There are so many brands and if you don’t know someone with a drone who can help, it’s hard to know what you are shopping for. Here are some suggestions to help you find the best drone for your needs.
If you have absolutely no experience purchasing a drone or using one, then do yourself a favor and buy a toy drone. A toy drone is typically small with manual controls and priced below $100. They are small and will teach you all the basics of the technology. There are higher grade toy drones between $100 – $200 which offer programmable features, stability and 720p cameras. They are small enough to be toys, but similar to the $1,000 commercial drones. Some of the best brands out there are DJI Tello and Parrott Mambo. I suggest you get extra batteries and possible a case. It’s possible that you will pick up quickly on the technology and want to upgrade immediately. However, you could also realize that drones just aren’t for you and you’ll have a nice toy to pass on to a friend or family member.
I suggest going to a local retailer like Best Buy or Frye to look at options. The great thing about going into a store is that you will get the opportunity to pick it up and compare each drone. This can offer you a real advantage if you go to purchase online. Patience is a virtue so take the time to read customer reviews. Figure out how to accessorize your drone and the ancillary products that you can use with it, such as mapping programs.
Next, watch YouTube videos. YouTube is a great source for information. There are product reviews and demonstration videos of all different types of products. After a few views you may be able to determine the sites which offer the most helpful information. You will also be able to tell if the user works for the company they’re reviewing or is actually someone who is flying for work or fun and giving you a non-biased review.
I recommend also going to your local bookstore and picking up a drone magazine. Two years ago, there were five mainstream magazines and that has now dwindled to two. However, there are semi-annual releases which give you everything from tips to becoming a professional photographer and videographer to product reviews. Each magazine and each issue offers a unique perspective into this growing technology and the pictures are stunning. The magazines are also great sources to lead you to helpful YouTube channels for both information and recreation.
Finally, once you have settled on a drone, make sure to research the company online. Don’t take chances on a company that without a proven track record. In today’s market, it appears that DJI has conquered the drone industry. They are a Chinese-based company that not only produces great drones at a reasonable price, but they also have companies that are providing services that can integrate into the drones, such as flight programs, log books, and mapping programs. My one concern with DJI drones — US government entities (supplier, researcher, user) can’t use drones with Chinese parts. As for now, there does not seem to be a US competitor that can offer a reasonable price for a commercial use drone. I recommend the newest versions of DJI’s Mavic and Phantom. They are top of the line right now for consumer-based drones. If you want something more professional, then look at the Inspire.
After you make a decision on purchasing a drone, there are many factors to consider. Here are the 25 essential tools to set up a drone operation along with detailed information about each one.
I always make sure that I have at least 3 SD cards. For drones, they need to be Micro SD Cards. Make sure that if you are purchasing them in-person that they are the correct type, especially if they are coming out of the back-room storage. I walked out of one store with regular SD cards because the clerk mistakenly grabbed them. Also, I like to have at least 64 Gb or better for storage. It’s possible that it is just perfect weather so you can fly all day. Be prepared. I also like to keep the dummy card in the drone case should I forget to bring my SD cards with me. It’s always good practice to have extras just in case one gets corrupted.
I like to have at least 3 fully charged batteries for every operation and the ability to recharge them on site. I like to have a car charger that I can connect my batteries to and I take the used batteries to charge my cell phone, controller and tablets. It is all about efficiency and batteries are important to the successful completion of your operations.
Winds can certainly be greater at a higher altitude, but this is a tool for every professional flier. It allows you to check the wind speed from different locations. Wind with an average speed of 7mph can have gusts up to 15mph.
This is essential for every operation. You need to log the battery percentages, air time and any repairs that you have made. It is important to have a log book for each drone you own.
Consider a portable, multi-port charger with LED charge status indicators.
There may be situations where airport or heliport facilities would need to get in touch with you. If you are using your cell phone as a monitor for your drone, then it kind of defeats the purpose. I use a tablet as a monitor and I have my phone on me at all times. I can also use my cell phone as a two-way radio in the field.
Having a variety of different cables will allow you to be able to perform drone operations in different environments. Have a cable for your iPhone and iPad along with one for an Android. I also carry headphone cables for communication and USB cables. Just make sure you also have the ability to plug them into walls or an automobile. You can never have enough cables.
Cleaning your drone after every operation. It’s a quick way to see any damage. I use a variety of different types of wipes in the field. I clean the drone, camera lens, monitor screens, my sunglasses and propellers.
Storing your data in the cloud is efficient. It can allow you access to your data anywhere in the world at any time.
Carry all of your essential information regarding you, the drone, insurance, weather data, flight data, contracts and any permissions required to fly. Having it all in one place makes information easy to find and, it’s professional.
Carry a bag with extra batteries, extra propellers and other essential items for after-crash repairs. This is the one item that you do not want to have to open up, but critical for on-site repairs.
This is dependent on what you use the drone for. If you are hiking to remote locations, then you might want something that is more portable than if you are just packing for the car. Also, you want something that is more accessible for traveling on flights.
This can be your most essential item to carry to an operation because it has to carry everything neatly, efficiently, and safely to and from the site. It must have an area that protects the drone, a place for your tools, transmitter, extra batteries, chargers, and essential parts and accessories necessary for flight. Also consider backpacks that have spaces for water bottles and other additional equipment. I like to have places I can attach carabiners for additional items.
You are going to be using up a lot of memory when flying your drone and will need a place to store your data. You can use your computer, but I have found it more efficient to have an external hard drive. This allows me to have access on the road to my files so that I can work in the hotel at night. I also can store my data on multiple hard drives as backups.
This is good to make quick repairs if your drone’s screws begin to loosen. The glue secures the screws.
Polarized filters help bring out the blue skies without under exposing the land. ND filters act like sunglasses for your lens. They come in different strengths from N2 to N100. The higher the number, the darker the shade. This helps you control your exposure. It isn’t always sufficient to shoot in “auto”. On sunny days it may overcompensate by increasing the shutter speed. High shutter speeds don’t always work from a drone’s perspective. It is good practice to use a filter to bring down your exposure rate, so you don’t have to bring down your shutter speed. Your shutter speed should be double your frame speed. If you’re shooting 25fps, then you want your shutter speed to be 1/50.
Accidents happen so be prepared for the unexpected. A first aid kit is essential.
Most of today’s commercial drones have the capability to keep flight logs. However, if you were to have an accident, then the FAA has the authority to take your log books. If you have a hard copy, it is easy to hand them over. If you have to hand them your phone or tablet, who knows when you will get it back.
Make sure to fully charge your controller in advance. Have a way to recharge it in the field. I like to use my used drone batteries to recharge or carry a portable battery charger for this specific purpose.
You are operating a machine in the air that you are responsible for. That means you will be the closest to it if something were to go wrong. A hard hat is an extra layer of protection. Plus, construction and mining sites require them.
This is essential to make sure that the drone’s batteries are not overheating and that the motors are running efficiently. Each should be checked and logged into in the Asset Management Log Book after every flight.
Wearing a vest shows that I am a professional and that I am performing a commercial operation. I have noticed through experience that people leave me alone when I have a vest on. My vest states clearly on the back that I am an FAA Licensed Drone Pilot.
This is a high visibility area for the drone to take-off and land upon. It is essential that you find a clear area with no overhead obstructions. It is great for grass because the pad won’t interfere with the rotors and it also prevents loose sediment from being blown up into your camera lens. Don’t throw away the stakes—they have come in handy in slightly windy conditions and flying at the beach.
Instead of relying on a third-party to fix your drone, go ahead and invest in a tool kit specific for your drone. The DJI Mavic Pro has screws that require specialized tools to remove them, such as a Torx screwdriver. Get a kit that not only works on field wiring repairs, but also has a set of screwdrivers to make sure that all your parts are securely attached. It is recommended to get carbon steel tools that are blackened to prevent glare and rubber hand grips.
I know you might think this is a crazy item to carry for inspection, but the day someone drives over your drone is the day you realize how important traffic cones are. I use traffic cones to line a 15’-25’ radius around my landing and take-off pad so that individuals know that it’s not an accessible area. Be careful- kids seem to think that cones denote a play area.
A lot of the above-mentioned items can be obtained by buying a pro pack. A pro pack usually has a case, extra batteries, battery chargers, and extra propellers. Most drones come with a controller so you shouldn’t need to purchase that, but it’s a possibility. All of these items can get pricey pretty quick.
As far as post production equipment, consider free versions to get started. Should you want to purchase software, I recommend the following:
Lastly, please note that editing images is subjective. Ones man’s trash is another man’s treasure. It is best to give your client a sample of the same image with edits and let them choose the ones they prefer. At the end of the day, it is about giving the customer what they want.
Oh and—don’t forget insurance!
This is an excerpt from Lamar Ellis’s new book, Aerial Inspections using a Drone. In an effort to reach more people, he is closing his first company Drone NOIR and focusing on his new company Drone Education Services. Please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org to find out about bringing a presentation to your organization.
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