Choosing which aircraft are best for your business’s drone program can be confusing. After all, there are a lot of factors to consider! Here’s a quick primer on a few things to think about when expanding or updating your fleet to get the best bang for the buck.
Start with data considerations
Drones are basically data collection systems. Since data is your end product, start by clearly defining all the results you want your drone to get — then work backwards. Do you need to capture aerial survey grids to generate 2D maps? Thermal imagery to visualize hotspots in energy systems? High-definition video of structures? If you think you may want to expand over time to capture several types of data, it’s good to know this before you buy.
Also consider the software side of data analytics. What apps do you need to crunch the data or create a report? Find out if there are separate programs to fly the drone, control on-board sensors, and process the data. Make sure the apps and platforms you need can play nicely together.
Another big factor is data security. As drones start streaming information over wireless networks, large volumes of data may be transferred from connected drones mid-flight. Safely collecting and transmitting this data is of the utmost importance. For the most sensitive drone applications, Drones designated as Blue UAS meet government cybersecurity and supply chain standards. But even less expensive drones ought to have essential security and encryption measures for data storage and transmission.
Types of drone sensors
Your data needs determine the sensors you’ll want on your drone. The number and weight of these sensors tell you how big and powerful an airframe you need to support the payload. There are three common categories of commercial drone sensors.
RGB (Red Green Blue, or visible light) sensors
Aerial photography and videography are a drone’s bread and butter. Common uses for drones with RGB cameras include:
- High-definition photography and film
- Construction progress photos
- Photogrammetry for 2D maps and 3D models
- Situational awareness for first responders
- Rooftop infrastructure inspections
- Insurance claim assessments
- Marketing material
Lots of off-the-shelf drones come with RGB sensors capable of 4K-resolution imagery or better. These point-and-shoot cameras are surprisingly capable, but have limitations like a fixed field of view lens. You’ll want a more sophisticated solution if you need uncompressed photos or a certain codex for video, or want more control over settings like aperture, f-stop, exposure, and white balance. If you’re mounting a film-grade camera like an Arri Alexa or RED 8K, then you’ll be in the market for a very large drone with a high-end gimbal.
A third camera factor to consider is the drone’s light-handling capability. Some work just fine in low light, like a nighttime urban setting with street lighting, while others lose much of their utility after sunset. This is especially important for public safety personnel and first responders, who may need to deploy any time of day.
Thermal imaging sensors
Thermal cameras see heat energy coming from the surface of objects and create images that map temperature differences. Common uses for drones with these infrared cameras include:
- Roof inspections
- Solar panel inspections for maintenance and quality assurance
- Transmission and distribution line inspections
- Leak checks on pipelines and chimneys at oil and gas facilities
- Search and rescue, including night missions
- Monitoring firefighters in low visibility and detecting hotter roof areas that could indicate an imminent collapse or burn-through
Drones with thermal sensors see problems that are invisible to the naked eye. Water trapped in the insulation under a membrane roof will show up as a cooler color tone in a thermal image. If there’s an internal short in a solar module, a thermal camera will pick that heat up. Optical Gas Imaging (OGI) uses a specialized infrared camera capable of seeing escaping gasses.
Resolution is again a key factor in choice here. Most users can do all they need to with the most common infrared resolution: 320 x 256. If you’re making thermal orthomosaics, you’ll probably want a 640 x 512 resolution camera.
Some thermal cameras can collect specific temperature measurements, allowing you to do thermographic analysis after the images are processed. If you think you’re going to want to change the color palettes in your images, or adjust the level and span (contrast and brightness in a thermal image), then you’ll need a radiometry-enabled camera.
Think of LiDAR (light detection and ranging) as similar to radar, which sends out pulses of radio waves that bounce off things, then detects the return signal. LiDAR uses light beams instead of radio waves.
LiDAR is very effective at quickly scanning an area, recording geographic coordinates, then using these measurements to create 3D models. In fact, it can often detect and measure things smaller than a visible light camera can detect. Common uses of LiDAR on drones include:
- Topographical surveying, even through tree canopies
- Scouting potential construction sites
- Environmental impact studies
- 3D models of terrain or infrastructure
Other factors to decide on the right drone
You may need more than one type of drone. If you want to add a drone that can handle interchangeable sensors, or plan to use a high-end camera, you may need a bigger, heavy-lift drone. You may also need a smaller compact drone that can be carried in a backpack-type case where lugging a large case is difficult or impractical.
Durability and endurance are additional decision factors. Some models are better suited to stand up to harsh environments and less-than-gentle handling. And a drone with short battery life won’t work for all use cases. Country of origin (where the aircraft is manufactured) can be important, especially for organizations using federal funds to purchase drones. And of course, budget is always a big consideration.
Trying to figure out what drone is right for you? Skyward’s consultants can help you make the smartest decisions on your drone program investments. We resell a variety of aircraft and accessories, and we can assist you in onboarding new models with hands-on flight training for your pilots.
Ready to get started? Contact us for support on choosing which drone models are best for getting the data you need.
Also, if you’ll be at AUVSI Xponential in the Orange County Convention Center, Orlando, Florida from April 25-28, 2022, come visit us at the Verizon Robotics booth, #2331. I’d love to say hi and talk to you in person!