At the top of this page is a “master list” of commercial drone applications, to keep you up to date on the many ways that drones are used every day!
I’ve dedicated the rest of the page to my recommended tools and resources, to hopefully make life easier for those that are just exploring UAV applications, or for those who already have plenty of experience working with drones. From permit approvals to flight planning software, there are many elements of a successful commercial drone operation.
Master List of Drone Applications
There are dozens of different uses of UAVs in the commercial space, some with a proven track record for saving time and money, and others being more experimental. I’ve taken on the task here of grouping all of the applications that I am aware of, with a summary of key details and relevant link(s). I’ll be adding to this list as time goes on, since I hear about brand new applications so frequently!
|Sector||Application||Most Common Payload(s)||Business Case Summary||Article or Website Example|
|Agriculture||Assess pest infestations||Near Infrared, Multispectral||Detect patterns and issues with crops to more efficiently manage pest problems.||Link|
|Agriculture||Map relative health of crop (e.g. NDVI, NDRE indices)||Near Infrared, Multispectral||Highlight areas of stressed crop quickly, reduce scouting time and detect what is not visible to naked eye.||Link|
|Agriculture||Species introduction to drive down pest infestation||Live insects (e.g. male tsetse flies)||Tsetse flies are known as the poverty insect, spreading disease and impacting livestock. UAVs can help to regulate, cheaper than manned aircraft.||Link|
|Archaeology||Mapping of structures||Thermal, Visible (RGB)||Size and organization of habitation sites can be mapped, and much more rapidly than traditional methods.||Link|
|Archaeology||Surveying looted sites||Visible (RGB), HD video||Cheap, high resolution and efficient.||Link|
|Archaeology||Preserve threatened heritage sites by digital capture.||Visible (RGB)||Produce real digital doubles of archaeological remains or expanses.||Link|
|Construction||Site progress monitoring||Visible (RGB), HD video||Capture a site overview at regular intervals to track progress of construction.||Link|
|Construction||Comparison of earthworks / volumes to original site plans||Visible (RGB), LiDAR||Cheaper and easier than traditional surveys to track volumes.||Link|
|Emergency response||Earthquake damage assessment||HD video, Visible (RGB)||Safer and more efficient for inspectors, especially in higher buildings.||Link|
|Emergency response||Flood damage assessment||Visible (RGB)||Getting into flooded and hard to reach areas without putting staff at greater risk. Quickly assess where support is needed.||Link|
|Emergency response||Locating victims during firefighting||Visible (RGB), Thermal||Search for victims in parts of a building that are hot, smoky and unstable without sending personnel in first.||Link|
|Emergency response||Spill tracking||Visible (RGB), Thermal||Viable alternative to tracking and classifying spills by helicopter.||Link|
|Emergency response||Wildfire scanning||Thermal||Ability to scan for hotspots at night when helicopters are grounded, then feed info to attack crews.||Link|
|Energy||Pipeline inspection||Visible (RGB), HD video, Thermal||Alternative to planes and helicopter-based monitoring, which are traditional, more expensive methods to detect leaks, cracks and other defects.||Link|
|Energy||Substation monitoring||Visible (RGB), Thermal||Safer and faster than traditional substation inspection.||Link|
|Energy||Power line inspection||Visible (RGB), HD video, Thermal||Inspections of power lines and structures by drone is faster, cheaper and safer than traditional methods.||Link|
|Energy||Flare stack inspection||Visible (RGB), HD video||The traditional inspection workflow for these stacks involved shutting them down temporarily, affecting business continuity. Drone-based inspections change this.||Link|
|Environment||Landslide assessment||Visible (RGB)||Tracking fissures, flow direction and size over time is cost effective with UAVs.||Link|
|Environment||Mapping of submerged aquatic vegetation||Visible (RGB)||There are benefits to mapping algal growth, which may reach nuisance levels that impair recreation, fish and aquatic life, and water quality beneficial uses.||Link|
|Environment||Modeling coastal erosion/rockfalls||Visible (RGB)||Much easier to track volumetric change on cliff faces by creating 3D models from UAV mapping.||Link|
|Environment||Radio tracking of collars on wildlife||Custom receiver and antenna||Faster tracking and mapping of radio-collared wildlife, especially smaller and more mobile species.||Link|
|Environment||Sampling from whales for health purposes||Custom collection system||Convenient way to determine whale stress levels by collecting mucus samples (containing DNA, hormones and bacteria).||Link|
|Environment||Raptor nest monitoring||Visible (RGB)||Viable alternative to conducting surveys by helicopter or by climbing to the nest.||Link|
|Environment||Prescribed burn||Chemical fire balls (custom payload)||Improved safety of crews traditionally on foot or ATV, quicker to reach certain areas.||Link|
|Environment||Preventing the unintended massacre of fawns in farmer's fields||Thermal||Improved safety to wildlife in their fields||Link|
|Environment||Wildlife counts||Visible (RGB)||Consistent and efficient method of counting wildlife compared to ground-based methods.||Link|
|Film and media||Motion picture industry||Cinema quality video||Cheaper than helicopter rates, and provides unique shots in areas not accessible by helicopter |
(e.g. Under forest canopy, remote areas).
|Forestry||Tree heights / canopy height modeling||Visible (RGB), derived point cloud||Compute tree heights from photogrammetric point cloud DSM, cheaper than LiDAR.||Link|
|Forestry||Free-to-Grow surveys||Visible (RGB), HD video||Quick access to survey areas that are hard to reach on foot or would otherwise require helicopter access.||Link|
|Government / Civic||Asset management||Visible (RGB)||Track and inspect town / city assets through on demand imagery.||Link|
|Government / Civic||Urban planning||Visible (RGB)||Mapping of irregular settlements (i.e. Villas, favelas)||Link|
|Humanitarian||Delivery of medical supplies||Drugs, blood, medical supplies||Provide quick access to medical supplies in remote areas.||Link|
|Humanitarian||Locating displaced landmines for de-mining teams||Visible (RGB), NIR||Helicopters not as cost effective because minefields are typically small and well distributed, making UAVs a better option.||Link|
|Law Enforcement||Anti-poaching initiatives||Thermal, HD video||Patrolling expansive areas at low cost||Link|
|Law Enforcement||Border surveillance||Thermal, HD video||Cover more ground faster than a ground-based patrol group. Less staff required.||Link|
|Law Enforcement||Illegal logging||Thermal, HD video||Monitor potential illegal logging over a larger area, faster than traditional methods.||Link|
|Mining||Stockpile volume tracking||Visible (RGB), LiDAR||Use photogrammetric data to measure and track volumes of material removed from sites.||Link|
|Mining||Airborne magnetic surveys (geophysics)||Magnetometer||Map a large area in less time than ground-based mag surveys.||Link|
|Real Estate||Property marketing photos and video||Visible (RGB), HD video||Improved sales by showing properties in new perspective.||Link|
|Retail||Delivery of goods||Package intended for delivery||Faster delivery of goods compared to ground-based methods.||Link|
|Search and Rescue||Drop supplies to stranded parties||Package of supplies||Provide needed supplies faster and cheaper than other methods.||Link|
|Search and Rescue||Lifebuoy deployment over ocean||Custom lifebuoy payload||Safer than sending a lifeguard into rip currents, faster to reach stranded swimmer.||Link|
|Search and Rescue||Locate missing or injured persons||Visible (RGB), Thermal||Faster detection of missing or injured persons.||Link|
|Search and Rescue||Shark monitoring||High definition video, Visible (RGB)||Cheaper eyes in the sky when compared to monitoring by helicopter.||Link|
|Security||Surveillance||Visible (RGB), Thermal||Conduct surveillance around a property to increase eyes on the ground and then take action where necessary.||Link|
|Telecommunications||Radio planning and line-of-sight testing||Smartphones with network testing software, Visible (RGB)||Plan the radio network better through testing in a more efficient way.||Link|
|Transportation||Deliveries to ships||Payload intended for delivery||Deliver an urgent parcel with spare parts or mail faster and at a lower cost than alternative means.||Link|
|Transportation||Ship inspections||Visible (RGB)||Faster and easier to inspect large ships following an overhaul.||Link|
Selecting Your First Commercial UAV Platform – if you are considering a professional drone purchase or just in the early research stages, I would recommended reading this blog post. Here I outline a workflow to follow to help with the decision making process. Industry-grade UAVs can be a big investment, so it’s important to take your time to research before jumping in.
Navigating the UAV Permitting Process in Canada – this is a good post to read over if you are looking to operate drones for commercial purposes in Canada. It may also be a good refresher for those that have been introduced to the regulations but would like to review the details again.
Transport Canada regulations – the Special Flight Operations Certificate process (and directions around qualifying for an exemption) for commercial UAV work in Canada. Please note: these regs are set to change again in the near future as Canada eventually moves towards a central UAV licensing system.
Federal Aviation Administration rules (USA) – getting started with UAV use in the United States, and keys tasks to become certified.
UAS Frequently Asked Questions (USA) – FAQ relating to unmanned aircraft systems regulation in the United States.
Global Drone Regulations Database – a solid effort to provide all international UAV regulations in one place. I would recommend using this site as a general guide but also referencing the official regulatory sites of the country you are interested in, especially with the frequent changes to UAV regulations that can occur.
Flight Planning Tools and Processing Software
Flight space viewer (Canada only) – check the airspace that you’re planning to fly in, to make sure you meet the proper requirement.
SkyVector (International) – aeronautical charts including airport locations to assist with flight planning.
B4UFLY Smartphone app (USA only) – an app developed by the FAA for drone operators to easily determine restrictions and regulations in the area they are operating. Available for both iOS and Android.
Pix4D Mapper Pro – industry leading photogrammetry software designed with the UAV professional in mind. This is currently my go-to software package for stitching / processing the drone photos I’ve captured into professional mapping deliverables. For those that are just starting out, you can rent the software on a monthly basis so that you only pay for it when you need to process drone imagery. Rental costs can also be credited towards full purchase of the software.
Avenza Maps Pro – I have found this to be an indispensable tool for two main purposes: (1) To show a client how the UAV data that was captured compares to what we are seeing on the ground and (2) To plan out ground control target locations on site. This app allows you to track your location on any georeferenced PDF (through your mobile device’s GPS). You can place pins, take notes and do a lot more with this app. I will always have a copy with me in the field in the pre-flight stage, and will also bring it for any site meetings with the client to review data with them (post-flight).
Map Pilot app – produced by Maps Made Easy, this is an app for under CAD $15 that will help you set up automated flight and mapping missions on an iOS device if you’re piloting DJI drones. It’s currently compatible with: Phantom 3 (standard, adv, pro), Phantom 4 (standard, pro), Inspire 1 (standard, pro), Mavic Pro, Matrice 100 and Matrice 600. It’s not currently compatible with Android devices, but runs on an iOS phone or tablet.
Mission Planner – a free and open source ground station software, part of the Ardupilot project. Works very well with any Pixhawk, APM 2.x or PX4 or flight controller, and has just as many options than any paid ground station software on the market. Plan automated mapping missions and track all flight data through this app. This is a popular option among custom built UAVs.
WindyTV – checking the weather conditions is a regular task for any commercial drone pilot. This free site provides great interactive maps to check wind, rain and temperature at a local level.
Cyberlink PowerDirector 15 – This is my #1 choice for software to edit videos and publish photo compilations from data captured by our UAVs. There are a lot of video editors out there, but some have a steep learning curve with key options that are hidden. PowerDirector is fairly intuitive, even if you’re new to the program as a whole.
FUSION – this is a free and powerful tool for manipulation of point cloud data, primarily developed to work with LiDAR datasets. I use it to manipulate the huge point clouds that are derived from UAV mapping missions, and it performs very well from the command line. If you are looking to clip, filter, calculate, generate surfaces or do other tasks with your X,Y,Z data – this is a highly recommended tool. Another mainstream point cloud tool is LAStools, and while it is even more powerful than FUSION, the free version has limitations and you need to purchase a commercial license.
The world of unmanned aircraft is a technical one. When you throw in discussion of mapping and photogrammetry, its gets even more technical. I’ve included a glossary on the site to get you up to speed on the terms I use. Click here to access the full glossary. You’ll also notice that any defined terms will be underlined throughout the site – you can hover over these words to view the definition.
Mike Morellato is the lead author and founder of WorkingWithDrones.com. He works with UAVs and their data at Strategic in Campbell River, BC (Canada).