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How to Select the Perfect Data Format for Drone Mapping

Last updated on

January 12, 2024

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    Welcome to the world of drone data capture. If you’re a seasoned drone enthusiast or a professional in the field, you’re well aware that the true value lies not in the drone itself, but in the treasure trove of data it provides. However, navigating through the minefield of jargon, buzzwords, and technical terms related to data formats can be a daunting task. It’s essential to understand what each format entails, its strengths, and the appropriate scenarios for its use.

    In this blog, we’re dedicated to simplifying the complexities of the drone industry. Our goal is to dismantle the jargon-filled barriers and eliminate the gatekeeping. We strive to provide you with a clear and concise understanding of the various data outputs available from your drone.

    Whether you’re looking to optimise your drone’s performance for a specific project or your simply eager to expand your knowledge, this guide is tailored to shed light on the often-overlooked nuances of drone data. Let’s go on this journey together and unlock the full potential of your drone through a better understanding of its data capabilities.

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    Why does it matter which data export format you choose matter?

    Understanding the export options for drone data is crucial, especially when it’s being used for mapping or inspection purposes. It’s not just about collecting the data; it’s about ensuring it’s in the right format. This is key for your end-client or stakeholder, who needs to be able to use this data seamlessly.

    Choosing the appropriate format is more than a technicality; it’s about compatibility and ease of integration. The data you gather should  mesh with other software tools commonly employed in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and Engineering fields. By selecting the right format, you not only provide valuable data but also enhance its utility, making it a powerful asset in any project.

    Here are the most popular drone data export formats:

    • Point Cloud
    • 3D Textured Mesh
    • Orthomosaic
    • Digital Elevation Model (DEM)

    Before we start, you can get a first-hand look at what these look like in practice by clicking here.

    Now, let’s jump in.

    Point Clouds

    A point cloud is a collection of data points in a coordinate system. Each point is defined by 3D position (X, Y, Z), which represent the external surface of an object or area in 3D space. When these points are plotted, they form a visual representation of the surface of the scanned object or terrain. The result looks like a “cloud” of dots, hence the name point cloud.

    How are Point Clouds Useful?

    Point clouds are highly valued for their ability to precisely and accurately capture the physical characteristics of real-world objects. This makes them indispensable in areas such as 3D modelling and photogrammetry. Imagine you’re analysing the specific geometry of an object or a structure, where you need to measure distances accurately or convert a physical building into a digital model for BIM (Building Information Modelling) purposes.

    In these scenarios, point clouds are incredibly beneficial. They provide the necessary detail and accuracy for critical measurements and assessments, which is particularly crucial in fields like construction, architectural preservation, or any domain where exact replication of physical dimensions is essential. Essentially, point clouds serve as an accurate digital mirror of physical spaces or objects, significantly aiding in understanding and enhancing operational processes.

    Point Clouds – Impact GIS

    What Formats are Point Clouds Usually in?

    • XYZ: A simple, text-based format that stores 3D points in a three-column layout representing the X, Y, and Z coordinates. This format is widely supported but typically doesn’t include additional attributes like colour or intensity.
    • LAS (LASer) File Format: This is a standard file format for the interchange of 3D point cloud data. It’s often used for LiDAR data and is supported by many software packages used in GIS, 3D visualisation, and CAD (Computer-Aided Design).
    • LAZ (Compressed LAS): This is essentially a compressed version of a LAS file, offering the same data in a smaller file size. It’s useful for reducing storage requirements and improving data transfer times.
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    3D Textured Mesh

    A 3D textured mesh is a detailed representation of a three-dimensional building or structure, encompassing both its geometric framework and surface appearance. Imagine a point cloud where all points are connected, forming a complex network of vertices, edges, triangles, and faces.

    How are 3D Textured Meshes Useful?

    This mesh is then enhanced with textures derived from images, giving it a realistic surface look. The result is a model that captures the shape of the object in a visually appealing way. While a 3D textured mesh excels in presenting and visualising the model, especially for online sharing and display, it prioritises aesthetics over precision. Due to this emphasis on appearance rather than accuracy, it’s not typically recommended for tasks that require precise measurements.

    What Formats are 3D Textured Meshes Usually in?
    • OBJ (Object File Format): This is one of the most popular file formats for 3D graphics and is widely supported by many 3D graphics software applications. It’s capable of storing mesh geometry data as well as references to external texture files.
    • FBX (Filmbox): This format is used for storing complex 3D models. It supports geometry, texture, and also animation data, making it a versatile choice for various 3D applications, including film and gaming.
    • PLY (Polygon File Format): PLY is capable of storing both geometric and texture data, and it’s commonly used in 3D scanning applications.
    • DXF (Drawing Exchange Format): DXF is used particularly in the fields of engineering and architecture. DXF has become a widely supported format across various CAD (Computer-Aided Design) programs.


    An orthomosaic is essentially a 2D map where each point is defined by its X and Y coordinates and colour information. This map is characterised by its uniform scale, making it ideal for accurate 2D measurements like distance and surface area. It addresses and corrects key issues inherent in input images, such as the camera’s perspective and the varying scale caused by different distances of objects or ground from the camera.

    This process of creating an orthomosaic goes beyond simple photo stitching; it involves a sophisticated method of aligning and adjusting images to ensure a consistent scale and accurate representation of the Earth’s surface.

    Aerial Photo vs Orthomosaic

    Credit: DJI

    How are Orthomosaics Useful?

    Orthomosaics are highly valuable for their precise, true-to-scale representation of the Earth’s surface, offering detailed surface information which is essential in various fields. Their consistent scale allows for accurate 2D measurements.

    These maps can be seamlessly integrated into GIS, enhancing spatial analysis across diverse domains like agriculture, urban planning, environmental conservation, and disaster management. Additionally, the efficiency of creating orthomosaics from aerial images makes them a cost-effective and time-saving solution, especially for large-scale or remote area analysis.

    This combination of accuracy, detail, and versatility underscores the significance of orthomosaics in obtaining reliable geographic data.

    What Formats are Orthomosaics Usually in?
    • GeoTIFF: This format is primarily used in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and remote sensing applications. It’s designed to store georeferenced raster images, commonly used for mapping and spatial analysis purposes.
    • DWG: This is a format used for storing design data and is most commonly associated with CAD (Computer-Aided Design) applications. A DWG file, on the other hand, contains vector data. This includes points, lines, curves, and shapes, which are used to represent objects in a design
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    Digital Elevation Model

    A Digital Elevation Model (DEM) is a 3D representation of the Earth’s surface that provides elevation data, encompassing DTMs and DSMs (see appendix at the bottom for definitions). It’s a type of raster grid, where each cell or pixel in the grid has a value representing the land elevation at that location. The different colours on the map signify different height levels in areas of interest.

    DJI Terra - Make the World Your Digital Asset - DJI

    Credit: DJI

    How are Digital Elevation Models Useful?

    DEMs are pivotal in understanding terrain characteristics, which is crucial for environmental studies, geological research, and land use planning. They help in analysing soil erosion, watershed and drainage patterns, and in studying various ecological and geological phenomena.

    What Formats are Digital Elevation Model Usually in?
    • GeoTIFF: GeoTIFF is a type of TIFF file format that includes geospatial metadata. This format allows for the storage of both elevation data and its associated geographic information, such as the coordinate system and map projection.


    We hope that this guide has helped you understand the diverse range of data export formats available for geospatial applications. Each format offers unique advantages and is suited to specific types of analysis and visualisation, from detailed geographic information systems to interactive 3D earth browser applications.

    Understanding these formats is crucial for professionals working in fields like urban planning, environmental science, construction, and agriculture, as it enables them to choose the most appropriate format for their specific needs, ensuring accurate data representation and analysis.

    If you still feel that you would benefit from more information on the data formats, our team is here to help. We offer expert advice tailored to your project’s unique requirements and can assist you in leveraging the full potential of your geospatial data.

    To get the support you need, don’t hesitate to book a meeting with us. Our team is ready to provide you with the insights and assistance you require to make the most informed decisions for your geospatial projects.

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    Your success in navigating these complex data formats is our goal, and we’re here to ensure you have all the tools and knowledge necessary to excel in your endeavours.


    Building Information Modelling (BIM): Building Information Modelling (BIM) is a digital process that provides a comprehensive model of a building or infrastructure project. It goes beyond the traditional blueprints or 2D plans, integrating various dimensions of design and construction.

    Computer-Aided Design (CAD): documentation of various types of products and structures. It involves the use of computer systems to assist in the creation, modification, analysis, or optimisation of a design.

    Digital Surface Models (DSM): A Digital Surface Model (DSM) is a representation of the Earth’s surface that captures both the natural terrain and any built or artificial features on it. It includes trees, buildings, bridges, and other structures, unlike a Digital Terrain Model (DTM) which represents only the bare ground surface.

    Digital Terrain Models (DTM): A Digital Terrain Model (DTM) is a digital representation of the ground surface, capturing the topography of the terrain but excluding man-made structures and vegetation. It differs from a Digital Surface Model (DSM) in that it focuses solely on the natural terrain

    Edges: An edge is a straight line segment connecting two vertices in a 3D space.Edges represent the linear boundary of a shape or object. They are what you see when you look at the wireframe of a 3D model.

    Faces: A face is a flat surface enclosed by edges. In most 3D models, faces are typically composed of triangles or quadrilaterals (quads), but they can have any number of sides. Faces are the 2D shapes that make up the 3D surface of the object. When rendered, they are filled in with colors, textures, and shading to give the appearance of a solid object.

    Geographic Information Systems (GIS): Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are frameworks for gathering, managing, and analysing data rooted in the science of geography. GIS integrates many types of data and is used to analyse spatial information, understand patterns and relationships, and visualise data in the form of maps, reports, and charts.

    Raster Data: Raster data is a type of digital image represented by reducible and enlargeable grids. In the context of Geographic Information Systems (GIS), raster data is used to store spatial information in a format that consists of a matrix of cells (or pixels), with each cell containing a value representing information, such as temperature, elevation, or land use.

    Triangles: A triangle is the simplest form of a face in 3D modelling. It consists of three vertices and three edges. Triangles are particularly important in 3D modelling and graphics because any 3D surface can be constructed using them.

    Vertices: A vertex (singular) is the smallest unit of a 3D model, essentially a point in 3D space defined by its X, Y, and Z coordinates.Vertices are used as the building blocks of a 3D model. When multiple vertices are connected, they form the structure of the model.


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