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Aerial Photogrammetry – Create 3D Models With Drone Photos

Drones are versatile tools that can be used for a wide variety of applications. One of the newer use cases for drones is to help create 3D models, thanks to special software programs that can turn aerial images into digital spatial models. 

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Here’s what you need to know about creating 3D models with drones, and how these 3D models are being used across different industries.

What is a 3D Model?

First, what is a 3D model? It is a three-dimensional representation of an object created by plotting individual points in 3D space on the X, Y, and Z-axis. The points are connected by geometric shapes, such as triangles, lines, or curved surfaces, to form the model.


cube plotted on x, y, and z-axes


You can create a 3D model by hand using 3D modeling software, by using an algorithm, or by scanning a physical object.


you can create 3d models using software, algorithms, or scanning real life objects


And this is where drones come in. 

Drones are essentially airborne scanners that can be used to scan large objects such as buildings, construction sites, or simply large land areas thanks to a process called photogrammetry.

Aerial Photogrammetry Explained – How Aerial Photos Are Turned Into 3D Models

Photogrammetry is the science of making measurements from photographs, particularly aerial photographs, and it can be used to turn images into accurate 3D models.


photogrammetry is the process of getting measurements from photos


The way photogrammetry works is it looks at photos of a subject taken from two or more locations. It uses the different perspectives from the images, along with the location data of where the images were taken, to triangulate the locations of points on the subject.

The more photos you have of your subject taken from different locations, the more accurate this triangulation process will be. The result is accurate point locations plotted in 3D space, which is exactly what you need to create a 3D model. 


3d point cloud created by aerial drone photos

Why Drone Photos Are Great for Photogrammetry

Drones photos are great for photogrammetry because every drone photo is geotagged. This means the latitude, longitude, and altitude from the drone’s GPS and onboard sensors are embedded in the metadata of the image as it’s taken.


drone photos are geotagged graphic


The metadata also includes information about the camera sensor and optics on the drone. These geotagged photos can be processed by software programs such as DroneDeploy, Pix4D, and others to create 3D models with high detail and accuracy. 

software for creating 3d models

How To Get The Best Results When Creating 3D Models

To get the best results of creating a 3D model with your drone, you need to do two things. First, you need to make sure there is a 60 to 70 percent overlap in your aerial photos. This helps the triangulation process be more accurate and track the same points between images.


icon of 60% to 70% photo overlap for creating 3d models from drone photos


Flight apps such as DroneDeploy and Pix4Dcapture allow you to create automated flight paths and set your desired image overlap. 

The second thing you want to do is to make sure you capture photos of your subject at different angles and altitudes. Typically you want to capture straight down images from around 150-200 feet. Then you want to circle your subject at a high altitude with a 30º degree angle, at a middle altitude with around a 45º degree angle, and a lower altitude with a 70º degree angle.


drone flying around a building at different altitudes and camera angles to capture imagery for 3d model


You also want to adjust your radius to keep your subject in the frame. Capturing this much imagery results in a higher quality 3D model. You can use a variety of available software applications to process your images and create your model. 

How 3D Models Are Being Used Across Different Industries


3d models are being used across different industries


The ease, simplicity, and geometric accuracy of 3D models produced by drone images gives them numerous applications across a variety of industries.

The construction industry has seen a huge benefit from drone imagery, mapping, and 3D modeling software. Construction firms can monitor the progress of their construction site with regular updates, and they can easily inspect different areas of the site. The accuracy of the 3D models also means they can be used to calculate distance, area, and volume measurements.

Land surveying has seen tremendous benefits from drone technology. Not only has it gotten easier to get an up-to-date view of a landscape, but you can create detailed bare earth models, digital surface models, and true orthomosaics along with generating 3D models of the terrain. 

Firms providing inspection services can also utilize 3D models and drone mapping technology. They can inspect previously unseen angles of properties and equipment more safely and more efficiently. They can spot potential problems with the detailed 3D models, add annotations, and see the original imagery for a better look at a particular area.


drone elevation model


Energy firms would benefit from these kinds of tools as well. Much of their equipment is larger, more dangerous, or challenging to reach locations, inspecting the equipment with 3D models can help ensure its longevity and safe operation. 

The agriculture industry, while not necessarily using 3D models, can still leverage the data from drones to create orthomosaic maps of their fields. Newer drones are available with multispectral cameras, allowing farmers to create normalized difference vegetation indexes for a deeper understanding of their crop health.

Public safety can also utilize 3D models for documenting and recreating crime scenes, recording evidence, and providing a clear picture for investigators, forensics, and jury members. Officials can even gather imagery and data in the wake of natural disasters in areas typically unsafe for people.

Architecture and engineering firms are also using 3D models to create realistic and detailed context models for their buildings and development projects. Architects use these context models to present how their finished project will look and to present their project to investors and key stakeholders.


3d model of development project


And across all these industries, drones make it safer, faster, and more efficient to gather meaningful data while reducing liability and risk. 

drones make creating 3d models faster, safer, more efficient, and reduce liability and risk

About the Author

Stetson Doggett

Stetson is an Ithaca College alum and a certified drone pilot. He has been flying the DJI Mavic Pro since it first came out and loves finding new ways to improve his aerial photo and video quality. Stetson is from Acton, Massachusetts, and when not in the air he enjoys playing board games, producing YouTube videos, and watching Stranger Things.