Drone Surveying:

Best Survey Drones, How to Do Drone Surveying, and More [New for 2023]

Drone surveying is the use of a drone to capture aerial data for the purpose of conducting a topographic or other type of land survey.

Traditionally, surveying data is collected by a person walking through an area using ground-based equipment, like GPS receivers or total stations.

In a drone survey, the survey data is collected by air, allowing the surveyor to move more quickly across a piece of land and to be less encumbered by changes in the landscape or obstacles on the ground, such as plants or other obstructions.


Drone surveys can collect the same quality of data as ground-based surveys. But they do so much faster than traditional methods, making the survey process significantly faster and less expensive.

In this in-depth guide to drone surveying we’ll cover the best survey drones on the market, what drone surveying is, how it works, and the top uses for drone surveying.

Here’s a full list of what’s covered in case you’d like to jump around:


Surveying Drones: The Best Survey Drones of 2023

1. DJI Phantom 4 RTK


Credit: DJI

Great for: Entry-level drone surveying

The DJI Phantom 4 drone has been the go-to survey drone for years. And it’s still a solid option—especially the new RTK model.

Key specs and features:

  • Sensor. 1” CMOS sensor, ensuring high-quality imaging.
  • Flight time. 30 minutes.
  • RTK module. Positioned on top of the drone, the RTK module when used with the D-RTK 2 ground station, supports the collection of spatial data with centimeter-level precision.
  • GS RTK app. Can be used with a dedicated app made for the Phantom 4 RTK to support flight planning and field execution for surveying.
  • No swappable payloads. Unfortunately, you can’t swap in your own payloads on the Phantom 4 RTK.

Learn more about the DJI Phantom 4 RTK.

2. DJI Mavic 3 Enterprise


Credit: DJI

Great for: Professional surveyors / professional drone pilots who do some surveying

The Mavic 3 Enterprise is a significant step up from the DJI Phantom 4. A key feature with the Mavic 3 Enterprise is its mechanical shutter, which eliminates the chance of blurred images that can result from the rolling shutters found in many other drone models.

Key specs and features:

  • Flight time. 45 minutes.
  • Shutter type. Mechanical, reducing image blur during flight.
  • Sensor. Micro 4/3” sensor.
  • Low light capabilities. Shoots well in low light due to the larger sensor enabling clearer shots in poor lighting conditions.

Learn more about the DJI Mavic 3 Enterprise.

3. DJI Matrice 350 RTK survey-drone-m350-zenmuse-p1

Credit: DJI

Great for: Professional surveyors / professional drone pilots who do some surveying

The M350 RTK is a solid commercial platform that can carry up to three payloads simultaneously, each weighing up to six pounds.

Key specs and features:

  • Flight time. 55 minutes.
  • Transmission range. Supports triple-channel 1080p video up to 9.3 miles (~15 km).
  • Speed. Up to 51.5 mph (23 m/s).
  • RTK module. Supports data collection at 1.5 cm + 1 ppm (vertical) and 1 cm + 1 ppm (horizontal).
  • Shutter type. Global mechanical shutter, reducing image blur during flight.
  • Accuracy. Up to 3 centimeter precision without the need for ground control points.
  • Swappable payloads. Up to three payloads can be swapped in, letting you customize your data collection.

Learn more about the DJI Matrice 350 RTK.

4. Autel EVO II Pro RTK V3


Credit: Autel

Great for: Photogrammetry, mid-range professional surveying option

The Autel EVO II Pro RTK V3 has a useful blend of portability and precision. It’s lightweight, but also packed with advanced features, making it a good mid-range option for professional surveyors or drone pilots doing surveying on the side.

Key specs and features:

  • Weight. At only 2.8 pounds (1250 grams), it’s among the lighter commercial drones available.
  • Flight time. 38 minutes.
  • Camera. 1” CMOS RGB sensor gimbal camera with 6K.
  • Wind resistance. Has an 8-level wind resistance feature, making it durable in varying weather conditions.
  • Transmission range. Up to 9.3 miles (15 kilometers).
  • RTK module. Autel’s RTK module has centimeter-level accuracy and supports base station RTK, network RTK, and PPK.

Learn more about the Autel EVO II Pro RTK V3.

5. AgEagle’s eBee X


Credit: AgEagle

Great for: High end professional surveying and mapping

AgEagle (formerly senseFly) makes drones specifically for commercial surveying and mapping, among other applications. The company’s eBee survey drones are the flagship models of the company, standing out for their high quality in aerial mapping. The eBees are fixed-wing drones made with the needs of professional surveyors in mind.

Key specs and features:

  • Flight time. Up to 90 minutes on a single battery.
  • Weight. 3.6 pounds (1.6 kg).
  • Accuracy. 0.6 / 1.5 cm in absolute accuracy.
  • Swappable payloads. Among the array of payloads, it can accommodate the SODA 3D mapping camera and the Parrot Sequoia multispectral sensor, as well as various payloads from other third-party providers.
  • PPK and RTK. The eBee X supports both PPK and RTK workflows.

Learn more about the eBee X.

6. WingtraOne Gen II


Credit: WingtraOne

Great for: High end professional surveying and mapping / Large commercial surveying projects

The WingtraOne GEN II may be the best surveying drone on the market (though the eBee X is also a contender for that title). It’s a fixed-wing drone designed to manage huge surveying projects made by Wingra, a company known exclusively for its mapping and surveying drone technology.

Key specs and features:

  • Flight time. 59 minutes.
  • Speed. Cruise speed of 35.8 mph (16 m/s).
  • PPK integration. Integrated with Post-Processed Kinematic technology, ensuring precise data collection.
  • Swappable payloads. Supports a wide variety of payloads, ensuring centimeter-level absolute horizontal accuracy.
  • VTOL capabilities. While it’s a fixed-wing drone, the WingtraOne GEN II can take off and land vertically, optimizing deployment time and safeguarding its payloads.
  • Ruggedized. Has an IP54 rating, making it water resistant.

Learn more about the WingtraOne GenII.


What Is a Drone Survey?

Of all the industries that have been disrupted by drone technology, surveying is arguably one of the biggest, matched perhaps only by industrial inspections.

Drones have not only helped speed up the surveying process, they’ve also expanded the realm of what’s possible in surveying by allowing greater access to difficult terrain and access to a greater variety of data that can be collected.


Credit: Wingtra

To understand what drone surveying is, it’s important to cover both the types of surveying that drones support and the types of data drones can collect.

Keep reading for more information on both.

Types of Drone Surveys

1. Topographic Surveys

Topographic drone surveys provide detailed, accurate 3D maps that contain useful survey data on the terrain and its features, including things like trees, buildings, or lakes.

2. Photogrammetry Surveys

Photogrammetry uses overlapping photos to make 3D models (also called 3D maps) from still images. Photogrammetry drone surveys are useful for volume calculations, terrain modeling, and creating detailed orthophotos.

3. Construction Site Surveys

Drone surveys can help monitor progress on a construction site, assisting in resource management as well as project management, providing updates to ensure that a project is being executed on time and according to plan.

4. Agricultural Surveys

Agricultural drone surveys can be used to assess crop health, irrigation needs, and for land analysis to optimize farming operations.

5. Environmental and Conservation Surveys

Environmental drone surveys can help conservationists and other land stewards track wildlife, monitor ecosystems, create in-depth maps of trees and other vegetation, and track environmental changes. Researchers have recently been investigating ways to use drone surveys with LiDAR data to create highly accurate estimates of the amount of carbon stored in a specific section of forest to do emissions monitoring and other work related to mitigating climate change.


Credit: The Nature Conservancy

Types of drone surveying sensors

In a drone survey, you don’t just collect visual data. You collect the data you need for the type of survey you’re conducting.

Here are the different types of sensors being used for drone surveying.

1. RGB Sensors

RGB stands for Red, Green, Blue, and it refers to your standard, regular visual camera, which is used to capture still photos. An RGB sensor is one of the most common types of sensors used in drone surveying, since photos can be used for photogrammetry surveys, generating detailed images of landscapes or sites.

2. LiDAR Sensors

LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) uses laser light to measure distances to the surface of the Earth. These sensors can penetrate dense vegetation and produce highly accurate 3D models of a surveyed area.

LiDAR drones have revolutionized surveying over the last few years, helping archaeologists discover new sites covered by vegetation, and providing a fast, reliable way to create 3D maps of even the most difficult terrain.

3. Multispectral Imaging

Multispectral imaging is used in agriculture, helping farmers to optimize the growth of their crops. Multispectral cameras capture data from specific wavelengths of light, helping determine plant health, moisture content, and other agricultural data points.

4. Hyperspectral Cameras

Hyperspectral cameras can be especially useful in environmental studies or mineral exploration. By capturing data from hundreds of narrow bands across the electromagnetic spectrum, these sensors can identify materials based on their unique spectral signatures.

5. Thermal Sensors

Thermal cameras capture infrared data, detecting heat sources and revealing places where buildings might be poorly insulated, and leaking heat. Thermal drones can be useful for monitoring energy inefficiencies in buildings, detecting water leaks, or observing wildlife at night, but they aren’t as commonly used for surveying as the other types of sensors on this list.


Credit: ired


How Drone Surveying Works—A Step-by-Step Guide

Up to this point we’ve covered what drone surveying is, the most common types, and the different sensors used.

But how does a drone survey actually work?

Here’s a step-by-step guide.


Image source

1. Planning and Preparation

  • Area selection. Clearly define the area you want to survey. Doing this will ensure the drone captures the data you need so you get a complete data set for your survey.
  • Weather check. Aim to do your drone survey on a day with minimal wind and clear skies, both to get the best images and to protect your drone from potential damage. Double check the forecast the day before and the morning of your survey.
  • Equipment check. Check all your equipment ahead of time, making sure your drone’s batteries are fully charged and that all sensor(s)/camera(s) you plan to use are functioning correctly. The last thing you want is to be surprised with faulty equipment or insufficient batteries once you’re in the field.

2. Flight Planning

  • Determine altitude. The altitude at which you fly plays an important role in the resolution of your survey images. Lower altitudes yield higher resolution but cover less ground per image, so it’s a balance between speed and quality. You’ll have to decide the best altitude for your drone survey based on the specific requirements of the project.
  • Set waypoints. Using drone surveying software, predetermine the drone’s flight path by setting waypoints. This ensures comprehensive coverage of the survey area.
  • Overlap settings. For photogrammetry surveys, set a significant overlap between images (often 60-80%). This overlap is crucial for generating accurate 3D models.

3. Flight Execution

  • Takeoff. Launch the drone from a clear, open space.
  • Monitor the flight. As the drone follows its predetermined path, keep an eye on its progress, battery levels, and any potential obstacles to the flight path.
  • Land safely. Once the survey is complete, safely land the drone in the designated area. Make sure to keep a clear space for landing and to wait until the drone is powered off before approaching it.

4. Data Storage and Processing

  • Data transfer. After collecting your survey data, transfer the collected data—whether it’s photos, LiDAR data, or other sensor readings—from the drone’s storage to a computer.
  • Software processing. Use specialized drone surveying software (see the last section of this guide for software recommendations) to stitch together your RGB images, creating detailed orthomosaics or 3D models. For LiDAR, software can process the data to form different kinds of point clouds, including digital terrain or surface models.

5. Create Your Report

  • Organize findings. Structure your survey data in a coherent manner, presenting the most significant findings first.
  • Visual data. Include the orthomosaics, 3D models, or any visual representations generated from the survey.
  • Interpretation. Accompany the data with explanatory text, detailing what the findings imply in the context of the survey’s objectives.
  • Recommendations. Based on the analysis, provide any suggested actions or insights drawn from the data.

How Is Drone Surveying and Drone Mapping Used?

If you’ve read this far, you should have a good introductory understanding of drone surveying.

But you might still be trying to imagine how it’s actually used in the field. Who might hire a drone surveyor? What kinds of industries are putting drone pilots to work for surveying, and what exactly are they doing in each instant?

Here’s a list of the most common ways that drone surveying and drone mapping are being used in the field right now.

1. Land Mapping and Cartography

Drones are revolutionizing land mapping by generating sharp orthomosaics and intricate 3D representations of areas previously known for subpar, dated, or non-existent data.

This technological leap facilitates the swift creation of highly precise cadastral* maps, even in environments that are challenging or remote. Features like signage, curbs, road indicators, hydrants, and drainage systems can be distinctly identified from these aerial images, making them a valuable tool for asset management.

Post-processing with photogrammetry further refines these images to derive intricate elevation models, contour delineations, and breaklines.

*Note: Cadastral refers to surveying data used for showing property boundaries, subdivision lines, or other related information (learn more).

2. Land Management and Infrastructure Planning

Drone-captured aerial imagery can help professionals working in land management and urban planning in a host of different ways, including:

  • Scouting potential sites
  • Orchestrating allotment blueprints
  • Actual construction of infrastructure

Aerial survey data can be used to construct intricate topographical models of sites, which can be used for pre-construction engineering evaluations. The assimilated data easily integrates with CAD or BIM platforms, letting engineers dive directly into 3D modeling.

Because drone surveys are relatively inexpensive, they can be used periodically during a project to monitor progress and surface potential issues. When overlaid onto original designs, drone images provide real-time insights into construction progress and alignment with planned specifications.

3. Accurate Quantification

Surveyors can use orthophotos made with drone data to conduct distance and surface computations, helping with work like stockpile monitoring.

Additionally, 3D mapping tools can help with conducting volume calculations from drone data, helping professionals assessing stock levels in mining or quarrying to do inventory checks and general oversight work.

4. Monitoring Slopes

Automated GIS assessments can extract slope data directly from drone photos, helping determine ground surface gradients and segmenting regions. This data can also be useful for strategizing slope oversight, which is key for landslide prediction and counteraction.

Also, sequential orthomosaics can spotlight shifts in terrestrial movements and their rate, helping predict geological events and safeguarding infrastructure.

5. Urban Development Planning

Drone surveys can help streamline urban planning, helping developers quickly collect large amounts of accurate data swiftly with minimal expense. Visuals created with drone survey data can aid planners in understanding the socio-environmental nuances of sites, anticipating the potential impact of different development plans.


A digital twin of the City of Zurich made with a survey drone | Credit: Wingtra


The Benefits of Using a Drone for Surveying

Drone surveying has several advantages over traditional surveying—so many that, as we mentioned above, they have fundamentally changed how surveyors work.


Credit: DJI

Here are the main benefits that professionals from all kinds of industries are realizing from using drones for surveying.

1. Speed

Drone surveying drastically reduces the time needed to survey a given area.

Traditional ground-based surveying might require days or even weeks to cover large areas, given the manual effort required. In contrast, drones can cover the same ground in a matter of hours, capturing detailed data rapidly. This efficiency allows for quicker decision-making and project progression.

2. Cost-Efficiency

While the initial investment in drone technology might seem substantial, the operational costs for drone surveying are significantly lower than traditional methods.

With drone surveys, you can do the same work with less people and less equipment, resulting in significant savings.

3. Safety

Drones eliminate many of the risks associated with traditional surveying.

Ground surveyors often need to navigate challenging terrain, busy roads, or other hazardous environments. Drones, on the other hand, can capture the same data from the air, eliminating the need for surveyors to walk an area on foot, thereby reducing the potential for on-site injuries by helping surveyors remain at a safe distance from potential hazards.

4. Accessibility

Drones can be used in a variety of environments and conditions, easily accessing and capturing data from areas that are difficult or even impossible to reach through traditional means. Whether it’s rugged mountain terrain, dense forests, or urban environments with limited ground access, drones can get the job done without the need for extensive footwork on the ground.

5. Versatility

Drones can be equipped with a wide range of sensors, from standard RGB cameras to LiDAR sensors to multispectral cameras, allowing them to serve diverse surveying needs.

This adaptability means that the same drone can be used for multiple purposes, from agricultural assessments to construction site monitoring, simply by swapping in a new payload. (But make sure you choose a drone that allows for payload swapping if you do want to use multiple sensors.)

6. Reduced Environmental Impact

With drones for surveying, there’s minimal disruption to the environment.

Traditional surveying might require vehicles, equipment, and groundwork that can disturb local habitats. Drones, hovering above, minimize this impact, making them a more environmentally friendly option.


Drone Surveying Software

When considering drone surveying software, various solutions offer an array of features tailored to diverse needs.

Here are five of the top drone surveying software options on the market.



A point cloud made with Pix4Dmatic

Pix4Dmatic stands out as a groundbreaking tool made for processing large datasets with precision and speed.

Key features:

  • Fully automated processing
  • Seamless transition to Pix4Dsurvey
  • Integration of photogrammetry and LiDAR technology
  • Generation of dense point clouds, orthomosaics, DSMs, and 3D textured meshes
  • Accuracy checks with vertical coordinate systems and geoid support.

Learn more about Pix4Dmatic.

DJI Terra


Credit: DJI

DJI Terra is made specifically for 3D model reconstruction using photogrammetry.

Key features:

  • 3D model creation in high, medium, and low resolutions
  • AI optimization of water surfaces in models
  • High accuracy processing of Zenmuse L1 (LiDAR) point cloud data
  • Supports real-time 3D mapping
  • Automated waypoint and flight route generation

Learn more about DJI Terra.

Agisoft Metashape


Credit: Agisoft

Agisoft Metashape offers broad photogrammetry solutions for various professional requirements.

Key features:

  • Photogrammetric triangulation and dense point cloud classification
  • Georeferenced orthomosaics and 3D photorealistic models
  • Support for 4D modeling for dynamic scenes
  • Python and Java API for advanced customization
  • Network and cloud processing capabilities

Learn more about Agisoft Metashape.

Bentley iTwin Capture Modeler


Credit: Bentley

ContextCapture empowers users to capture and analyze any infrastructure’s existing conditions with robust 3D models.

Key features:

  • Multi-resolution 3D model generation using photographs or LiDAR
  • Grid computing for large-scale projects
  • 3D machine-learning for reality data classification
  • Precision tools for reality mesh touch-up and measurement
  • Online streaming of multi-resolution reality meshes

Learn more about Bentley iTwin Capture Modeler.



Credit: DroneDeploy

Renowned in the drone mapping sphere, DroneDeploy offers an intuitive interface coupled with extensive features.

Key features:

  • Comprehensive drone mapping from flight planning to 3D modeling
  • Compatibility with numerous third-party apps
  • Various pricing models catering to different user needs

Learn more about DroneDeploy.

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