As businesses continue to rely on drones for safety, efficacy, and data collection, it’s important to stay consistent with those values when planning drone flights. Drone flight planning consists of determining flight schedule, pattern, altitude, and image or video capture specifications, as well as any weather-related requirements (e.g. temperature, light, or irradiance limitations), to meet the data goals of your particular job or mission.Failing to create the right flight plan can not only lead to wasted time and resources, but in some cases can lead to consequences as severe as damaging your drone or threatening the safety of others.
What is a drone flight plan?
A quick note on terminology: the drone industry suffers from confusion around terminology, and we often see the same terms used to describe very different things. Sometimes “flight planning” is used to describe everything that goes into a successful mission: equipment, personnel, logistics, processes and procedures, airspace checks and authorizations, etc. At Measure we distinguish between what we call “Mission Planning,” which covers all of that, and “Flight Planning,” specific instructions for how the drone should be operated to capture data.
A drone flight plan is a predetermined combination of instructions, including coordinates, speed, altitude, direction, heading, gimbal actions, camera actions, and more that serve the purpose of guiding a drone in accomplishing a flight, and carrying out a particular mission:
- Flight path: determined most commonly using a series of longitudes/latitudes and altitudes (waypoints) that automatically navigates the aircraft.
- Speed: you may want a lower, consistent speed throughout the flight plan, ideal for mapping, or you may want to zoom to specific waypoints to perform specific tasks, such as ‘hover’ or ‘360.’
- Heading: the drone doesn’t have to face in the direction it is moving; for example, you may want to orient it toward a Point of Interest (POI) which can be set in some flight applications.
- Gimbal actions: depending on whether you are mapping, inspecting, filming, live broadcasting, etc., you may want to automate gimbal actions or retain manual control.
- Camera actions: video/image and choosing the right camera settings for your purpose.
- Situational behavior: don’t forget to consider instructing your drone what it should do in the event of a lost link or at the end of your flight. Set action to Return-to-Home or Hover, set the proper return altitude, and be aware of all obstacles that could be present between you and the drone’s flight path.
A drone flight plan can be created ad hoc in the field using mobile software or from a browser using web-based flight planning software. Through web-based flight planning, flight paths can be set in advance and reviewed by all members of the team to account for inefficiencies or safety issues. For example, a data analyst can review the flight path to ensure the flight will capture sufficient data. Flight planning, and flight paths in particular, help pilots and other drone overseers cut down on the time they spend in the field.
Types of drone flight paths
There are two types of drone flight paths: grid paths and waypoint paths.
Drone grid paths follow a grid pattern. They are best used for mapping missions designed to collect imagery for processing into 2D and 3D data products. For 3D data products, you may want to consider a ‘cross-hatch’ pattern, a gimbal angle of 70-80 degrees, and even adding an orbit pattern around the grid flight.
Drone waypoint paths follow an irregular pattern based on the unique characteristics of the flight area/space of interest, and are best used for linear missions designed for inspections, project progress tracking, surveillance and security, etc. In the Measure Ground Control app, Waypoint Mode allows a pilot to pre-program a sequence of actions for a drone to perform, then press start and watch as the drone executes the sequence autonomously. You can also record a manual flight as a future repeatable waypoint flight.
How to program a drone flight path
Regardless of which flight planning software you’re using, you’ll want to follow these steps as you program a drone flight path.
- Familiarize yourself with your drone software.
As a first step, make sure your existing software is compatible with the drone(s) you or your company plan to use. If you’re still deciding which drone flight planning software you’d like to employ, these six factors can help you narrow down your options.
Practice logging flight information, checking for compliance, collecting data, and other important functions ahead of time, so you and your team aren’t scrambling on the day of the mission.
- Check your flight area for restrictions.
Make sure your drone software provides access to local rules and advisories for the area in which you wish to fly.
For example, if the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability, also known as LAANC is required in your area, you’ll want to make sure your software assists you in taking the appropriate pre-flight steps. You also may want to check to see if the area is geofenced, which will prevent your aircraft from taking off without requesting an ‘unlock’ - Measure Ground Control includes in app DJI unlock, as well as LAANC authorization via our partner AirMap.
- Understand the physical surroundings of your flight path.
What will the weather look like during your flight? What obstructions -- birds, telephone poles, trees, etc. -- might interfere with the flight, and how will these obstructions be avoided? These logistics could mean the difference between a successful mission or a drone collision.
Interested in applying these steps as you carry out your own drone missions? Learn more about creating and executing drone flight plans using Measure Ground Control, and how Measure Ground Control can help your company streamline operations and manage your drone program.