You Don’t Need a Drone to Reap the Benefits of Photogrammetry


Let’s say you’ve got a 30-acre site, gently rolling, open – just the place for the new shopping center or car dealership. You’re to deliver a topo survey with 2’ contours. Twenty years ago, you would have sent a crew of three. Today, because of the improvements in surveying instruments, you only send two. Back then those three could survey an acre a day, now your crew of two can do two acres or, today’s crew is three times as productive as the old crew was.

Now there’s a “new” tool that can cut this field time drastically again. It’s called a drone.

New? To surveyors? No.

From the time Daguerre invented “practical” (1 minute exposure time) photography, announced in August 1839, to the time photos were first used to develop a topographic map by Laussedat (the father of Photogrammetry) took all of 10 years. Four years after that he tried hanging cameras from kites and balloons. In 1887, Fairman invented the first “drone” camera, made to hang from a balloon or kite, essentially a camera with a clock controlling the shutter. Wilber Wright took the first images from an airplane in 1909. The first aerial survey taken by airplane was presented in 1913 in Vienna.

This usage was not efficient, however, unless the area to be surveyed was difficult or dangerous to reach. For most areas, traditional surveying was cheaper, but not anymore.


1) Digital photography

2) Lightweight batteries

3) Lightweight cameras

4) 3D CAD environments

5) Digital photo processing services

Remember last month’s discussion of continuous improvement? You can see it in each entry in the list above, finally culminating in the production of survey quality data at a fraction of the cost using a drone. Every crew in every region is different, but some customer feedback we received found.

In the year 2000 – 3 man crew, 1 site-month, 90 man-days

Two weeks ago – 2 man crew, 15 site-days, 30 man-days

Today – 2 man crew, 0.25 site-day, 4 man-hours

A very tiny fraction indeed.

So how do you get started using this new tool to enhance your survey business?

One thing to note is that the longer you wait, the harder it gets. Not because the tools are becoming harder to use, but because of government oversight. The days are past where you can just buy a drone and go. There’s now tests to pass, rules to follow, registrations to make and records to keep.

Then there’s photogrammetry processing software to buy or subscribe to, and finally manipulating the data into a deliverable.

Sound daunting?

Here’s how one customer has approached the problem:

First, they had a customer approach them, wanting an aerial image of their site as well as the topographic survey.

They didn’t buy a drone, they hired a drone services company to fly their site. Since they didn’t need any post-processing or editing, just the images, they paid $200.

They didn’t buy any photo processing software, they used their free demo of Carlson Photo Capture (starting at $199) to generate their point cloud, surface mesh, and orthoimage.

They didn’t buy any software to manipulate their cloud. They used their 30-day free demo of Carlson Precision 3D (Retail $1,750) to strip their cloud to bare earth, smooth and create the TIN file they needed.

They had the site flown, took some ground control shots and processed the images on Friday, manipulated the data on Monday morning and delivered the site topo with the orthoimage overlaid to the customer that afternoon.

So, like Daguerre and Laussedat, who swiftly moved photography along, Carlson Software provides the tools, when combined with a UAV or drone, your own or a rented service, to enable you to progress into reaping the very real benefits of photogrammetry.

Thanks for reading.

– Steve

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