Apps for Drone Pilots
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, Mavic Pro, Mavic Air, or Spark 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; much like an airplane's black box, it's useful if you are having a technical problem and want to know where the problem lies. The app can also log flights and save them to an online account for you to look over later.
Sky Viper Simulator
We liked the Sky Viper Hover Racer when we reviewed it, but you don’t need to buy the drone to try it out. The Sky Viper simulator offers simulated flights with their entire range of drones from the tiny nano to the nippy Hover Racer. For each of the drones, you can fly freely to practice, or on a variety of timed circuits that test you skill. It’s a fun way to get some flying practice with a range of drones, and you can recover from a crash with a press of a button.
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: the 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 the FAA. The system is being expanded to cover over 500 airports this year. 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 Capture 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.
Although GoPro's Karma drone never really got off the ground (the company is selling off the remaining inventory, but still supporting the drone), but if you know someone who has one, 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.
Quadcopter FX Simulator
There are lots of apps available that claim to be drone simulators, but few of them are any good at simulating the real experience. Quadcopter FX Simulator is one of the better ones, because it does a very nice job of reproducing the feel and experience of flying a drone. You get access to a number of viewpoints — including the ground — plus a normal camera on the drone and a stabilized gimbal.The controls can be customized and tweaked a lot, and models of a number of different sizes and types of drone are included. If you pay $4.99 for the pro version, you get more flying locations and even more customization. Unlike the real thing, however, in this app, you just press a button to return to your takeoff point and repair your drone. The latest version also adds support for Google Cardboard VR for more immersive flying.
Planning to take a video of a dramatic sunset? Sun Surveyor can help you make sure you get the shot. Working from a map, the app will show you the path of the sun and moon, including precise times for sunrise, sunset and the lunar equivalents over the entire year. If you are at the location, Sun Surveyor will even show you the path that the sun and moon will take in the sky by overlaying it on the camera view, enabling you to scout a location for the perfect shot. It can even use Google Street view data to show you a preview of how the sun might rise over buildings. The full version costs $7.99, but offers notifications for upcoming photo opportunities like full moon, moon rise and other interesting stuff in the sky.
DJI Ground Station Pro (GSP)
DJI offers this app for serious and professional drone users who want to create complex autonomous flight paths. It's designed to make the process of creating these paths easier by automating it. The user selects an area on the map that he or she wants to survey, and the app automatically creates a flight path that covers the entire area, giving you the ability to adjust the amount of detail that is needed.If you just want a quick, rough overview, Ground Station Pro will do a few passes. If you want much more detailed images (for building a 3D model or for surveying the land), it will create a path with more passes that provides the multiple views that the enhanced detail needs.