Buying a drone is only the beginning of becoming a drone pilot. These apps for your mobile devices can help you become a better flier by improving your skills, helping you find where to fly or adding features to your drone. Here is a selection of useful apps that can make the most of your flight time.
Flying a drone requires two things: good weather and a spot from which to take off. Hover helps you find both by providing a simple fly/no fly indication, based on live weather updates and a database of no-fly zones. At a glance, it indicates whether your location is a good one and if the weather is suitable for takeoff. The app also provides details of how the weather is going to change over the next few hours, which is useful for figuring out if you should fly now or later. It's a simple app that every drone pilot should have, and it also includes a simple flight log that helps you track your flying hours.
DJI's own Go app is pretty capable, but Autopilot adds a range of new features that make a DJI Phantom, Inspire 1 or Mavic Pro into a much more capable camera platform. It provides new ways to move the camera and track objects, creating much smoother, more natural-looking cinematic shots. Autopilot also captures a lot more data while the drone is flying, which is useful if you are having a technical problem and want to know where the problem lies.
All Parrot drones come with a free app called FreeFlight Pro, which handles the basics of flight, providing on-screen controls and a preview of the camera image. The $20 optional Flight Plan takes this further, adding the ability for you to plan a flight, then send that information to the drone for it to fly autonomously. You create a flight plan by selecting waypoints and how high you want the drone to be at each one. The app then calculates the path to take to fly between them, and, with the tap of a button, sends the drone along this flight path.
More advanced features are also available, such as controlling the direction that the camera is pointing and controlling when video is recorded. These preplanned flights can also be saved and reloaded at any time, which is useful if you want to take seasonal or construction videos.
AirMap initially looks like just another map app for drones, indicating where you can and can't fly. It does that (in fact, most other apps source their no-fly-zone maps from AirMap), but it offers one interesting new feature: a Digital Notice and Awareness System. This is a new AirMap system that lets you push a button to notify nearby airports that you are flying a drone.
It's legal to fly a drone within 5 miles of an airport, but you have to notify the airport or local air traffic control in case they detect it on their radar. AirMap does this online, using a system that the company is building in cooperation with airports, 125 of which support the system so far. This same system also keeps an eye on local air traffic, warning you if any manned aircraft are flying nearby.
Photogrammetry is the process of creating a 3D model from a 2D image, such as a drone video. That's what Pix4D does: This app automatically creates a flight path for your drone (models from DJI, 3DR and Parrot are supported), then uploads the video and flight data to the Pix4D servers. You can then use these servers or your desktop PC to crunch through this data, turning the images and location of the drone into a 3D model of whatever you were flying over. The full service isn't cheap ($499 for a year's subscription of unlimited model making), but Pix4D does offer a 15-day trial that will allow you to try out the service.
The DJI Store app mainly exists to sell you stuff, but it also has another useful feature: a map of flying hotspots. This helps you find who is flying in your neighborhood by letting you know of any user-submitted flying spots in your neighborhood, and the profiles of the people who fly there. You can also post a profile yourself and share any inspiring photos of popular spots with other fliers.
GoPro's Karma drone may have hit a few snags (the company recalled it after the first units it sold kept falling out of the sky), but when it finally becomes widely available, you'll be able to grab a neat app called Passenger, which allows a second user to view the wireless video from the camera that's attached to the drone. The second user will also be able to control the camera, panning and tilting it around as the pilot controls the drone itself. In effect, that person will be able to work as the camera operator while the pilot keeps the drone flying.