What are fixed-wing drones and when should you use them?
When most people think about fixed-wing drones, they think about huge military UAVs with the bombing capacity of an Apache helicopter. In reality, fixed-wing drones have rapidly shrunk to micro-sizes in terms of design thanks to their rising use. However, it is not hard to agree that multirotor UAV is still more popular than fixed-wing drones.
The popularity of the multirotor UAV over the fixed-wing drone has simply been down to the aesthetics. Quadcopters have always been sexy bits of kit. Compact, shiny and showy – relying more on rotor power than aerodynamics to fulfil their tasks. When it comes to the fixed-wing UAV, historically, they have been pretty ugly. But gone are the snub-nosed ‘Airfix’ styles of the past; fixed-wing drones are having somewhat of a makeover and they are fabulous!
Regardless of their looks, the fixed-wing drone has a fair few benefits over the quadcopter, especially for specific surveying and mapping tasks.
- They can fly at higher altitudes
- They can carry heavier, or multiple payloads
- They are more stable in the air
- They fly faster so can cover more ground
- They have a longer flight time
- They are safer in the event of in-flight failure
- They have the capacity for more stable image quality
Here are five situations where we’d choose a fixed-wing drone over a quadcopter.
Forestry/Environmental Drone Surveys
Reasons: Higher altitudes, faster, greater payload capacity
Forestry and environmental drone surveys can be difficult because of the natural obstructions – trees, foliage and other ground coverings. They also often cover a large area. Having a drone which can cover a greater area in less time can be valuable in an industry where funds are often limited.
Indeed a drone with UAV LiDAR systems can help in such a situation. LiDAR scanners are ideal for forestry and environmental drone surveys because the light from the laser scanner can pass through the tree canopy or vegetation and register a return, or measurement from the floor. However, not all drones can hold the system as LiDAR is still considered heavy for many, except for fixed-wings.
A fixed-wing drone, even the entry-level one, will have the capacity and the stability to lift a LiDAR system thanks to its aerodynamic design. Combine your fixed-wing with a LiDAR system and you will have more than enough to properly survey a forest area, to capture accurate data about tree volumes, canopy height, field surveys, topographical maps, and many more.
The other reason why we’d choose fixed-wings over quadcopter in surveying a forest is their ability to fly higher and longer. Again, thanks to their design, fixed-wings need less energy than quadcopter drones to lift themself up from the ground. Quadcopters, in comparison, need to utilise all of their rotors to lift off. In short, a fixed-wing drone equipped with a standard camera will far out-fly a quadcopter, covering a larger area in a shorter space of time.
Pipeline UAV Surveys
Reason/s: Longer flight time, faster, higher payload capacity
The technical requirements of a pipeline survey depend on the type of pipe being surveyed. But, they are almost always carried out over large areas.
In a recent large scale UAV pipeline survey carried out by Cyberhawk, a fixed-wing drone was used to carry out a detailed topographic survey to ensure the recently laid pipelines hadn’t affected the beach. The fixed-wing drone was chosen because of the scope of the site and environmental conditions. Simply put, because fixed-wing drones can fly longer and faster, even with a heavy payload like gas monitoring sensors, they are the right type for a pipeline survey.
UAV Coastal Surveys
Reason/s: Higher altitude, higher payload capacity, extra stability
Anyone who has ever tried to fly a kite at the beach will understand the difficulties of flying a drone near the coast. You need to be an experienced pilot or your data will undoubtedly suffer. High winds can have a huge impact on the quality of your imagery so a coastal area is one of the most challenging.
Because of both the aerodynamics and airframe design, fixed-wing drones are highly stable compared to their multirotor counterparts. Think helicopter vs commercial jet. Which would rather travel in for 9 hours in inclement weather? This stability results in clearer imagery, even without the challenging atmospheric conditions found at the coast.
Drone Event Coverage
Reason/s: Higher altitude, safer recovery, longer flight time, better image quality
Using drones for event coverage is a highly debated topic. All international aviation authorities are still wary of allowing drones to fly where large amounts of people congregate. Yet, drones are now commonplace at large sporting events and music festivals across the world. Chances are when you see the crowds at Glastonbury from above or close up live-action in a Grand Prix, it’s captured by a drone.
Fixed-wing drones offer a more stable platform for capturing this type of imagery, resulting in a better image or video quality. Viewers will not tolerate patchy feeds or sub-standard imagery on their 4K TVs and nor should you. A fixed-wing drone will allow you a greater choice of camera and a longer flying time at a higher altitude – a must when you need to remain at a safer distance without sacrificing your art.
Another benefit of using a fixed-wing drone is a safety consideration. Should a fixed-wing drone fall out of the sky due to sudden power loss of other malfunction, it will glide to the ground. A multirotor drone will simply fall and when you have expensive AV equipment hurtling to the ground at a great rate of knots, you’ll not only be considering your bank balance, you’ll also be worrying about your public liability insurance being up to date! Although serious drone-related injuries are rare, public safety has to be one of the most important considerations in your drone strategy.
BVLOS – Beyond Visual Line of Sight
Reason/s: Longer flight time, safety, extra stability, cover larger areas in less time (faster)
To understand the true importance of BVLOS to the future of drone flight, we return to military applications. All drone strikes are carried out remotely for obvious reasons, but legally in almost all countries, drones must remain in the pilot’s sight at all times. This is to protect people and infrastructure (and perhaps a few secrets along the way!). BVLOS represents the opportunity to map remote environments, investigate highly volatile and dangerous areas from a safe distance as well as to automate surveys without human intervention. The technology exists for us to benefit from BVLOS in many ways, yet legislation keeps the practice highly regulated across the world.
We’ve been researching and writing about drone technology for a while now and almost every single BVLOS trial or case study we’ve come across has used a fixed-wing drone. One of the main reasons is obviously increased flight time. When you’re surveying whales in the Arctic or corridor mapping in the Welsh hills, chances are you won’t want to return to base to charge your batteries.
In terms of the commercial future for drones, BVLOS is where the money is. But for the eagerly anticipated drone delivery market to be realised, aviation authorities and governments need to be assured that BVLOS is safe. This is where fixed-wing drones will help to pave the way. All of the reasons we’ve previously discussed – the stability in inclement weather conditions, the safety in the event of mechanical failure, and the higher weight carrying capacity mean that the fixed-wing drone is infinitely more suitable for BVLOS than quadcopter drone.
Speaking about BVLOS, we now offer an introductory course to BVLOS. If you want to know more about BVLOS, which will be a highly important skill in the future following the growing craze of drone delivery services around the world, this is the perfect course for you. Click here for details.
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Still not sure whether a multirotor or fixed-wing drone is best for you? Request a call back from one of our UAV strategists and we will do our best to help you.