I had the chance last weekend to test out the just-released Skycatch COMMANDER flight app for use with DJI drones. It’s billed as easy-to-use, and it most definitely lives up to that appellation. With just a few taps on the screen of your iPad or other device connected to the DJI remote control, the drone is up in the air, autonomously flying and capturing images that can be converted into a map on the Skycatch DASHBOARD.
San Francisco-based Skycatch makes drones and software to help companies monitor complex job sites, such as those in construction, oil and gas extraction, mining and agriculture. Skycatch spent the last 3 years developing drone hardware and software technology in partnership with the world’s leading construction companies, including Komatsu, Bechtel, and Clayco. After spending months in the field with customers from Alaska to Australia, they learned a lot about using drone technology to improve construction and engineering. Most importantly, they learned that the available mapping solutions were complicated, expensive, and error-prone – something simpler was most definitely needed, because it’s not supposed to be that hard!
Skycatch rose to the challenge by developing simple, cost-effective solutions designed for a user experience so effortless that anyone can easily get started with drone data and realize immediate ROI. Now that technology is available to everyone – meet COMMANDER.
COMMANDER was born out of lessons learned through WORKMODE. WORKMODE was created as a marketplace to help professional drone pilots and service providers get market exposure and gain some traction in building their businesses. Several thousand pilots were part of the program, and Skycatch learned from their feedback that what the pilots valued most, was the Skycatch software platform. So they decided to open up their software platform to anyone who wants to produce drone data. COMMANDER is the first big announcement coming out of this initiative, and there are rumors of more exciting announcements to come in the following months.
But down to business, i.e., my trial run with COMMANDER and DASHBOARD:
COMMANDER – How it works
Assuming your DJI drone is ready to fly and all firmware is updated, the first step in launching the Skycatch COMMANDER app is to download it from the Apple store.
Once the app is installed and opened, the first screen shows a button to create a new flight mission. This home screen also shows your recorded flight missions. Click on the Create a New Mission button to see the GPS view of your location. Tap the edit icon in the top right of the screen to draw, with your finger, an outline of the area you want to map.
Tap ready to fly, and you’ll see the specs of the proposed area to map. Give the execute command, and the drone is up and away. It’s quite a thrilling feeling to watch the drone soar up and follow its self-selected, pre-planned route to capture images of the area you want mapped. Through the COMMANDER app, the drone will automatically gauge the height necessary to clear all surrounding trees and buildings, so you don’t need to worry about avoiding obstacles.
On the screen you can watch the progress of the drone following the perimeter of your selected area, and in automatically programed parallel lines covering the interior area as well. In the bottom right corner, you can also see the images being captured as it flies. The screen shows the elevation of the drone and the area that it has covered.
Once the drone has completed covering the selected area, it heads home to the starting location. On each of the test flights I did, it landed within 2-3 feet of its precise takeoff spot.
A few things to keep in mind when flying a mapping mission:
- The biggest limitation in terms of the size of the area you can fly is limited by battery life. In my test run, I put the drone up several times over the same area, and covered about 11 acres (according to the upload screen information). If you’re trying to cover a larger area, you’ll definitely want spare batteries.
- There’s no good way (as far as I know) to create separate files for the images you capture on the memory card. If you’re flying in several different locations to create maps of more than one site using the same memory card, the only way I saw to distinguish was based on the time stamp on the image. You might want to consider using a different memory card for each location to avoid confusion later on.
- You need to have an internet connection to access the maps to create your flight plan. Keep this in mind if you happen to be using a device that doesn’t have a data plan.
- Make sure you have done all the firmware upgrades for the DJI and the RC before heading out to the site. There’s nothing more frustrating than getting out there and realizing you updated the drone but not the RC (not that I’m speaking from experience or anything…), and that you can’t put your bird in the air.
Overall, I was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to install and operate the Skycatch COMMANDER app. It really is child’s play to plan your mission, and the drone does all the rest of the work of flying and getting the images you need to make a map. Not much room for operator error here!
Getting to the map from the app:
DASHBOARD – How it works
To make a map from the images captured during the flight, login to the Skycatch DASHBOARD. There you’ll see a button to “Submit New Map”. Click on this to upload the images from your memory card to the Skycatch site.
If you’re creating a map of a new site, you next have the choice to write in the name of your new site. Otherwise (i.e. if you’re expanding or updating an existing site map), select the site to add your images to.
Once you have reviewed your options and selected upload, you see the usual bar indicating the progress of the upload. Be sure not to close the window (or let your laptop go to sleep mode – oops!), or you’ll have to start the whole upload process from the beginning.
After the upload is complete, you see a pop-up box telling you that you’ll get an email when your map is ready. From the time I submitted my images to the time I got the email that my map was ready was a matter of a few hours.
Once the map is ready, you can select the whole area, or smaller areas within the map, to export to PDF format, and you’re all set with map in hand!
The Skycatch website is also very helpful with tutorials and instructions on how to use the programs. Any industry in need of drone mapping capabilities will benefit from the new COMMANDER app, and I really can’t overstate how easy it is to use!
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