It’s easy to get carried away when planning a mapping mission. Do all the things–map all the places!

However, when you’re just starting out or traveling to a new location, it can be way better to take a minimalist approach, build your skills gradually, and avoid becoming overwhelmed. Here are a few strategies for choosing simple mapping sites, packing basic gear, and processing data efficiently, all while knowing when to push forward and when to call it a day.

Choosing Simple Mapping Sites

When you’re learning the ropes of drone mapping or exploring a new area, it’s best to start with simple, accessible sites that allow you to focus on the fundamentals of data collection and processing. Consider the following factors when selecting a mapping site:

  1. Open spaces: Choose areas with minimal obstacles, such as large fields, beaches, or gentle hillsides. This will reduce the risk of crashes and simplify flight planning.
  2. Clear boundaries: Select sites with well-defined boundaries, such as roads, trails, or natural features like rivers or coastlines. This will help you maintain visual line of sight and avoid accidentally flying over restricted areas.
  3. Proximity to home base: When possible, choose sites that are close to your accommodations or vehicle. This will minimize travel time and allow you to quickly return for battery swaps or troubleshooting.
  4. Level terrain: steeply mountainous terrain is a lot harder to map accurately. Not only does it require that you pay close attention to the altitude of the drone over the land, but mountains bring unpredictable winds, vortexes, and sudden weather shifts. Get started mapping with simpler terrain if you want to preserve your sanity, your footage, and even your drone.

Packing Basic Gear

When traveling light, it’s crucial to pack only the essentials for your drone mapping mission. Focus on the following items:

  1. Drone and remote controller: Bring a compact, reliable drone that is easy to transport and operate, such as a DJI Mavic or Autel EVO II.
  2. Batteries and charger: Pack enough batteries to cover your planned mapping area, plus one or two extras for contingencies. Don’t forget the charging hub and cables.
  3. SD cards: Bring several high-capacity, high-speed SD cards for data storage, and a card reader for data transfer.
  4. Minimal spare parts: Include a few essential spare parts, such as propellers and a spare gimbal, but leave bulkier items like extra motors or frames at home.
  5. Compact travel case: Use a small, durable case to protect your drone and accessories during transport.

Caching Background Imagery

Before heading out into the field, take advantage of Wi-Fi or cellular data to cache background imagery for your mapping area in your mission planning app. This will allow you to plan flights and navigate even in areas with poor connectivity. Most apps, such as DJI GS Pro and Pix4D Capture, allow you to cache maps for offline use.

Data Backup and Processing Workflow

Drones go through a lot, and SD cards are not always the hardiest of storage mediums. To minimize the risk of data loss and keep your projects organized, develop a simple workflow for backing up and processing your data on the go:

  1. Transfer data from SD cards to a laptop or external hard drive after each flight.
  2. Use a cloud storage service, such as Google Drive or Dropbox, to create a secondary backup of your data when connected to the internet.
  3. Perform initial processing, such as stitching images into orthomosaics, on your laptop during downtime or in the evening. This will help you identify any issues with data quality and plan for the next day’s flights.

Knowing When to Push Forward or Call It a Day

When you’re learning drone mapping or dealing with unfamiliar conditions, it’s essential to recognize when to keep trying and when to call it quits for the day. Consider the following factors:

  1. Weather conditions: If wind speeds exceed your drone’s limits, visibility is poor, or precipitation is imminent, it’s best to postpone your flight.
  2. Battery life: If you’re running low on battery power and don’t have a clear plan for completing your mapping mission, it’s better to return home and recharge than risk a forced landing or crash.
  3. Fatigue and stress: If you or your team members are feeling tired, frustrated, or overwhelmed, it’s time to take a break. Pushing forward under these conditions can lead to mistakes and accidents.

Engaging New Team Members

If you’re an experienced drone mapper working with new team members, assign them tasks that allow them to build skills gradually:

  1. Flight planning: Teach them how to use mission planning software to design flight paths, set overlap and altitude, and cache background imagery.
  2. Pre-flight checks: Show them how to inspect the drone, calibrate sensors, and verify settings before each flight.
  3. Data management: Assign them the responsibility of transferring and backing up data after each flight, following your established workflow.
  4. Post-processing: Guide them through the process of stitching images and creating orthomosaics using software like Pix4D or DroneDeploy.

By focusing on these fundamental tasks, new team members can gain confidence and proficiency without feeling overwhelmed by the complexity of a full mapping mission.

Start simple, stay organized, and prioritize safety and data quality over ambitious coverage goals. Buil your skills gradually and you’ll be well-equipped to tackle more complex mapping missions in the future, all while contributing valuable data to your environmental research.