Whether you are looking at deploying drones in your business or are thinking about starting your own drone services company. There is no better time to get involved in the commercial drone market. A recent report by PWC shows that drones will provide a £42 billion uplift to the UK economy by 2030.
Most of that uplift will come from cost saving provided by drones which are set to transform the way businesses operate. Take surveying, for example, most professional surveyors now use drones to help them carry out their jobs. In just a short space of time, the drone has become a fundamental part of their equipment, as important as the theodolite.
And many more industries are set to follow suit. The emergency services, construction, security, retail, logistics and media. All these industries and more will be transformed by drones over the next five to ten years.
But as the drone market continues to grow, so does the number of drones built to serve it. There are fixed-wing drones, VTOL drones, multirotor and hybrid drones. This can cause confusion for people new to the market. So where do you start?
In this blog, we are going to look at the best drones for beginners looking to start their own drone services business. We are assuming here that the reader has little to no experience with drones, but even if you have flown a drone before this guide will also help you choose the right device.
First things, first, let’s look at the different drone categories available. Just like conventional aircraft, drones come in all different shapes and sizes. But generally speaking they each fall into one of the following three categories:
Fixed-wing drones look much like conventional aircraft. They have a central fuselage with two wings to provide lift and a vertical stabilizer at the rear for stability. Power options vary, they can be powered by a single front or rear facing rotor or built into the fuselage or multiple forward or rear facing rotors attached to the wings.
Fixed-wing aircraft are not as popular as the other types of drones mentioned here. The reason is that, like a conventional aircraft, they require a large area for take-off and landing. They are also much less manoeuvrable than multi-rotor drones. But that doesn’t mean they should be discounted altogether because they have one advantage.
Fixed-wing drones have a much greater range and speed than multi-rotor drones. If speed and range are important factors, then fixed-wing is the way to go. Of course, you could get the best of both worlds with a hybrid drone, but more about those in a moment.
Multirotor drones make up the vast majority of both consumer and commercial drones on the market. They consist of a central frame with rotors attached via arms. The frame material varies from drone to drone but most commercial drones use either a carbon fibre or magnesium frame for strength and lightness.
Multirotors are available with various rotor configurations, the four-rotor aircraft (quadcopter) is the most popular because it provides the best balance between lift, manoeuvrability and range. But six (hexacopter) and eight (octocopter) rotor models are also available. The more rotors, the greater the payload that can be carried, but this comes at the expense of range.
You may be interested in Fixed-Wing vs Multirotor Drones for Surveying
Finally, we have hybrid drones, which attempt to make the best of both worlds. A hybrid drone has vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) ability like a multi-rotor, but once in the air, they fly like a fixed-wing aircraft. In theory, this provides all the range and speed of a fixed-wing aircraft but without any of the drawbacks.
But in reality, compromises have to be made. Hybrids don’t have the range or speed advantage of a truly fixed-wing aircraft and they don’t have the manoeuvrability of a multi-rotor one. While they are useful for some applications such as surveying large areas of land. Their use is somewhat restricted and is therefore not the best choice for beginners.
To sum up, there are three main categories of drone, fixed-wing, multirotor and hybrid. They all have their advantages and disadvantages, but multi rotors provide the best mix of payload and manoeuvrability, while also being the easiest to fly. From a business perspective, there is also more work for multi-rotor drones than any other type of UAV.
Beginners should, therefore, limit their search to multirotor drones. Specifically quadcopters, which provide the best compromise between payload, speed and manoeuvrability. You can always purchase one of the other types once you have decided which area of the drone services business to specialise in.
Popular drones for beginners
Now we have established the drone configuration you should choose, let’s have a look at some of the most popular commercial grade quadcopters on the market. The following drones, all from DJI, cover the major price points from under £1000 to over £3000.
With the exception of the Inspire 2, all the drones in the list can be operated in DJI Beginner Mode. This, as the name would suggest, is for beginners who don’t have much experience flying drones. Beginner mode uses GPS and all accessible vision and infrared sensors to help keep your drone safe. The flight distance is also limited to just 30 meters, so you don’t have to worry about your new drone flying off somewhere.
First up is the Mavic Air, this is the smallest drone listed here, but what it lacks in size it more than makes up for with features. The Air combines the best features from the popular Mavic platform with the smart features of the consumer Spark range. It is marketed as an entry-level commercial drone, but in our opinion is more of a high-end consumer device. That being said, it is a good quality device, that is easy to fly and has excellent image taking capabilities.
Excellent image quality for the price – The Mavic Air contains the same 1 / 2.3” CMOS sensor as the larger Mavic Pro, which is capable of shooting 4K UHD video along with 12-megapixel stills. One advantage the Air has over the Pro, however, is improved gimbal stabilisation – which should allow users to shoot higher quality video footage on the move.
Separate ground controller – Like most commercial grade drones the Mavic Air comes with a dedicated ground controller, so you are not limited to using gesture controls on your smartphone. This gives the pilot more precise control of the device and allows video to be transmitted over a much greater distance, up to 2.5 miles.
Cost effective – The DJI Mavic Air is a relatively cheap drone that provides incredible image quality for the price. There really is no other drone on the market that provides professional quality image capture for this kind of money.
Limited ground controls – The ground controller is not quite as feature rich as the higher grade drones in this list. There is no built-in telemetry display for example. But it is at least better than having to rely on your smartphone for control.
Limited collision avoidance – The Air comes with an obstacle avoidance system which uses data collected by the drone’s cameras to build a 3D map of the surrounding terrain. In theory, this is great, but in practice, the cameras are not omnidirectional so the drone does not have 360° vision of its surroundings. This means pilots need to be careful when flying the Air, as it is not able to detect obstacles to the side or above the direction of travel.
Payload limited – The compact size of the Air means maximum payload is limited to 150g. While the Air is a fine drone for learning to fly, commercial users may find applications are limited to making promotional videos.
The newly released Mavic 2 from DJI, replaces the popular Mavic Pro platform. There are two versions of the new drone, the Mavic 2 Zoom and Mavic 2 Pro. They are essentially the same drone, the only difference is that the Pro comes with a fixed lens, Hasselblad 20 megapixel HD camera, while the Zoom comes with a 12-megapixel camera with zoom lens.
Excellent collision avoidance – The Mavic 2 comes with DJI’s updated FlightAutonomy system as standard. This collects data from 10 sensors giving the drone a 360° view of its surroundings. Together these sensors enable the collision avoidance system to have full omnidirectional vision. This is a step up from the Mavic Air and should provide users with greater peace of mind when flying in areas with high obstacle counts.
Improved active tracking –The Mavic 2 also comes with ActiveTrack 2.0 which provides improved object tracking. Version 2.0 uses updated trajectory algorithms which are able to predict the position of the object three seconds into the future. This should help the drone to keep up with even the fastest moving objects.
Improved data connection – The Mavic 2 also comes with OcuSync 2.0 which provides a more stable connection between the drone and the controller. This not only reduces the risk of interference, it enables 1080p live video transmission up to a distance of 5 km.
Image quality and zoom, but not together – The fixed 28mm lens on the Mavic 2 Pro provides professional grade 10-bit images in all light conditions. This is a useful feature for professional filmmakers, however, the lack of zoom on the lens may limit its options somewhat.
The Zoom on the other hand only comes with a 12-megapixel camera, which takes lower grade 8-bit images. While it would be nice to have zoom fitted on the Pro camera, it is clear that size limitations prevented it. However, the cameras are swappable, so you can always add the other camera if you need it.
Limited payload – The relatively compact size of the drone also limits payload options somewhat. While the Mavic 2 is a much more substantial design than the Mavic Air. You are essentially limited to either one of the two camera options fitted as standard. For a commercial operator, this may limit your applications somewhat.
The Mavic Pro is the daddy of the Mavic line up, it provides a stable easy to fly platform with high-quality 4K HD camera. The Mavic was a revelation when it was launched, due to its ability to take smooth videos and clear images while in the air. But it has now been superseded by the Mavic 2, which is better in almost every way. However, you may still be able to get a good deal on one, so let’s look at how it stacks up.
Compact with excellent handling – The Mavic Pro is compact and easy to fly, with excellent range and handling characteristics. This makes it the ideal platform for beginners learning how to fly a drone for the first time. Of course the same can also be said for both the Mavic Air and Mavic 2.
Outdated camera – The onboard 4K camera has a narrow viewing angle which may limit its usefulness for surveying applications. Image quality in low light conditions can also suffer from blue colour interference. Both of these issues have been solved with the release of the updated Mavic 2 Pro.
With the Phantom 4, we are moving towards a drone aimed firmly at commercial users. The Mavic series are very capable camera drones, which makes them popular workhorses in the media industry. With the Phantom 4 series, we are introduced to a dedicated commercial platform with real payload lifting capacity for the first time.
Ease of flying – The Phantom 4 really is an easy drone to get the hang of, even for pilots who have never touched a drone before. The one-touch take-off and land functionality are combined with deft joystick controls which make piloting the Phantom 4 a fun and enjoyable experience.
Lift and drop ability – The Phantom 4 is the first drone here that can carry a serious payload, up to 826 g. This makes it much more viable as a commercial drone because a number of accessories can be fitted, both from DJI and other manufacturers, to help carry out specific tasks.
Single battery – The Phantom 4 only has a single battery. While this provides up to 28 minutes flying time without a payload, once a payload has been introduced the range and battery life can fall dramatically. Something to think about if you intend to carry a large payload.
The Inspire 2 is a hugely capable commercial drone that is used in a wide range of industries, from the emergency services to surveying and media. If you’re looking to build a business as a commercial drone operator, or require a drone to carry out film shoots, general survey work, or inspection work, this is the drone for you.
Dual batteries – This has a number of advantages, more capacity means increased flight duration, and provides a level of protection against battery malfunction. More power also means greater payloads can be carried. These are all important considerations for commercial operators.
Multiple payload options – The Inspire 2 can be fitted with a range of payloads to specifically to suit the job at hand. Specialist payloads are available for the agricultural industry, surveying industry, search and rescue, construction industry and more. You simply need to select the accessories you need and you’re good to go.
System redundancy – This is the real difference between a consumer and commercial drone. All the major internal sensors are duplicated including dual inertial motion sensors and dual barometers. While the various control subsystems also have their own dedicated processors. These redundant systems provide a level of protection should something go wrong.
Ease of use – Despite the Inspire 2 having all these redundant systems and increased complexity, the drone is incredibly easy to fly. The extra weight of the aircraft is hardly noticeable and once it’s in the air it is every bit as nimble as the Mavic Pro and Phantom 4.
Limited flight duration with heavy payloads – Once the Inspire 2 is loaded up with expensive camera equipment, flight duration times can tumble. At maximum payload, users are unlikely to be able to see more than 20 mins of flight time. So extra batteries will have to be purchased for larger jobs.
Expensive – Once you start adding professional grade camera equipment to your Inspire 2, the price tag can increase dramatically. But you should think of this as an investment, in most cases, you will get the money back once your drone is operational.
No beginner mode – This is not really a con since most users of the Inspire 2 will most likely already have some experience flying a drone. But it is something to think about if you have never piloted a UAV before. For this reason, we don’t recommend the Inspire 2 for nooby pilots.
Why you shouldn’t base your decision on price
When starting any business it’s a good idea to keep a close eye on costs and expenditure. But that doesn’t mean you should purchase the cheapest drone you can find. When it comes to drones, you really do get what you pay for.
The Inspire 2 for example, may look expensive when compared to a Mavic Pro. But while these are both highly capable quadcopter drones, the Inspire 2 comes with a level of system redundancy that the Mavic Pro simply can’t match. You will not think this is expensive when you’re in the middle of a job and you’re battery fails due to freezing temperatures. With the Inspire, you will still be able to get the drone home safely. But with the Mavic Pro, your drone is at the mercy of gravity, and that never ends well.
Drone buyer FAQs
Why is obstacle avoidance so important?
Obstacle avoidance systems are built into drones for three reasons. They are there to warn the pilot about nearby objects, prevent a new pilot from destroying his investment and make drone flying safer for the public. Even experienced pilots know to leave obstacle avoidance on when flying over densely populated areas.
If you plan to fly in areas which contain lots of obstacles such as trees, buildings and other large structures, it’s a good idea to choose a drone with a comprehensive obstacle avoidance system as standard. The new Mavic 2, for example, has excellent collision avoidance capabilities for the price.
Does my drone need ATTI mode for my test flight?
The short answer is no. ATTI mode is the flight mode your drone enters into when it loses GPS signal. In ATTI mode, your drone will typically maintain both altitude and attitude but it will no longer be able to maintain its position. Manually flying in ATTI mode can be a challenge, because wind speed and direction all have to be accounted for.
Some drones, such as the Inspire 2, have the ability to manually switch ATTI mode on. While others, such as the Mavic and Phantom series drones, don’t have this ability for safety reasons.
If your drone does have manual ATTI mode activation. The examiner will ask you to turn it on and carry out a range of manoeuvres to show you know how to handle the drone when no GPS is available. Because flying in ATTI mode can be a challenge, especially in windy conditions, it is recommended that students practice flying in the mode for the flight test.
If your drone does not have the ability to turn ATTI mode on. The examiner will ask you to manually fly your drone in a square using the following order and orientation 0º, 90º and 180º. Once again, students should practice this manoeuvre before the flight test.
Do I need to purchase extra batteries for my drone?
You don’t need extra batteries for the flight test, but purchasing spare batteries and leaving them on charge makes a lot of sense. Most experienced pilots store their batteries using the DJI charging hub, which allows them to safely store up to 4 batteries ready to go when needed.
Is the Mavic Air suitable for the PfCO flight test?
Yes. But users of this drone, along with other members of the Mavic family, should be aware that it does not allow ATTI mode to be turned on manually. The flight examiner will, therefore, tailor the flight test to allow for the limitations of the drone. See; Does my drone need ATTI mode for my flight test? For more information.
As you can see, there is a lot to think about when choosing your first commercial-grade drone. To make the decision easier, you should answer the following question honestly. How much experience do I have flying drones?
If the answer is, little to none, you should choose one of the Mavic series drones. The new Mavic 2 makes the most sense because it is easy to fly, can be flown in beginner mode and comes with a choice of imaging equipment. If you don’t have the budget to stretch to a Mavic 2, the Mavic Air is also a great drone for learning the basics. You can always upgrade your equipment later once you have gained more experience.
If you do have previous experience flying drones, it makes more sense to go for the much more capable Inspire 2. This will provide you with a good platform to grow your business around, providing you with the flexibility to change payloads to meet whatever work you choose to do.
If you’re looking to purchase your first commercial drone our guys at Coptrz are here to help. As one of the largest PfCO training providers in the UK, we are well placed to help you make the right choice of drone for your experience level and business plans. Contact COPTRZ or give us a call on 0330 111 7177 to tell us more about your plans.
Read more of our blogs:
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Fixed Wing vs Multirotor Drones for Surveying
February 24, 2021