drawing during takeoff and landings.

Other Great Mapping Drones

The Phantom 4 is the industry standard drawing for mapping. It’s been around for a long time it has proven itself to be a workhorse for commercial operations. However, there are some newer drones that can also provide excellent performance. We calculated the map resolution (= 4xGSD) and man-hours to recover the drone cost. We assumed each job takes 2 man-hours.

Mavic 3 Enterprise: $3700

Resolution @ 175 feet AGLMan-Hours To Recover Cost
4.4 inches39 Hours
DJI Mavic-3 Enterprise

The DJI Mavic 3 Enterprise is the only drone of its size equipped with a global shutter. The drone is small and lightweight. Even though this drone was recently introduced, it is fully compatible with all 3rd party auto-flight software.

Inspire 2 with X4S: $4000 (est.)

GSD @ 175 feet AGLMan-Hours To Recover Cost
9.2 inches40 Hours
Inspire 2 Drone with Xs4 camera

The Inspire 2 is a bit of a step up in performance and cost. You need to purchase the X4S camera that has a mechanical shutter. 

Phantom 4 Pro RTK: $8500

GSD @ 175 feet AGLMan-Hours To Recover Cost
< 1 inch89 Hours
Phantom 4 Pro RTK drone

Phantom 4 Pro RTK version provides centimeter local and global accuracy by using something called RTK technology. For details on what this is see our article: “Aerial Drone Mapping: A Technical Perspective”

The RTK Version is much more expensive and probably won’t be necessary for most of your jobs. But for mapping professionals with money burning a hole in their pocket, this could be the right drone.

LEGAL INFORMATION

Lightwave Aerial is a participant in the Amazon Services, LLC associates program and other affiliate programs. As an Amazon Associate, we earn from qualifying purchases. We may also be compensated for referring traffic and business through the other affiliate programs.

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Felton Flood, PhD

Felton Flood, PhD

Dr. Flood has 25+ years experience in telecommunications and is a veteran of several startups in Silicon Valley and Northern Virginia. In 2021 he co-founded Lightwave Aerial, applying machine learning and cloud technologies to innovate UAV services.

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