Using Drones To Create Video Games

If there’s one thing Drones are really good at, it’s capturing photos and video on a grand scale. It’s easy to lose yourself in drone footage, to feel like you are there in the place the footage was shot. Videogames are dependant on immersion, so the ability to use real-world data from drones is a natural fit. From simple maps to fully rendered cities, Drones are infiltrating Game Development. 

How Do Drones Make 3D-Models of Buildings and Environments?

Drones can accurately map just about anything. From 2D photomosaics made from hundreds of pictures stitched together to fully rendered 3D areas made from thousands of photos and tens of thousands of data points, it’s relatively easy to turn any real-world location into usable data.

The software to make accurate 3D maps using drones has been around for a while now. The industry leader Pix4d is fast approaching its 10 year anniversary, and the quality of their produced models is better than ever. 

Since these point maps, as they are called, are already usable data it’s a simple process to apply them to tons of different programs. The maps can be skinned over existing 3D models or used to create new 3D models entirely. They can act as 3D maps for moving objects around, or create stunning backdrops as simple images.

With very few steps between capture and implementation, using drones to create environments cuts down on development time and cost.

Some industries already rely heavily on this technology. Architects use drones to capture real-world topographical data using 3D maps to provide accurate plans, or to create buildings rendered on location so clients can see exactly what their investment will look like. Farmers use massive 3d maps to look for problems or plan new fields. Building inspectors and contractors can create 3d models of buildings and projects easily to look for problems or plan new work. 

What Is A 3D Point Map? 

To start making these 3D models first, the drone has to take a lot of pictures. If you are mapping a building, for instance, you need a picture of every angle and every texture and every surface so you can push them all together. Imagine all the nooks and crannies of a standard house, things hidden by trees or roof overhangs, a drone can find the perfect angle to see into those areas and take a picture.

The more photos a drone takes of an area, the more accurate the model will be, so it’s not uncommon to see thousands of pictures taken in order to make a good map.

Then the photos get merged together, and a computer lines up reference points to create an accurate 3D model. The process, called photogrammetry, uses information like the drone’s relative position, the contrast between light and dark, and the triangulation of points using the measurement between 2 photos that are of the same feature. In short, it’s a lot of math, and computers nowadays are very good at it.

The final product is called a 3D Point Map, where the computer has generated hundreds of thousands (or more) points in 3D space. Each point contains data telling the computer where it exists in 3d space, what color it is, and how close it’s nearest neighbors are. Think of pixels on a screen, each pixel on a monitor represents a color and a location in 2D space, or a 2D Point Map. A 3D Point Map is simply the addition of the Z-axis.  

Drones and Other Equipment Used To Map Environments

Although most drones can be used to create these maps, assuming they have a camera, certain drones are much better suited for the task. The best mapping drones have a high definition camera on a gimbal, long flight times and the ability to utilize powerful drone mapping software.

DJI is the industry leader, with highly capable consumer-grade drones like the Mavic line, the intermediate Phantom line, and the professional Matrice and Inspire lines are all used regularly in mapping.  DJI even offers specific models outfitted with special tools for mapping, including a Phantom 4 that uses special high accuracy GPS modules and custom, multiple camera Matrices.

Outside of the DJI world Parrot offers the Anafi, a favorite of photographers on a budget, and Yuneec has several capable drones that offer a lot of features for the price, though they do not have the market domination that DJI has.

It is not limited to rotary aircraft either. In the geological survey and farming world, they use fixed-wing and hybrid drones to map very large distances. These specialized survey drones can fly for hours at a time at speeds up to 100mph, which as law-abiding pilots we know is the FAA’s limit on UAV speed.

Parrot is one of the leaders in fixed-wing, with the eBee able to cover nearly five square miles on a single charge. For a game developer focused on historical or near historical strategy style games, having accurate maps of massive areas would certainly be handy. Game franchises like Civilization, Europa and Total War take place over entire continents or worlds, the ability to map and drop in the entirety of Italy could bring unheard of depth to these titles. 

Beyond drones, there are a handful of other items that are used in mapping. A texture and color card is necessary for almost all forms of photography, and an accurate scale to double-check measurements against is always handy. Oftentimes drone mappers have a single large poster that serves multiple functions, with white balance, colors and ruled lines creating a reference that is easy to find on a large map.

A good digital camera to take close up shots of specific features and textures is another must, especially for reference when creating new 3D textures. Other items used in mapping can vary case by case. Highly accurate GPS units that can create control points are used in land surveying, which are needed to ensure the highest levels of accuracy. Multi-spectral or other specialized cameras can capture the world human eyes can’t see and find things like geothermal activity or hidden creatures and people. 

What Games Benefit From Real World Maps? 

Procedural Generation is the newest buzzword in the world of video game environments. It’s where a computer uses algorithms to generate the setting on the fly in a way that looks realistic. When a game character is running through a forest, the screen can only fit so many trees at a time, so the computer can simply generate new trees somewhat randomly off-screen and render them real-time as the character runs by. This saves resources and ensures highly detailed and beautifully rendered environments, so where does real-world drone mapping fit in? 

Well, for starters, some games are meant to take place in the real world. Games like Call of Duty are meant to take place in real cities around the globe, and driving simulators like Forza are made so you can take virtual cars on real-world tracks. It would be very jarring if you were playing a game meant to take place in the historic city of Rome and the Colosseum wasn’t there.

Even games that you wouldn’t normally think of as needing accuracy can still benefit from real-world mapping. Farming Simulators and City Builder style games pride themselves on having world like environments, with drone mapping they wouldn’t need world like environments, they could simply capture and play in our world. 

Outside of games that are meant to take place in real environments, since drone maps are 3D models they can be used as references. It’s much easier to make a fantasy or sci-fi city if you begin with a real city as your model. A mine in the mountains of Germany can quickly become the entrance to a vast network of caves inhabited by creatures bent on destruction. A tranquil South American forest can make a perfect place to hold ground against a dragon onslaught.  One could wander the wasteland of a ruined city that has correctly placed and accurately scaled landmarks and backgrounds. 

Are Any Developers Using This Technology Already? 

Milestone, developer of the racing game MotoGP18, used drones to map real-world racetracks to use in-game. They utilized 2 DJI Phantom 4 Pros, 2 Inspire Pros, and Drone Deploy (Mapping software) to get the job done. Both the highly accurate 3D maps and the photography used for reference helped make this motorcycle racing game stand out among other racing games for the realism it provides. 

Former Developer of Assassin’s Creed were using drones to aid in a “real world” RPG. Pixyul, who planned the creation of the game ReRoll, we’re attempting to use drones in an incredibly ambitious plan to map the world. Sadly as of 2020 the project has been abandoned,  but the concept continues to be popular. 

As drone technology improves the opportunity to innovate grows exponentially. There is no doubt we will see other developers and content creators using drones in the future.

Dan Rodman

I'm a Mechanical Engineer who is passionate about the drone industry. I work as a project manager in Construction and have used drones for commercial purposes. Then, of course, it is my main hobby at home. FPV drones, custom builds, commercial drone industries, and everything else drone related is always of interest to me!

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