skycatch commander

Skycatch Commander review: how to make maps using a DJI Phantom

Want to make aerial maps using your DJI Phantom?

The Skycatch Commander app makes it incredibly easy to generate map using nothing more than your DJI Phantom, your smartphone, Skycatch’s Commander app and about 15 minutes of time (during which you totally can multi-task).

I tried out Skycatch’s app for the first time this weekend, and believe it or not it was my first time EVER flying a FULLY autonomous mission. I’ve utilized the autonomy in drones to return drones to home, to follow me, to orbit an object, etc. but I’ve never simply hit a button and seen a drone take off, fly waypoints, and land, all by itself, until today. It’s awesome!

And the best part is, it collects data that can actually serve a useful purpose.

San Francisco startup Skycatch, which has raised $41.67 million in 6 funding rounds, developed an iOS app called Commander, which can plan, manage and automate flights with DJI drones.

I tested it out in Treasure Island in San Francisco, and thought I would share with you how you use Skycatch Commander.

How Skycatch Commander works to create aerial maps:

  1. Open the app. Then, use your finger to draw an outline of the area you want to map. You can edit the area to edit the flight leg angle or change the area.
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2. You can also edit the resolution and thus change the altitude. You may have to fly at a higher altitude to compensate for trees or buildings. A lower altitude will give you higher resolution. (Flying at an altitude of 40 m gives you a resolution of 2 cm GSD, while flying at 120 m gives you a resolution of 6 cm GSD.

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3. Then, you simply turn on your DJI drone like you traditionally would. But instead of using your RC transmitter for takeoff, you’ll tap Ready to Fly on the Skycatch Commander app.

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4. Then, the drone will take off, flying back and forth to generate images of the area. (This is your chance to grab some coffee — but make sure the drone is still in your line of sight!) I flew a mission that lasted 13 minutes and 1 second, and it generated 314 images.

5. During the flight, you can also check out the app’s live video feed,  flight statistics, automatic drone detection, system checks, and flight monitoring.

6. Once you’ve landed, take out your SD card, upload it to Skycatch’s Dashboard website, and Skycatch will email you when your map is complete.skycatch map

For my purposes, this was pure fun, and to gain perspective at what my city looks like from a different angle. But the commercial applications can save businesses an enormous amount of time and money.

Skycatch spent the last 3 years developing technology in partnership with the world’s leading construction companies, including Komatsu, Bechtel, and Clayco. Now, the Commander app, which was built using DJI’s SDK, is available to anyone though it’s designed to help construction companies, as well as the mining and energy industries. Businesses can then use that data to make decisions by giving them the ability to calculate assets, plan logistics and obtain process reports.

skycatch web app screenshot

For me, the wildest part was seeing how even a $600 Phantom has become fully autonomous. Skycatch’s algorithm ensures both photo coverage but also ensures that the drone never leaves the programmed flight area. Skycatch also guarantees consistent maps from every flight, so a construction site manager could run the drone every day on the same route to track progress each day with no variations in the flight path.

I’ll admit, I was afraid flying a fully autonomous mission. What if the drone goes haywire and hits a tree? But I had no reason to fear. The app is incredibly easy to use. I pressed a button on my phone, the drone took off, flew a route it designed itself, and came back to me 13 minutes later.

The only real limitation to what you can map is your drone’s battery life, as well as heeding FAA rules that commercial drone operations must operate within line of sight (though the FAA has said businesses can apply for a waiver).

The DJI Phantom for a long time has been touted as an epic toy, but Skycatch has proven that they aren’t just a toy — they have a real purpose in commercial applications, like helping construction sites monitor change over time by running the same missions on a regular basis with nothing more than a DJI Phantom and Skycatch’s Commander smartphone app.

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