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Data Acquisition

Drone flights: DIY or outsource to third-party pilots?

By July 6, 2020November 22nd, 2023No Comments

The eternal question – does it make more sense to DIY or to outsource?? For some, the decision can be especially tempting when you realize you get a drone out of it. Here at Sitemark we offer some simple benchmarks to help you make the best choice based on your situation. Whether you are responsible for optimizing a solar asset or monitoring a construction site, this blog will help you minimize your cost for drone surveys.

Real world example

Sitemark has a client developing a new project with 21 solar sites in Spain. They considered getting their drone license to be able to inspect the solar sites themselves but wanted to compare the purchase of a drone versus using third-party pilots. Additionally, they needed advice on which drone to buy. As in most circumstances, quantity of inspections will be the key indicator in the choice you make between doing it yourself or outsourcing.


The client estimates +/- 65 flights over the next 3 years and an investment in a drone would be between 20K€ and 25K€ for the DJI Matrice M200 they are interested in. This is compared to the cost per operation of around 400€ for outsourcing. (assuming they can fly 2 operations per day) Clearly purchasing a drone would be cheaper than organizing an external pilot for each flight.

Sitemark and the client began by reviewing the most popular models other pilots use, with DJI Phantom 4 and DJI Matrice coming up the most often. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. The Phantom 4 PRO is easy to use, has a good battery life and due to its size is easy to transport. Their RGB camera has good quality but it is fixed, so if you want to do thermal inspections you would need two drones. On the other hand, the Matrice 210 is bigger which makes it more difficult to transport, but because of no fixed camera (in combination with an XT2) is the best all-around choice.

Another factor they raised is what if we want to do solar construction as well?

That helped narrow the options again to an RTK-compatible drone resulting in the Phantom 4 PRO RTK and the Matrice 210 RTK as the top choices for their requirements. Both have the same pros and cons as their versions without RTK.

To summarize, if you want to only do Solar construction or construction/mining on smaller sites (up to 20Ha), Phantom 4 PRO RTK is the way to go. Want to do thermal inspections as well? Sitemark would recommend the Matrice 210 RTK with XT2. The quality of the RGB images is a little lower, but you only have to invest in one drone and one camera.

Since evaluating this project, the Matrice 300 and H20T cameras came to the market, which are the successors of the Matrice 200 and XT2.

How to make your own evaluation

Ryan, our in-house flight expert, weighs in on how he helps clients make an assessment-

This type of choice is very situational based; normally for anyone looking to do continual drones flights it makes sense for them to invest in self-flying. Customary daily pilot fees vary by country and range from 500-800 euros a day.

By industry, I would say for construction you just need 10 flights and you’ve paid off your investment. For solar, it’s more like 20+, but you have to develop the skills to become self-sufficient. An ideal example using a solar site would be that the site’s monitoring system triggers a warning of a loss in production. Luckily, you have someone onsite who is trained to fly so they promptly send the drone up to do an inspection of the area detected by the monitoring system. From there, the gathered data is sent to Sitemark for processing and you have the problem analyzed and loss quantified along with suggested remediation procedures.

Overall, here are 3 Kit options we have seen the most success with for solar and construction purposes. Fyi, a “kit” usually includes the drone + remote + battery. And for the Matrice series, you need to add sensors. Spare batteries are also recommended.

Kit 1) DJI Matrice M200 + XT2 (Thermal Kit)- A great start for performing thermal evaluations.

Kit 2) Phantom 4 RTK (Construction Kit) will give you up to centimeter level absolute accuracy and the Phantom is nicely portable and cost effective.

Kit 3) M210 RTK V2 + X4 + XT2 – We didn’t put a hyperlink to a product here because while recommended, this option is not sold as a combo kit as the sensors are sold separately. If you want to use your Matrice for centimeter-level absolute accuracy mapping, it’s important to have the V2 since the RTK V1 does not have the needed functionality. While this kit is closest to being an all-in-one, the disadvantage is that if you are just doing RGB this drone is significantly bigger than the Phantom 4 RTK

For those doing large-scale RGB projects, note that you should look into fixed-wing RTK drones such as the eBee or the Wingtra for the longer flight time benefit.

Remember that a good drone will last you for years and include that in your calculations. If you are planning to digitize the entire lifecycle of your assets you will be using your drone from initial construction to regular monitoring and perhaps even eventually selling the asset.

Here is a overview of drones that Sitemark recommends and is compatible with. However, we enjoy a fast-changing industry and in the end, there are a lot of drone and camera options out there. We are happy to help and advise if you have a question on drone and camera options, even if your hardware is not on the list.