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How to Get Started with Drones for Surveying and Mapping

“Site Scan is a must have for any surveyor. I can collect detailed, accurate data for an entire job site, and save hours of work on every project.”

Steve Moran

Principal, Moran Surveying

Learn how Site Scan is helping surveying firms like yours.

Capture and Analyze Surveys with A Swipe

Faster Deployment

Perimeter Scan interface

Site Scan autonomously plans and executes surveys in minutes

Capture the facade of any vertical or oblique structure with the tap of a button.

Reliable Data

Perimeter scan mesh

Capture your site from any angle

Three different flight modes allow you to decide what’s right for the job.

Efficient Workflows

Perimeter scan 3D model

Time to deliverable up to 5x faster than traditional methods

Go from survey to CAD deliverable in days, not weeks.

Aerial surveying with drones has changed how surveying professionals conduct topographic surveys. This guide describes the technology and uses of drones for surveying and mapping professionals.

Why Start Drone Mapping Today?

Autonomous drones have become the leading technology for creating topographic surveys. The cost of reality capture software and drone hardware have fallen dramatically in price in recent years, allowing a level of insight that’s invaluable to industries like agriculture, construction, land and resource management, and mining, or for gathering data for any area that needs to be looked at closely and often.

Drone Surveying Basics

Why drones?

Small drones are the easiest way to create topographic surveys of job sites. Rather than relying on expensive aerial LiDAR or time consuming terrestrial surveys, flying a drone over your site allows surveyors to build accurate digital elevation models or point clouds 5-10 times faster than traditional methods.

How does drone photogrammetry work?

Photogrammetry is the science of calculating measurements from photos. With systems like 3DR Site Scan, a drone can automatically take hundreds of pictures of a specified area, then use software to identify similar points across multiple images.

Using these similar points, the system constructs a three-dimensional point cloud, which is used to generate the same topographic maps, digital terrain models, meshes, and orthophotos that engineers rely on for design and build work.

Advantages of Drone Surveying

What’s the difference between photogrammetry and LiDAR?

Photogrammetry generates point clouds from computer vision and ray tracing, while lidar generates point clouds from a range finding laser. In many cases, point clouds derived from cameras and from LiDAR are nearly indistinguishable. However, photogrammetry struggles with reflective objects and dense vegetation.

The biggest difference, however, is the cost and ease of deployment. A drone capable of generating a photogrammetric point cloud costs roughly 10x less than one capable of carrying a LiDAR. Furthermore, the software capable of analyzing and acting on the point clouds is cheaper and easier to use.

What’s the difference between drone surveying and traditional surveying?

The point clouds and digital terrain models generated by drones are exactly the same as those generated by traditional surveys, but are significantly easier and cheaper to collect and much richer in detail. Data products derived from drones can still be used to perform cut/fill analysis, calculate volumes, build design surfaces, and verify earthworks.

Our customers have shown that multi-day traditional surveying projects can be cut down to multi-hour drone enabled projects.

Drone Surveying with 3DR Site Scan

Open the Site Scan field app, power on the drone, select the scan type, draw a polygon around the area of interest, walk through a pre-flight checklist to ensure safety, and swipe to take off. Easy as that.

The drone will calculate the optimal flight path, fly automatically, capture all the photos needed for a high quality drone map, and return to home when the mission is over.

If the battery is not sufficient to complete the mission, it will automatically return to launch, prompt the user to replace the battery, then continue the mission.

Learn how Site Scan is helping surveying firms like yours.

Drone Surveying Use Cases

Build Design Surfaces

Understanding existing conditions is essential for engineers and architects in the pre-project planning phase. Knowing exact elevations, slopes, property boundaries, and any obstructions before ground is broken can save the design and the build teams significant headache down the road.

Accurate design surfaces can be built in hours rather than weeks using drone surveying.

Cut/Fill Analysis

Earthworks firms need to calculate the differences between the existing terrain and that prescribed by the civil engineer. With traditional techniques, it is too expensive and time consuming to check progress each day and occasionally, mounds can be overcut or holes can be overfilled.

Drone surveys enable earthworks firms to track the progress and recalculate cut/fill everyday. This ensures billing is correct, projects stay on schedule, and no excess work is performed.

Verifying Earthworks

When scoping a project, it’s helpful to know exactly how much inventory needs to be moved offsite or brought onsite. An incorrect estimate can cost contractors hundreds of thousands of dollars if significantly more cut or fill needs to be performed than laid out in the original contract.

Accurate drone surveys enable contractors and owners to know exactly how much earth needs to be moved, to balance their sites, and stay consistent with billing.

Calculating Aggregates Volumes

Aggregates producers need to track inventory levels to ensure they have enough material to meet demand. Inventory levels deviate as more deliveries are made, and manual surveys are expensive and dangerous.

Drone surveys enable aggregates producers to calculate their inventories in a few clicks, as frequently as they wish, without exposing employees to dangerous conditions.

Balancing Cut and Fill

The most expensive part of a project can be bringing earth on or off site. Balancing cut and fill can dramatically reduce the cost of a project, but is challenging without a detailed topo survey. A simple drone flight combined with designs from engineering can enable project owners to accurately balance cut and fill and ensure the project runs on budget and on schedule.

What kinds of data products do drone surveys generate?


Export orthophotos as PDFs to easily share and view data products from any device.


Create OBJ files for detail-rich 3D meshes, for use in software like Autodesk ReCap.


Generate high resolution point clouds in LAS file format, for use in any CAD software, such as Autodesk Revit or Civil3D.

TIFF Files

Site Scan allows you to generate high resolution TIFF files for your drone maps. These TIFF files can be seamlessly integrated into your existing BIM workflows.

Learn how Site Scan is helping surveying firms like yours.