By Brandon Guillot, RPC, MAS
Choosing the Right Drone
Without a doubt, the most common question I receive is…“What drone should I buy?”
My response is always the same…“What are you using it for?”
In my years of speaking to schools, engineering firms, police, fire, airport, and recreational pilots, I cannot begin to count the number of times that an organization told me they got money for a drone, bought one, and then tried to figure out how to make it fulfill a specific role.
Naturally, this leads to a great deal of lost time, opportunity, revenue, and possibly even lives in the worst circumstances. So for any group or individual wishing to start a drone program, the most critical question that needs to be answered is the Mission Type. Different airframes work better for training than for precision mapping of an area.
Different sensors are required for looking for a missing child than for taking photos of a bridge during the day.
What kind of environment will it be operating in?
Larger, heavier drones will handle the high winds of flying near highways or between the corridors of buildings much better than many small drones.
So the first question needs to define the needs of the program, and from there, the decision makers can figure out what platforms and payloads can accomplish that mission.
What is the Availability of Replacement Parts or Repairs?
The next major question is one that tends to be overlooked in the excitement of acquiring a drone. We always need to remember the mantra of every experienced Radio Control airplane pilot: “It is not IF you crash it, it’s WHEN and HOW BADLY.”
So, how are you going to maintain the aircraft you are considering?
How long has it been in production?
Are there spare parts?
How much do they cost?
We all know that the potential for an incident exists every time the aircraft flies, and the wise program director will consider the possibility of having to rebuild (or possibly replace entirely) their aircraft. Some airframes are designed to be shipped back to the manufacturer for repair or refurbishment—which leads to additional down time and cost.
Others may be user serviceable, if you are willing to expend the time and effort for repairs. I once had a photo drone that suffered a battery disconnect in flight, and had severe damage. I was able to fix it myself, but only after taking out 77 screws, and 20 solder connections just to get it apart. Needless to say, that was several days of effort to get it apart, repaired, and back together.
Be Wary of Third-Party Parts
A side note on this one: Drone parts tend to be rather expensive, particularly when they are from the original manufacturer. Another common question that I get is regarding third-party parts.
Are they any good?
This is a tough one, and requires the wise drone pilot to do a great deal of research before purchasing anything. Some upgrades and improvements can be quite helpful; other times, I have purchased critical airframe components from a third party vendor, and severely regretted it.
I once ordered what I thought was a great deal on Yuneec Q500 blades from eBay—only to find they were extremely fragile, and did not have the same shock-absorbing flexibility provided by the original manufacturer blades.
So as with any major decisions that need to be undertaken, the question of what drone platform to use, and how to maintain it, requires a great deal of research and situational awareness on the part of the organizer. It is crucial to examine what kind of mission the organization, and the aircraft, will be participating in, and choose a tool to fit those parameters accordingly.
Next, the chosen platform needs to be able to reliably complete that mission, which includes conducting repairs or replacement depending on circumstances which may arise due to operations in the field.
By conducting this research on the front end, it can save a great deal of hassle later on!
Drones to Consider for Learning the Basics
Once your organization decides on the critical items for starting the drone program we discussed above (the mission type and availability of repairs), any new drone pilot is going to need to learn the basics of operating an aircraft and maintaining control over it. Unfortunately, the fact of needing to train new pilots can be lost within the narrower focus of purchasing mission-specific aircraft. Consider the possible headaches for the Flight Program Manager that decides to use their brand new DJI Mavic Dual Enterprise (roughly $3,000 retail price) for initial flight training!
Therefore, it is extremely wise to consider some less expensive, yet capable, machines that are extremely durable, or are somewhat expendable due to their costs.
A word of warning before we go any further: Some quadcopters on the market may work well for a short period of time, but have critical failure points, or do not have any parts support or user serviceability. In plain language…they are designed to break and not be fixed. Pay close attention to detailed user reviews before purchasing any equipment or parts as these can provide ample warning of reliability or functionality problems before making a selection.
Recommended Drone for Beginners
A primary flight training aircraft needs to have some specific abilities. They may not take gyro-stabilized photos, or use a GPS to provide navigational fixes, but they do need to fly well, be forgiving of inexperienced pilots, and be purchased at a reasonable price.
My best recommendation in this regard is the Syma X5SW (readily available through Amazon at prices around $40 plus shipping and handling). The X5SW is about the size of a dinner plate and comes with all equipment needed to charge the battery and begin drone training.
Power from the rotors is very reasonable for its price point, and it can fly outdoors if there is a calm wind. There is no GPS unit on board, though I personally see this as an asset when conducting training for new pilots due to the trend of over reliance on GPS for stability and navigation. Instead, the aircraft requires the pilot in training to learn the basic inputs required to fly via pilotage rather than automation.
The X5SW does include a rudimentary camera that is fixed to the airframe and connects to a smartphone app via WiFi signal, though there is a significant lag in the video feed. The Syma X5SW’s best quality is durability. I have often demonstrated its reliability by dropping it from shoulder height, then attaching the battery and flying off.
Also, rotor and gearbox areas can be accessed with a single Phillips screwdriver for repairs. This can be very helpful when training new pilots who tend to bounce multirotors off of trees, objects, and the ground with disturbing reliability.
In addition, extra flight batteries can be found for $5-7 each, and spare parts are available by the bagful at around $10 each. The X5SW is an excellent starting point for any new pilot, and developing basic skills.
Recommended Drone for Intermediate Drone Training
For intermediate training, other aircraft options are older generation models that are no longer under production, yet readily found on the secondary market or in a refurbished condition.
Phantom 3’s tend to be a popular choice, but can be pricey at $500 – $900 per unit depending on your source. Another popular choice is the Parrot Bebop 2, which can be found for $100-200 each, and have some useful features.
The camera is electronically stabilized and is capable of producing photo mosaics when combined with software such as Pix4D. However, the camera only has 8 GB of internal memory and cannot be expanded with a memory card, providing some limits to its functionality.
The Bebop 2’s weight and power give it good authority when flying outside in light to moderate winds.
The control station is an iPad or Android tablet (unless you decide to pay for the more expensive Sky Controller). This poses something of a double-edged sword; on the positive side, the tablet can allow for programming autonomous flights in the field, which can be helpful when learning how to set up mapping or documentation flights.
On the negative side, the aircraft receives control inputs from the tablet via WiFi, and has an extremely limited range of about 250 feet unless the SkyController is utilized.
Battery life is around 30 minutes, and the aircraft does provide some very useful, and relatively inexpensive, experience when learning more advanced flight concepts such as autonomous flight, setting electronic waypoints, and photo mosaics.
In the end, training aircraft within a drone program need to be examined with the idea of building confidence and flying skills for new pilots while reducing costs for the organization. They can provide an effective means of learning the necessary skills while reducing the possibility of hanging an expensive mission-capable aircraft in a rather hungry tree.
As I tell many of my students–make your mistakes on these smaller and more expendable drones first, and then apply the lessons learned when flying the larger ones!