Mapping 1,000 km of highway with a drone

El camino less traveled

By Ian Smith, Sales & Marketing @DroneDeploy

Think back to the last time you had one of those really big ideas—the crazy kind where you immediately realize it probably isn’t going to work. With a slight shake of the head, you quickly dismiss it.

I doubt I’ll be able to do it, it’ll just take way too long. It’s not worth my time.

Now pretend you’re Sergio Lugo Serrato of Skylab Industries, a tenacious civil engineer with a team of extremely hard working people behind him.

Sergio Lugo Serrato, Director General at Skylab Industries

Sergio is no stranger to challenging projects. For him and his team, feelings of doubt are dutifully managed. That’s how they were able to come to the decision to map 1,000 kilometers of highway with a small drone.

A 2006 estimate pegs the total length of all roadways in Mexico at 357,000 kilometers — enough to wrap around the Earth’s equator 56 times

That’s a daunting distance. But for Sergio and his team, it was the perfect canvas to start planning one of the largest drone mapping projects undertaken on the planet.

The project

Making drone maps at scale

Reason numero uno why Sergio and the Skylab team were contracted for this mission? Nobody else could handle it. Or rather, nobody else wanted to try to handle it.

The client, one of Mexico’s public government agencies, requested that these large sections of highway be mapped in high resolution to inspect:

  • Pavement condition
  • Lane markings
  • Vegetation encroachment
  • General state of the roads
Locations of Sergio’s maps as red dots. This is the southern section. ~700 km.

Locations of Sergio’s maps as green dots. This is the northern section. ~320 km.

But with rocky, mountainous terrain and mission areas taking place in parts of Mexico where people don’t exactly appreciate manned aircraft with large cameras buzzing above them, this aerial mapping project needed to be handled delicately.

Enter: the DJI Phantom 3 Pro.

At the time of this writing, a DJI Phantom 3 Pro cost $1,259

Though overall endurance is only around 16 minutes, this was the aircraft for the job: simple to use, inconspicuous, and reliable.

The stage was set

Sergio and his team would use 5 drones among his team of 8 people. The drones would travel across Mexico to take thousands of images of 1,000 kilometers of highway and then those images would be processed into orthomosaic maps for delivery to the client.

Unfortunately, traditional image processing methods take a long, long time. So Sergio still had one big problem…

How do I quickly process 120,000+ images into orthomosaics?

The old fashioned way

Blood, sweat, and tears

Sergio’s team assumed they found the solution to their image processing dilemma by just throwing a bunch of money at it: hire multiple staff dedicated to managing 8 high-powered computers, each running a popular image processing program, crunching data 24/7.

It worked decently—for a bit.

With the delivery date just 3 weeks away, the project was still underway:

  • Sergio’s team had collected imagery of nearly 80% of the full distance with the drones
  • They’d collected approximately 100,000 images, with another 20,000 on the way
  • But 6 weeks of processing time remained

Their solution was too slow.

The only way out was to double their processing power. This meant buying another 8 computers with software licenses and employees for them all.

At this rate Sergio’s team would be 3 weeks late — an unacceptable outcome.

Map Engine

A new hope

Sergio needed to pivot; at this time, DroneDeploy had just launched Map Engine beta, so he thought he would see what it could offer. He uploaded a set of images into Map Engine for processing.

Then he uploaded another, and another, and another, and another…

Uploading images into Map Engine for processing

Leveraging the power of the cloud to scale and automate processing is exactly what DroneDeploy was meant for. DroneDeploy processes multiple jobs concurrently (in parallel), and for massive jobs like this, it’s the best solution available.

Graph depicts number Skylab maps processed per day vs. average processing time across *all* DroneDeploy maps. Even when processing 194 Skylab maps, average processing time does not exceed maximum average processing time across all maps for this period

This means that instead of maintaining 8 or even 16 expensive computers for 24/7 processing (with staff to monitor them all), Sergio could just use one computer with DroneDeploy to upload all of his data.

The data was processed in the DroneDeploy cloud, all at the same speed—and when complete, was viewable in his web browser, ready for sharing, or exporting.

Click the links below to explore the maps:

The numbers

Time is money

After switching to DroneDeploy for their processing, the Skylab team was successfully able to meet their 3 week deadline.

In 3 weeks:

  • 114,043 images were processed
  • 869 orthomosaic maps were created
  • 2,607 total combined outputs were generated (orthomosaic, digital surface model, 3D model)
  • 1,000+ kilometers of highway from Acapulco to Monterrey were mapped
  • 8TB of high-resolution highway data was delivered (on time) to the client

Soy un mapeador

I am a mapper

After the job was complete, we called Sergio to get his feedback on how processing with DroneDeploy went. The first words out of his mouth?

“Thank god we’re done.”

Sergio then went on to give us a few insights on his experience:

  • Without DroneDeploy, he would’ve had to get “at least 8 more people and computers to meet the deadline”
  • DroneDeploy was 2x faster than the 8 computers running 24/7 that they were using

In the end, Sergio and his team may not have entirely took the road less traveled—but it still made all the difference.

Ready to conquer your next project? Start mapping for free with DroneDeploy by clicking here.

DroneDeploy's Blog

DroneDeploy is the leading cloud software platform for commercial drones. Learn more at


Written by

DroneDeploy is the leading cloud software platform for commercial drones.

DroneDeploy's Blog

DroneDeploy is the leading cloud software platform for commercial drones. Learn more at

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