3d Modeling Using Drones: A comparison between Pix4d and Drone Deploy software
I have a lot of interests and hobbies. Some persist longer than others. Take, for example, my fleeting interest in cocktail mixing and collecting old books. Years later, I’m left with a rack of glistening vermouth and Campari bottles whose contents will never be emptied–except into a sink–and a few 19th century hardcover books silently but cruelly reminding me of the strain they will one day add to my back when we move to another house.
My drone hobby is different, I think, because it involves a few of my lasting interests: photography, maps, and travel. Drones are great for aerial photos and video but that can get boring quickly when limited to one location. To liven things up a bit, I’ve gotten into mapping using aerial photos I’ve taken from my drone.
There are a few different websites that process aerial photos and turn them into maps and 3d models. Which software is best? There are two main sites at the moment, Pix4d and Drone Deploy. Over the past few weekends, I tested their software and have made a decision about which one to purchase. To inform this decision, I tried out Pix4d Mapper, Pix 4 Model, and Drone Deploy. All three platforms are designed with drone photography in mind. There are several other 3d modeling websites but they don’t specifically focus on drone photography.
What can be done with these maps and models? A lot. Farmers can use the terrain maps to figure out the most efficient location to plant crops and where to irrigate. Mining and construction companies use the models to depict progress on site. With my consumer drone, however, I wouldn’t likely be able to provide the actionable data needed by these industries. It all comes down to accuracy. It’s not the drone itself that falls short here; it’s the lack of “ground control points” that provide a much higher level of accuracy. To send up a suitable drone with that technology would run me into the many thousands of dollars. Professional drones can get down to the 1cm/pixel accuracy. I think I’m at like 5cm/pixel.
After practicing my flight skills at a few locations and making some really cool models using the software, I decided to pick a location and test which of these three software solutions works best for my needs.
Location: St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Point of Rocks, MD
Living in Washington DC is just about the worst place you can live if you like to fly drones. DC is covered by a huge no-fly zone that extends past the Beltway, forcing us drone operators to schlep to the more rustic areas of the Mid-Atlantic. This is not the worst thing in the world though. I love visiting the countryside on the weekends anyway. On my previous travels I found a small town in Maryland called Point of Rocks, situated on the Potomac River about one hour west of Washington, DC. I think this area is the best place to fly drones in the DC region because there are no airports nearby and the scenery is beautiful.
On a recent trip out there I spotted at the top of a hill headed out of town a small Federal-style brick church with a graveyard on site. Built in 1842 by slaves from a nearby plantation, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. I was going to take some aerial shots of the site when I noticed a man and a woman putting flowers down at one of the graves. As it would have been insanely disrespectful to fly a drone over them while they were mourning, I got back in my car and drove away. A few weeks later I passed the church again and saw no one on the property and got ready for my shoot. Apologies to those resting in peace there. I hope you’ll understand.
DJI Phantom 4 Professional
None. Pix4d and Drone Deploy both have apps that take control of your drone and fly it in a pre-determined flight pattern of your choosing over a point of interest, taking photos at regular intervals along the way. Unfortunately these apps are not yet compatible with the Phantom 4 Pro so I have to manually fly the drone around and just eyeball and it take pictures as I see fit. Until Pix4d Capture and Drone Deploy test their software with the new P4 Pro, the accuracy of my models will suffer. I found this out after buying the new Phantom 4 Pro and was disappointed.
After watching a bunch of YouTube videos, I knew that it’s best to fly in a grid pattern over the location at an altitude of about 125 feet, pointing the camera directly down at the ground, taking pictures at regular intervals to achieve 80% overlap between one picture and the next. To enable the 3d effect, next you have to fly around the point of interest and take photos at a 45 degree angle to obtain details not seen from directly overhead. I took 131 photos in total, spending about 20 minutes flying around the property.
Below are five of the 131 photos of St. Paul’s church and graveyard. I flew really close to the roof and side of the church to get some oblique shots and just took as many pictures as I could on one battery. I definitely did not have a great system down towards the end and was just flying around doing pot shots.
When I got home, I uploaded the photos to Pix4d and Drone Deploy websites, whose trial versions of their software do the processing for you in the cloud. Unfortunately, the companies own the models created during this trial version but give you a link you can share on Sketchfab. When you upgrade to the actual desktop version (in the case of Pix4d) or the cloud-based Drone Deploy, you own the resulting models, I believe.
Pix4d wins out for quick processing by far:
|Pix 4d Mapper and Pix4d Model||Drone Deploy|
|1 hour||5.5 hours|
Below are three models that were created and exported to Sketchfab.
To see them in full, click the pull out button, then you can use your mousepad or mouse to zoom in and out, pan, rotate, etc. To zoom in, flick your your two fingers towards yourself on the mousepad. Having a mouse definitely makes navigating around the model a lot easier. The Command and Control keys are key to maneuvering around.
3d Model Screenshot Comparison
Note: I did screen grabs of from the software so the quality is not the best. In the actual models you can really zoom in to see detail.
Note: All are pretty similar but Drone Deploy (in the trial version) allows you to “cut out” areas you don’t need to see, hence the straight borders on the left and right. Pix4d trial version doesn’t allow that as far as I can tell.
Notes: Pix4d Mapper has the best detail of the trees; Pix4d model and Drone Deploy have the truest colors. Note that Drone Deploy doesn’t show the big tree to next to the church–only the stump.
Notes: Interestingly, Drone Deploy doesn’t show the purple robe in the front of the church and the trees around the church are mostly missing.
Notes: Good detail all around but Drone Deploy missed the purple robe.
Notes: Pix4d Mapper is darker; Can see the trees better than the other two. Headstones are missing in Pix4d Mapper.
Notes: Pix4d Mapper seems to take some liberties with tree shapes; trees don’t really show up in Drone Deploy
Notes: Drone Deploy wins out for clarity of the headstone lettering.
Pix4d Mapper Pro
$350 month or $3500 per year for the Desktop software and use of their cloud processing;
$49 month or $499 per year for their Desktop software and use of their cloud processing;
$99 month for 2cm/pixel accuracy, or $299 month for their Business version which has 1cm/pixel accuracy; cloud software only
Each model exceeded my expectations and I think I’d be happy with any of them. For my needs and given the price, I think the best option for me is either Pix4d Model or Drone Deploy. Pix4d Mapper is awesome but without GPS and ground control point capability, I don’t think it’s worth the price at my experience level. The DJI Matrice 600 can be outfitted with this type of GPS capability. I’ll keep that in mind for the future.
The biggest question for me is whether I want to do the processing myself on my own computer, or have Pix4d or Drone Deploy do the processing for me. Both provide you with the capability to do desktop processing and cloud processing. Given that Pix4d’s processing look only about an hour and the results were very similar, I’m going to go with Pix4d Model.
I read that for desktop processing you need to have a really fast computer with a lot of RAM, like 32gb or more and an 7th Generation Intel Core i7 processor and good graphic card. A laptop with those specs can easily run into the $2000 range. I haven’t tried processing on my MacBook Pro, which has 8GB of RAM and a Intel Core i5 processor. Probably would take forever. Before buying an expensive computer, I have a question:
What is the market for these 3d models? This is fun to do as a hobby but I’d like to provide these for sale in some way. What industries or organizations could use these? How do I market them?
Other 3d models I made using my drones
St. Paul’s Church was the first model I did with the DJI Phantom 4 Pro. I made the other models below using photos taken from my Autel X-Star Premium drone. The models are not perfect; I was unable to use Pix4d Capture or Drone Deploy to do the flight plan and capture the photos. I just eyeballed it.
Using Pix 4d Mapper:
Monocacy River Bridge, Maryland
Workhouse Arts Center, Lorton Virginia (this one came out particularly well)
Using Pix 4d Model:
Point of Rocks, MD MARC train station
Hope you enjoyed this post. To see more of my drone photography, check out my Instagram account at @goldenhouraerials