7 Questions to Ask a Drone Software Vendor Before You Buy

Rory San Miguel

Getting started is the hardest part.

That’s what our customers tell us. They believe that the right drone data solution will supercharge their profits, safety and productivity. But the work of figuring out exactly what they need, and which vendor is best placed to provide it, turns out to be trickier than they thought — and this can cause delays getting started.

Choosing the wrong drone software provider means risking a drone data ‘false start’; a setback that can make it harder to win the hearts and minds (and budget) required to make drone data a success for your business.

So, how can you get it right the first time? Here at Propeller, we’ve found that our most sophisticated customers always ask some version of the same questions as they move closer to a buying decision.

No matter which vendor you’re talking to, it’s worth asking these questions (and making sure you’re happy with the answers) before you sign on the dotted line.

Question #1: How do you ensure accuracy of your maps and models?

If accurate results matter to you, make sure your chosen vendor understands why ground control is so important.

Surveyors overwhelmingly agree that, even when using high-end RTK/PPK GPS-onboard drones, you still need a method to ‘ground-truth’ the drone data you collect, and a means to confirm data accuracy and integrity.

One of Propeller’s first clients was a large quarry who claimed to have permanent Ground Control Points (GCPs) set up across their site. But when we tried to locate these GCPs in the imagery, we realized that the marks had been destroyed. Because of this, we couldn’t deliver survey-grade results.

This helped us see the need for a GCP solution that was quick, affordable and basically foolproof. That’s how AeroPoints were born.

AeroPoints new design

AeroPoints are smart ground control targets, purpose-built for drone surveying. We’ve designed them to work with any drone, in any location, without extensive operator training. Tried and tested, AeroPoints have now been used to deliver more than 25,000 survey-grade datasets.

And, as our AeroPoints customers have noted — keeping your GPS equipment on the ground, not in the sky, makes accidents and fly-aways much less expensive!

Question #2: Will your solution create another ‘data silo’ in my business?

If you’re like the customers we talk to, you’re an established business with software systems and workflows that you don’t want to see disrupted or replaced.

If this is the case, ask your drone software vendor how their solution will complement your existing workflows and make your day-to-day feel easier — not more complicated. For this to work, data needs to be malleable; able to be imported, exported, transfigured and manipulated to suit your unique business objectives and established ways of working.

With Propeller, all the data you generate, and every calculation you perform, can be exported and shared, either as a PDF report or an Excel spreadsheet. Even better, you can download your data in a range of custom file formats to use within specialist programs like Trimble Business Center, Carlson, Global Mapper, Maptek I-Sight, Vulcan, Surpac and more.

We’re currently working with Trimble (the global leaders in site positioning technology) to make these integrations even more seamless. Existing Trimble customers can now access Propeller via their Trimble account, and data is easily synced between the two. Soon surfaces, boundaries, and machine telemetry will flow freely between both products.

Question #3: Do you support my local site calibrations?

For reasons of accuracy and practicality, many worksites operate according to their own unique ‘local grid’ (as opposed to, say, the standard global latitude/longitude system WGS84).

If this is you, it’s important to be aware that not all drone software providers support local site calibrations.

It you’re a local grid site partnered with a vendor that doesn’t support local grid calibrations, the data you receive won’t immediately be usable in the context of your day-to-day operations (ie. it won’t match up with your plans, or be comparable to past or future surveys). To remedy this, you’ll need someone on your end with the time and skills required to transform/convert each piece of drone data into local grid coordinates.

Alternatively, you can choose a vendor like Propeller that fully supports local coordinate systems. (If you’re a Trimble customer, ensuring local grid outputs with Propeller is as simple as dragging and dropping in a JXL file before you upload your data). In this case, your data will immediately be usable within your existing workflows.

Local grid calibration
Propeller allows you to upload your local calibration data.

Question #4: How do you ensure quality data processing? Tell me about your support team.

Vendors in this space love to tell customers about how quick they are. And fair enough, turnaround speed is one of the big benefits of cloud-processed drone data. It’s common to enjoy same-day processing and the ability to process multiple jobs simultaneously. But, as a customer, what you don’twant is speed at the price of quality, so it’s worth taking the time to poke around behind the curtain a little.

Ask your chosen vendor to share some detail about how their ‘automatic’ processing actually works. If there’s a problem with your dataset, how will this be identified and communicated to you? What are the qualifications of the person you’ll be speaking to in this scenario? At what hours of the day will they be available to help you?

At Propeller, our in-house data success team are true experts in surveying and photogrammetry. Offering 22 hours of support coverage per day, they personally check each and every job with ground control points to ensure proper alignment and clean point cloud filtering.
Blurry (or otherwise sub-standard) image sets are not just identified but diagnosed and, as Propeller customers will attest, our team will go to extraordinary lengths to help you improve capture standards.

Question #5: Who did you build this solution for? What specific industries/workflows?

Drone data vendors exist on a spectrum from “we do everything” (broad; one size fits all) to “we do things for this specific customer/industry/workflow extremely well” (deep; specialized). We favour the later, because we think businesses get the most value from drone data when they find a product designed with their own industry-specific workflows in mind.

At Propeller, for example, we’re building solutions for people who use excavators, bulldozers and loaders to move large amounts of material (ie. mines, quarries, landfills, civil construction).

Construction-Cut Fill with Design Lines
Construction cut/fill map with design lines
Takeoff report
Takeoff report generated using the Propeller Platform

These industries share some common requirements which we’ve used to guide the development of our product:

  • Very accurate data –> unique and cutting edge AeroPoints collect centimeter grade positions.
  • Complex volumetric measurements –> sophisticated tools with in-browser 3D
  • The need to track progress to/from a design –> import your designs to do volumes between surfaces
  • Collaboration between many stakeholders –> previously surveyors had exclusive access to this information, now the whole team is informed via simple sharing tools
  • Information sharing across distributed locations –> very rarely is just a single site part of the organization, so improving communication between sites and HQ is critical – and you get to reduce site visits.

Choosing a specialized vendor is likely the best choice for your business today and tomorrow, as your roadmaps will be aligned.

So, pay attention to the way your chosen software vendor describes what they offer, and be looking for a focused tool set that relates to your daily workflows. Shopping lists of irrelevant features and flashy functionality you won’t ever use? Big red flag.

Question #6: How can I be confident in the measurements I make within the platform?

A common concern about drone data adoption (particularly within the industries that Propeller serves) is the predictability and repeatability of measurements generated within the platform.

And no wonder. When large-sum contract payments and other high-stakes decisions will be made on the basis of numbers pulled from your drone data solution, those numbers better be right!

Confidence in measurements comes from two things:

Being able to validate that your model is accurate in the first place:

AeroPoints are designed to make sure your models are consistent survey after survey.  Our tools allow you to confirm this. For example, you can drop a pin anywhere on your site to compare that point over time, or cut a cross section down a road and observe if/where previous surveys differ. In addition, every Propeller survey comes with a processing report that includes the height differences from checkpoints to the resultant model.

Being able to validate that your measurement areas are correctly defined:

If you have a stockpile on a sloped stockyard, how is the volume area defined? What about if you’re trying to estimate a blast volume in a pit? Propeller lets you see your measurement areas (in 3D) so you can check that you’re measuring what you think you’re measuring! And our Smart Volume tool gives you extra control when defining stockpile volume areas. PDF reports exported from Propeller include a visual snapshot of the measurement area, so your colleagues will know it has been properly defined.

mesuring quarry stockpile volume using Propeller
Stockpile volume measurement in 3D

If vendors are slow to provide accuracy metrics, or platform tools don’t easily allow you to validate your own measurements, you should assume that models aren’t accurate and measurements won’t be reliable.

Question #7: What drone should I use and why?

Broadly speaking, there are fixed wing drones and multicopters. Fixed wing drones can fly for longer, but need large takeoff and landing zones. Multicopters can fly for less time but can takeoff and land almost anywhere.

We most often recommend (and re-sell) DJI drones, as they’re reliable, competitively priced, and have high-quality cameras. DJI multicopters can fly for >30 minutes and their gimballed camera means they can fly fast, covering more ground per minute than a fixed wing drone. We’ve found the reduced fly-time traditionally associated with multicopters is best addressed by simple battery swapping. Recently, we saw a 640 acre landfill site mapped in just 90 minutes (using four batteries) with a DJI Phantom 4 Pro.

That said, Propeller is fundamentally drone-agnostic. Our solutions will work with any drone you choose.

When advising customers on which drone to choose, these are three issues we’re often asked to weigh in on:

Ownership: Lease vs buy

Some drone software companies work by charging you large annual fees to lease a drone directly from them. In most of these cases, the hardware you end up with is actually nothing special — you could pick up an equivalent drone at your local electronics store for around $2000 (USD).

You also run the risk of delays when drone repairs/maintenance are required, as you’ll be obliged to work through issues with your drone data provider, as opposed to going direct to the retailer/manufacturer for a fast refund or replacement.

Leasing can be a good short-term option if you want to trial the technology, but be aware of middleman mark-ups on hardware and accessories, and think about the lifetime cost of your chosen solution.

Camera orientation: Fixed vs adjustable

Some drones have cameras that point in a fixed direction. This means that as the drone gets knocked about in the wind, so does the camera. The result is often blurry or imprecise photos, which will compromise the accuracy of your maps and models.

Fixed camera orientation drones will also limit your ability to capture aerial video, and are a bad choice if you want to be able to perform inspections of vertical assets, like towers, silos, walls, etc.

For these reasons, we recommend drones that feature an adjustable camera or gimbal.

Drone grade: Specialty vs consumer

Off-the-shelf consumer-grade models can be a great choice. They’re affordable, surprisingly robust and simple to use — so no training needed, plus anyone on your site will be able to pick up and operate your drone. In contrast, we’ve found that the more expensive enterprise-grade drones are often needlessly complex, while performing basically the same job.

That said, the next big accuracy improvement in drone data will come in the form of AeroPoints (accurate ground control) combined with drones that have PPK/RTK GPS onboard. Right now, the cost of these drones put them out of reach for most customers — but prices will come down. Just be aware that until DJI release a mass-market model with this technology (the M210 RTK is due to be launched soon) the workflows may be a little messy.

find out more at https://www.propelleraero.com/propeller-platform/