Mission Planning Resources

IGIS Tech Notes describe workflows and techniques for using geospatial science and technologies in research and extension. They are works in progress, and we welcome feedback and comments below.


The key to getting good drone is good mission or flight planning. Mission planning starts well-before you get to the field, and integrates a range of logistic, technical and safety factors. The Resources below can help you plan your field work so your time is used effectively and you come back with good data.


General Site Planning

Mission planning starts with general site planning. Where is the study area? How big is it? Where are we going to drive in? Where can we park? Are there any gates we need to get thru? There are dozens of mapping tools to plan where you're going. Here are some of our favorites.

Google My Maps


Most people have used Google Maps or a similar platform for navigation. Google has another product called Google My Maps, which is similar but lets you customize, save, and share your own map. Changing the basemap to a satellite image is often sufficient to see enough detail, and you can add points, lines and polygons for your movements, launch points, and flight areas.

A very useful feature of Google My Maps is the ability to export layer(s) you've drawn by hand as KML files. From there, you can import the KMLs into the flight planning app you'll be using to design the mission and fly the drone. For details, see the Creating KMLs Tech Note.



OpenStreetMap (OSM) is a well-developed community driven mapping platform. Many of the layers are similar to what you find on Google Maps, MapQuest, Bing, etc. but you’ll find a lot “off the beaten track” layers on OSM contributed by enthusiasts and organizations. OSM has a number of ways you can contribute features, which you may also want to consider if you find missing trails, gates, watering points, etc. in your area.

If you’d like to share your processed drone data available publicly, consider submitting it to OSM’s sister project, OpenAerialMap (https://openaerialmap.org/).



Many a fine drone have been flown into the side of a hill (it's easier to do than you might think!). Use these resources to select your launch points and flight altitude without having to resort to guessing, how tall do you think that hill is over there?



CalTopo allows you to design a map of your flight area. It has a large collection of freely available base layers, including topo maps. You can also draw features and import a KML. Maps can be exported as PNGs and georeferenced PDFs that work great in Avenza Maps.

Open Topo Map


OpenTopoMap is dynamic maps service based on the OpenStreetMap data. Maintained by a group in Germany, the underlying data is based on OpenStreetMap so it may be particularly useful if important reference features (e.g., the location of a trail or gate) are available on OSM. Selecting 'OpenTopoMap' as the baselayer will show  contour lines as you zoom in. As a website it does not work offline, but the URL records the center point and scale of the map, allowing you to bookmark an area of interest. You can also display hiking trails (Lonvia Wanderrouten) contributed by the OSM community, and cycling routes (Lonvia Radrouten).

OTM also supports a tile service so you can use the hillshades in other maps you create.  

Google Earth


Google Earth was a pioneer in 3D visualization, and is still a powerful tool for 'flying' around an area from the comfort of your chair. With a little practice, you can also use it to create or edit KML files. Google Earth comes as both a standalone application you can download (which will eventually go away, sorry), as well as a website with many of the same features.

Although visualizing the topography of your study area in Google Earth is useful for orientation and planning launch locations, you should probably not depend on it to determine how high you need to fly to avoid that hill top. For that use contour maps.



Checking airspace is a must for Mission planning. These tools can help you verify which airspace you're in, and in some cases apply for automated Air Traffic Control clearance through the LAANC system.



AirMap is one of a handful of companies that publishes airspace charts. Their popular "‎AirMap for Drones" app is available for both Android and iOS, or you can use the website. In addition to FAA airspace restrictions, AirMap will also show you restrictions and/or advisories about flying around parks, school, prisons, active first responder incidents, and other restricted areas. A cool function is the location of approved flight areas managed by local AMA (Academy of Model Aeronautics) clubs.

Sky Vector


SkyVector is a website the provides interactive versions of FAA sectional charts (the maps of airspace classes). If you've passed your FAA Part 107 Remote Pilot exam, you should be able to understand how to read these maps. This site is designed for manned aircraft, so a lot of it might be overkill. Once nice feature is that you can turn on "Temporary Flight Restrictions" and "DROTAMS" (drone notice to airman) which are active and usually temporary restrictions for flying.

ArcGIS Airspace Layers

If you need a finer grain analysis and have an ArcGIS.com account, you can add Feature Services (i.e., online layers) to your map. The FAA Aeronautical Information Services publishes several layers including Class Airspace, National Security UAS Flight Restrictions, and the UAS Facility Map Data (i.e., the little grids around airports with individual flight ceilings and the ability to get automated ATC clearance through a mobile app). These layers work on both ArcGIS.com and ArcGIS Pro desktop, so you can add them into both online and paper maps.


GSD Calculators

To help you select the best altitude for your flights, GSD Calculators (ground sampling distance) estimate the on-the-ground pixel size (resolution) based on the type of camera and altitude. It's worth noting these calculators estimate the pixel size based on the distance from the drone to the ground, which will of course vary if your study area is hilly. Mission planning apps will report the same thing.



This is a nice online calculator with a decent number of RGB cameras available. Multispectral cameras are missing but if you know the image dimensions, sensor dimensions, and focal length, you can enter those manually. After selecting the camera and entering the above-ground flight height, it will tell you the GSD.

Pix4D GSD Calculator

Pix4D offers a downloadable Excel spreadsheet that does GSD calculations. It unfortunately does have a camera database, so you have manually enter the camera parameters. In addition to GSD it will also report the width and height of the image footprint.


Solar Calculators

Flying when the sun is highest is the sky, or 'solar noon', is often desirable because shadows are minimized (more importantly the change in shadows over the course of the mission is minimized). Solar calculators will tell you when solar noon occurs for a given location and date. They will also tell you the sun bearing (compass direction) and angle of elevation, which can be useful for planning the direction of your flight lines (i.e., to avoid glint).



NOAA Solar Calculator




Wind is one of the biggest wildcards for planning fieldwork. Your basic weather report may be good enough to decide if its worth going out, but the wind sites below may also show you the historical wind patterns, wind forecasts at altitude, and/or animated forecasts.


Airport Operations

If you're anywhere near an airport, you may be required to have an aviation radio to monitor pilots and/or the control tower. But even without this requirement, monitoring radio traffic and aircraft can give you a heads-up when aircraft are approaching.

Fortunately, if you have cell service there are a number of sites and apps that show approaching aircraft and/or the relay the control tower traffic.



LiveATC is one of the to-go sites to hear live air traffic control towers. A mobile app by the same name has similar features. Many airports have a separate radio channel where you can get updates on weather conditions (METARS) and other airport operations.



FlightAware presents a live map of all aircraft with transponders. It will also show when aircraft are expected to take off or land. Smaller aircraft may not file flight plans or have transponders, but a great many do.


This work was supported by the USDA - National Institute of Food and Agriculture (Hatch Project 1015742; Powers).