Choosing the best camera for the job

As the commercial drone sector becomes bigger and more specialised, UAV operators must ensure they understand the basics of drone cameras and know how to choose the right one for their business.

If a picture really does tell a thousand words, UAV operators are more prolific than most full-time writers. But – as any reader will tell you – quality is far more important than quantity. As a UAV business, the accuracy and calibre of the data you capture is of paramount importance and could make all the difference to your reputation and continued success. Choosing the right camera is a crucial part of the puzzle.

Right tool for the job

The first rule of choosing the best drone camera is to match it to your business.

It’s common sense but bears repeating – especially as drone cameras become more advanced. Frequently, a camera will offer multiple features, giving operators the chance to dip their toes into all sorts of different functions and applications. However, this shouldn’t mean your choice has been made for you; specialist cameras still offer a tremendous advantage over catch-alls when it comes to individual UAV sectors and industries.

We’ll look at different camera types in more details shortly, but first, consider the specific tasks your camera is needed for. If you’re aerial surveying, you might need a robust drone that can handle the rough outdoor weather. To film stunning, broadcast-quality footage, you’ll need a 4K camera powerful enough to capture detailed scenes – and may need even greater adaptability if you’re filming something action-packed.

Right drone for the tool

In addition, you’ll need to explore whether your camera complements the drone you’re going to be using. Make sure the two are definitely compatible, and if you’re looking to expand the UAV services you offer consider investing in a versatile drone that will give you plenty of options for the future.

In each case, try to be as specific as possible about what you’re using your drone and camera for, taking into account any industry-specific problems or pitfalls you may need to navigate. Check out the COPTRZ Drones by industry hub if you need a steer – in just a few clicks or taps it can present you with a selection of UAVs and cameras to suit your needs.

It’s really a case of horses for courses with cameras – here are a few pointers on types and how they align with various commercial drone sectors.

Cameras for film footage

Light, camera, action! Commercial drones – not to mention many consumer-grade models – first made their biggest impression in the world of film and video production, and are still a vital tool for many industry experts today.

Operators looking to capture jaw-dropping film footage are spoilt for choice, with new varieties of 4K drone cameras coming onto the market all the time. The DJI Phantom 4 Pro has fast become a favourite of directors and cameramen, thanks to a camera that can capture 4K 60fps video and 5-direction obstacle sensing to keep it out of trouble’s way.

DJI’s Zenmuse X7 cameras now support Apple ProRes RAW, ideal for filmmakers and cinematographers alike. The new firmware will be made available through new firmware patches, and will take its performance to a whole new level.

For more action-orientated filming, you might need to up your drone’s gimbal game.

The DJI Ronin-MX is a robust, versatile gimbal that’s compatible with many film industry-standard cameras, including the RED EPIC and ARRI ALEXA Mini.

Fitted to the Matrice 600, the Ronin-MX is built to withstand high G-force environments, making it perfect for your next action movie.

As ever, think carefully about the type of footage you’re capturing, and do your research. Ensure the camera you choose can shoot high-quality photo and video from a range of angles.

Check out our options for TV, film and photo here.

Cameras for surveying

Choosing the right camera and drone for a surveying business can be tough. Chances are you’ll be working on a variety of projects, meaning your UAV and payload will need to have the versatility to fly and shoot well in a range of scenarios.

A camera’s ground sample distance (GSD) rating tells you the true size of pixels in your shots, which has an important bearing on accuracy when surveying. For example, a GSD of 4cm will give you an accurate model down to 4cm, and no more.

A range of camera specs determines the GSD, including the sensor size, resolution, aperture and the focal length of your lens. As with agricultural data capture, surveying can be a complex undertaking – focused training is recommended.

If you’re surveying or mapping a difficult space, such as the confined interior of a building, a collision-proof drone like the Flyability Elios might be your first port of call. Its camera offers both full HD and thermal imaging and is designed for low-light use. Or for outdoor surveying in inclement weather, DJI’s heavy-duty Matrice range is built for industrial scenarios and supports flexible payloads to suit the task at hand.

Take a look at COPTRZ surveying drones and cameras here.

Long-range cameras

For smoother and safer inspections and data capture, optical zoom cameras for drones are the new must-have. A relatively recent option for prosumer drone operators, optical zoom is a step up from digital zoom, giving pilots more range to work with without any loss of image quality.

Choosing a long-range drone camera gives you the option to gather data from a greater distance, dramatically improving the speed with which certain operations can be carried out. The option to fly further away without compromising the quality of your images also reduces the need for complex close-range flight plans and boosts safety by keeping your UAV well clear of potential obstacles.

Optical zoom cameras are ideal for inspecting cell towers or wind turbines, giving you detailed images without the danger of crashing into the structures themselves. By live-monitoring footage, assessments can be accelerated, keeping the client happy while potentially reducing the number of visits and flights needed for a thorough inspection.

Optical zoom can also greatly benefit first responders to fires, accidents and disasters, helping pilots to get a complete overview of an environment from afar before boots are on the ground.

Operators who need a powerful optical zoom should check out the DJI Zenmuse Z30. Compatible with the Matrice series, this drone camera offers optical zoom up to 30x and digital zoom up to 6x, making it one of the best options on the market for long-range inspections. Its power is supported by precise stabilisation, for better control when you’re zooming in.

Thermal cameras

Ideal for emergency services, precision inspections or any application where the temperature is a key data, thermal cameras are designed to capture infra-red light rather than the visible light spectrum humans can see. With a thermal camera payload, a drone can be used to scan an environment or structure to capture thermal imagery of it, from which an operator can take a temperature reading and also compare differences in surface temperature.

In practical terms, thermal imaging can be integral to tasks such as power line and solar panel inspection, both of which use temperature readings to access efficiency and condition. Likewise, thermal cameras can support agricultural management, allowing data to be gathered on crops and their development – see our section below on multispectral cameras for more information.

Finally, urgent response work like search and rescue, firefighting and police pursuits can harness thermal cameras to detect body heat in dense or problematic environments, or to accurately judge the danger posed by a blaze.

When choosing a thermal drone camera, operators should pay attention to the NEDT (Noise Equivalent Delta Temperature) rating, which expresses the smallest difference in temperature the system can detect. In the simplest terms, the lower the number, the more sensitive the camera for temperature contrasts.

COPTRZ supplies the highly-acclaimed DJI Zenmuse XT as its thermal camera of choice. Compatible with the DJI Inspire 1  and Matrice series, the XT translates all the ease of DJI products to thermal imaging. The advanced version also gives you live Radiometric data for even more accuracy – ideal for in-depth industrial use.

Multispectral cameras

The arrival of multispectral cameras for drones has heralded something of a revolution in agriculture. By harnessing multispectral technology, farmers can better understand and influence growth patterns, disease and yield across their crops – effectively helping them to be more efficient and successful in food production.

If it sounds complex, that’s because it is – but the potential for clued-up UAV operators is enormous. By reading parts of the electromagnetic spectrum the human eye can’t see, multispectral imaging can capture images of crops at several different light frequencies, including infra-red and near infra-red. Analysing this data can provide useable measurements on soil fertility, irrigation, crop disease and damage and the all-important crop count and yield.

Multispectral cameras like the Parrot Sequoia and the MicaSense Rededge are opening new avenues to ambitious drone businesses, who are now in a position to support farming like never before. As a highly specialised business area, operators are advised to study the use of drones for agriculture carefully and take appropriate training.

Whichever model of drone camera you select, don’t forget you can enhance your data capture and processing with Pix4D software. Find out just how easy it makes mapping and surveying with these inspiring examples.

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