Drones for Mapping for Your Business or Home

Aerial mapping via drone is becoming more of a thing these days, with everyone from construction companies wanting to monitor project progress to homeowners needing a detailed aerial photo of their property to plan outbuilding locations.

Orthophotos, as they are known professionally, are a series of images which are arranged like a puzzle by powerful computers and software.  The resulting images are breathtaking and easily achieve resolution of less than 3cm per pixel with today’s commercial drones.

Elkridge Road 2
Red Feather Lakes, CO

Special flight control apps are used to set the parameters for the drone’s flight.  Settings like flight altitude, image overlap, drone speed, and others are set based on the needs of the project.  From there, the flight plan is uploaded to the drone and the aircraft flies the route autonomously, taking photos at set intervals in accordance with the criteria established in flight planning.

IMG_1443
Ranchettes, Cheyenne WY

Once the drone completes its mission, the photos are loaded into special software running on a workhorse computer with high end, multi-core processors.  The software does the heavy lifting of identifying matching pixels in each of the images.  The end result is called a point cloud – points which the computer has estimated to be identical in at least three photos.

Rosebud Ranch
Rosebud Ranch, Aspen CO

Once the computer is doing chewing on the images, there are a variety of deliverables that are available.  Typically clients simply want a high resolution orthophoto to use for other purposes.  It’s also possible to turn the images into a 3D model, however this takes additional flight planning and a combination of photos from various angles to produce a decent result.

Talons Six Aerial specializes in orthophotography and does all processing in house.  Deliverables are sent to the client via secure DropBox link which contains the full resolution image (don’t try to open it on your phone).  Prices for mapping start around $450, depending on the size of the property and complexity of the flight.  Contact us at info@talonsixaerial.com and we’ll work together on a plan to fit your needs!

Basic Lightroom Workflow for Drone Photos

I get asked fairly regularly how my workflow goes for photo editing. While I won’t give up the “secret sauce” of exactly how Talon Six Aerial does photo editing, this is my basic workflow for photography.

My primary editing software tool is Adobe Lightroom. It’s a very powerful non-destructive editor, meaning that you can make all the changes you want to a particular photo without modifying the original file. There are dozens of online tutorials if you want to learn how to use it, which is exactly what I did four years ago.

It’s important to know when taking photos that if you plan on using Lightroom or any other non-destructive editor afterward, it’s best to take photos in RAW format as opposed to .jpgs. RAW format photos retain a lot of information in the pixels where .jpgs apply compression algorithms to keep the file sizes small. RAW files are indeed large – the 20 megapixel photos coming out of the Phantom 4 Pro are about 35 MB each. However with storage being as cheap as it is these days, I think the tradeoff is worth it.

The first thing that I’ll do when editing a photo in Lightroom is to apply lens corrections. Adobe has lens profiles for most of DJI’s fleet of drones, and micro the 4/3 cameras I use have the lens profiles embedded in the file. I’ll also check the box to remove chromatic aberration as well, just for good measure. Chromatic aberration is basically when you see blue and yellow artifacts around distant objects. Lightroom can compensate and make this byproduct of most cameras disappear.

From there, I’ll adjust the photo settings in the following order:

  1. White balance temperature
  2. Drop the highlights
  3. increase the shadows
  4. Add clarity
  5. Increase the vibrance
  6. Adjust the whites and blacks
  7. Fine tune the contrast

This process puts the photo at about 85% complete.  Once I’m satisfied with the initial development of the photo, I’ll move to tweaking the tone curve and any making any minor color adjustments as needed in the HSL / Color / B & W dropdown.

The last step of photo editing for me is always sharpening and de-noising the photo.  Noise looks like static in your photo and can occur when you use higher ISO settings on the camera or  shoot in low light.  There’s always a tradeoff between sharpening and de-noising, since sharpening tends to bring out more noise in the photo.  Lightroom’s de-noising software is pretty good, but for professional results a good standalone de-noise plugin is needed.

As you move toward more advanced editing work, Lightroom can be used as a springboard to make basic corrections to be used in other software programs.  Of course Lightroom can seamlessly export to Photoshop if you need to make more drastic corrections or fix parts of the photo, but there are a slew of other editing apps that work extremely well with Lightroom.

All in all, Lightroom is a very good non-destructive editor than can make photos pop. I highly recommend it!

 

Drone Comparison: Mavic Pro vs. Phantom 4 Pro vs. Inspire 1 Pro

It seems that “Pro” will go down as the 2016 buzzword for prosumer products, or in the Mavic’s case, wannabe prosumer products.  Late 2016 saw the introduction of two new “Pro” drones from DJI – the Mavic Pro and the Phantom 4 Pro.  Since I was in the market for a backup drone for the business, I bought both.  I now have all three drones listed in the title of this blog post, so lemme share my thoughts on each:


Before I begin, yeah these are all DJI drones and yeah, I was the guy who said I’d never own a DJI drone. DJI customer service of “so sorry your drone flew away; please buy another” has always rankled me as hugely inappropriate and insensitive. And yes, the level of trust I have with each successive DJI firmware upgrade is minimal. However, a great analogy I heard was that DJI is like the Empire of the drone world where 3DR (R.I.P.) and Yuneec are the Rebel Alliance. Aerial photographer Parker Gyokeres put it best though, when responding to this Star Wars analogy of DJI said, “Say what you will about the Empire, they do build a hell of a Death Star.”  DJI does indeed make a hell of a drone.

The Mavic Pro

The Mavic release has been an interesting story in the drone industry.  In September 2016, feeling the pressure of GoPro’s imminent release of the Karma foldable drone, DJI was compelled to leak photos, generate buzz, and present the not-quite-ready-for-production Mavic to the world a mere week after GoPro announced their entry into the consumer drone space.  For me and the Mavic it was love at first sight and I ordered one from B&H only 45 minutes into the release announcement on September 27th.

img_2185
My Mavic.

It turns out that DJI was not fully prepared to mass produce the Mavic. So while they said it would begin shipping on October 15th, unless you were Casey Niestat, Colin Smith, or iJustine, you would have to wait. A leaked internal DJI email revealed that they only planned on releasing a handful of Mavics to the general public in order to “calm the market” until full production was ready in early 2017.  So wait I did…until December 6th when my Mavic preorder finally arrived.

Well lemme tell you that the Mavic was totally worth the wait. The compactness and portability of this drone cannot be overstated.  The hand controller is fantastic, the flight characteristics are superb, and the battery life of 22+ minutes is excellent. The camera sensor leaves a bit to be desired for professional purposes, but with the right post-processing techniques, stills and video are perfectly acceptable for advertising and promotional videos.

dji_0009
Early Mavic test photo shot on an overcast day out at the flying field.

My only real complaint about the Mavic is related to the prevailing Wyoming winds. It’s only powered by a 3S battery, so the Mavic struggles a bit when the winds are over 15mph sustained. You can switch it into Sport mode and gain some extra oomph, but you lose the advantages of the multiple sensors on the front and bottom of the drone that aid in attitude maintenance and position hold.

Other than that minor gripe, the Mavic is a great drone, however “Pro” it is not. At least not to my standards (although admittedly I’m fairly persnickety when it comes to image quality for customers).  For an actual Pro drone, we will need to move onto the Phantom 4 Pro.

The Phantom 4 Pro

Undoubtedly DJI’s Phantom line of drones will go down in history as one of the seminal models that helped bring drones to the masses.  I’m not gonna lie – I generally dislike Phantoms for a lot of reasons, but grudgingly have to admit that they’ve become exponentially better designed and integrated with each successive generation.  Once the Phantom 4 was announced I knocked off the badmouthing – the engineering had improved to the point where the Phantom was truly becoming a great drone.  Aerial photographer Petr Hejl’s workhorse is the Phantom 4, and he achieves some extremely impressive results with it, so once I realized that I’d need a backup for the Inspire I started to seriously consider purchasing one.  I couldn’t get past the small sensor on the P4’s camera; it’s the same as the Inspire’s X3 camera which I’d already quit using.

On November 15th, DJI announced the hotly anticipated Inspire 2 and surprised us with the Phantom 4 Pro.

s3-product-def61785b1e003e64063a5ca9a2f3f59

The P4P added rear and side facing obstacle avoidance sensors and upped the camera to a 1-inch, 20 megapixel sensor (rumored to be a Sony Exmor CMOS). This new camera coupled with the Phantom 4’s already impressive flight dynamics is what sold me. As icing on the cake, the P4P can handle up to 100MB/s for video encoding, which should result in significantly fewer compression artifacts on video than all previous Phantom generations and even the Inspire with the X3, Z3 and X5 cameras.

Talon Six Aerial’s Phantom 4 Pro arrived the same day as the Mavic – December 6th.

dji_0005
Same shot as the one from the Mavic above, but taken with the Phantom 4 Pro on a much nicer day.

I opted to stay away from the Phantom 4 Pro Plus model, which includes a very nice 1000nit 5″ touchscreen built into the hand controller.  The controller runs a DJI in-house version of Android and is supposedly optimized such that latency is reduced to 150ms.  Ultimately my distrust of DJI’s software QA department is what led me to stay with the bring-your-own-iPad version of the P4P.  Additionally, I use several aftermarket apps for flight control, so I didn’t want to get locked into DJI’s closed software ecosystem. I stripped the HDMI module from my spare Inspire controller and placed it on the Phantom controller, so now I can plug in any HDMI monitor for clients or rebroadcast.

In addition to a 25+ minute battery life, the Phantom 4 Pro has considerable power, enough so that I had no issues flying in 25mph sustained winds with 31mph gusts during flight tests yesterday. The camera is also very impressive for the size of the drone. Did I mention that it comes with a mechanical shutter and an adjustable aperture?  This is a seriously impressive camera package on the P4P and, in my mind, makes it a fine backup to the Inspire 1 Pro’s micro 4/3 X5 camera.

So I don’t really have any gripes with the Phantom 4 Pro other than…you know, it’s a Phantom.

The Inspire 1 Pro

The drone industry is moving forward as such a rapid pace, that everything tends to become obsolete after only 18 months.  The exception to this rule has is the DJI Inspire 1.  The Inspire 1 was first announced in late 2014 – months before the Phantom 3, which puts the Inspire’s age in perspective.  Despite this, the Inspire 1 is aging gracefully and the upgraded Inspire 1 Pro is still an excellent professional aerial photography machine.  One of the best things about the Inspire 1 series is the interchangeable camera payloads. As of this blog post, there are six different camera payloads available for the Inspire 1 series:

  1. X3 – 12MP 1/2.3″ sensor camera
  2. Z3 – 12MP 1/2.3″ sensor camera with 3x optical and 2x digital zoom
  3. XT – up to 640 x 480 thermographic imager
  4. X5 – 16MP micro 4/3 camera
  5. X5R – 16MP micro 4/3 high bitrate camera
  6. NDVI X3 – 12MP 1/2.3″ sensor Normalized Difference Vegetation Index camera (specially built by Aerial Media Pros for precision agriculture applications)

This wide range of sensors makes the Inspire 1 an attractive option for just about all professional operators.

IMG_2021.jpg
My old Inspire 1 (non Pro) with the Z3 camera.

The litany of aftermarket flight control apps also increased the utility of the Inspire 1.  Additionally, the X5 camera when matched with quality micro 4/3 lenses is hard to beat for still imagery, particularly because you have full control over all the camera’s settings while in flight.  This is not the case with other drones where you just strap on a DSLR, fly your mission and hope for the best.

DJI_0021.jpg
Vedauwoo State Recreation Area photographed with the X5 and Olympus 25mm lens.

One of the few downsides of the Inspire 1 Pro is portability, which is a non-issue to me for commercial shoots since the imagery quality is so high. It is a large drone though – about 650mm across and with the X5 weighs in at nearly 8 pounds.  Since it’s the company workhorse, I transport it in a large purpose-designed protective case the size of a footlocker.

While the cameras on the Inspire all remain very relevant (with the exception of the X3), the aircraft design is beginning to show its age. DJI has since switched to an all dual Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU) architecture for their drones, so the single IMU Inspire is not as stable as the dual IMU Mavic or Phantom 4 series.  Despite this, the Inspire is far superior to the Mavic and slightly better than the Phantom 4 Pro for wind tolerance.  I recently shot an hour of video with the Inspire in 26.5mph sustained winds and the drone handled it without any problems whatsoever.

It’s worth noting that the Inspire 2 that DJI announced on the same day as the Phantom 4 Pro looks to be a superb aerial cinematography drone.  It incorporates the now-standard dual IMU architecture and is a true dual operator setup with separate flight and main payload cameras allowing both the pilot and camera operator to focus on their individual tasks. At release however, the Inspire 2 only has two camera payload options. One camera, the X4S, is identical to that of the Phantom 4 Pro. The other camera, the X5S, is a micro 4/3 camera. The big difference with the Inspire 2 is that it offloads video processing from the camera to the drone itself, which allows max bitrates for uncompressed RAW video – something that will make it a viable option for Hollywood quality cinematography. Unfortunately the Inspire 2 doesn’t have backwards compatibility with the Inspire 1’s camera selection I listed above, so time will tell with regards to the utility of the drone for anything other than cinematography.

So which drone is the right one?

It depends – purpose, budget, desired image quality, portability, et cetera are all different factors to be considered. For what it’s worth, I registered the Phantom 4 Pro as a Talon Six Aerial commercial drone and the Mavic under my recreational FAA ID.

Given DJI’s strange product map loaded with internally competing drones, I’m curious about the future of the Inspire 1 Pro. There was only one camera for the Inspire 1 until the X5 was announced in the summer of 2015, so it’s entirely possible that it will be just as long until there is a greater diversity in payload availability for the Inspire 2. This would mean that the Inspire 1 Pro will continue to be the versatile drone it is today. In the end, however, I envision the Inspire remaining my workhorse with the Phantom taking video and confined space duties.

The Mavic will mostly be in a small bag at my side, ready to fill the role as “the best camera is one that you have with you”.


UPDATE:  Talon Six Aerial’s Inspire 1 Pro has been officially retired as of April, 2018.  DJI just keeps making them better and better, so my trust workhorse has been replaced by an Inspire 2.

The history of my adventures in drone photography hardware…a long rant

My first multirotor build was back in late spring of 2014: the Flying Cinema CineTank Mk1.  I built it out of frustration with poor quality and jello-ridden GoPro footage I was getting using my Blade 350QX that I’d had since mid-2013. The CineTank promised relatively smooth footage thanks to its clean frame/dirty frame design and was getting a lot of kudos for innovation on the various multirotor forums. My CineTank kit arrived in May 2014 and was a lot of fun to build. I learned quite a bit about the engineering, integration, power distribution, camera placement, ESC quality, and flight controller setup during the two week assembly and tuning process. It was a great first build and I’d do it again without hesitation.

Continue reading → The history of my adventures in drone photography hardware…a long rant

Not exactly business related, but still fun with drones…

Aside from being passionate about aerial imagery, I’m also a huge fan of first person view racing and freestyle using very small and very fast drones.  Pilots of these types of drones wear special goggles that show a live video feed from a small camera on the drone, so the pilot has the sensation of flying.  The thrust to weight ratio on these drones is nothing short of ludicrous, so they are very fast; typical speeds range from 40mph to 70 mph.

Truth be told, I have five of these small FPV drones and am currently building a sixth.  Both building and flying are extremely entertaining and addictive for me, so I spend a lot of my free time either flying or tinkering with my mini fleet.

img_2016

Using a DJI Phantom Drone for Farming

Online news site cincinnati.com recently posted an article and video about farmer Stuart Ferguson’s use of a UAS as part of his daily chores.  The 60-year old uses a DJI Phantom 3 multirotor for a variety of farming tasks like checking on his livestock, ensuring the feeders are adequately stocked with hay, and generally surveying his 300 acre property.  One thing that stood out about this article and accompanying media clip was that it was a very positive “drone story” — a pleasant change from most of the yellow journalism associated with small UAS that has dominated the media since 2014.

Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 19.40.49

Continue reading → Using a DJI Phantom Drone for Farming