How much is too much?
At the recent Police Aviation Conference (PAvCon) 2017, held in Doncaster, there were lots of bright, shiny, modern looking drones to admire. Unsurprisingly they weren’t cheap with one model calmly described as costing just £35,000 – an absolute bargain.
Whilst high-end drones have their place in the industry their cost effectiveness for emergency services is a little dubious. Unknowingly, police forces can easily spend a large amount of money on hardware with little understanding of whether its enhanced features make it good value for money or a waste of resources. In this respect they are hampered in delivering best-value and somewhat at the mercy of salespeople.
One European police force present explained that their first drone cost €17,500 and their latest one cost €70,000 and had a maintenance budget of €30,000 for the 5 years of its anticipated lifespan.
In the short term this lack of ability to ensure best-value procurement with drones leads to strains on budgets. More worryingly in the longer term this is likely to have a detrimental effect on the reputation of drones within the emergency services. A common theme is thinking more is better without understanding that you can be wasting money on capacities that far exceed your operational needs.
Take payloads for example. A key factor in high end drones is their ability to fly quickly and smoothly whilst carrying a payload of between 5-10kg, whereas most lower priced drones are happy with a 1-2kg payload. Payload is a significant factor in buying choice only in the film and TV industry. They often use cameras such as the Red Epic which weighs in at around 2kg. Add a hefty lens and gimbal system to it and you’re over the tolerances of the cheaper drones and into the high-end ones.
Obviously these drones are a perfect fit for the film industry but are they of real benefit to the emergency services when manufacturers such as DJI produce drones for £1,000 – £5,000? What would you get for the extra £30k – £65k and is it really worth it?
The Drop Test
At some point in your journey as a drone pilot the thought will cross your mind about what will happen if your drone cuts out and falls from the sky. Unsurprisingly they don’t do too well and the heavier they are the bigger the smash and the larger the repair bill.
The reason I raise this as the first point is because it has a significant bearing on costings when deciding a budget for a drone – you have to assume that at some point it will crash.
As much as pilots try to avoid crashing, drones are often at the cutting edge of technology. The push is ever present for manufacturers to release the next model as soon as possible before their competitors can catch up. For this reason they often have teething problems and need to be regularly updated. Indeed the updates themselves can cause flight problems as some have discovered.
The aforementioned European police force recounted how one of their drones just stopped working mid-flight and crashed. When they investigated it turned out that the latest software update contained a bug which caused the system to stop working. So even when you’re following the manufacturer’s recommendations, regularly updating the software, and flying correctly you can turn your drone into £50,000+ of broken plastic and metal.
There are ballistic parachute systems, but these often require manual activation which depends upon the pilot overcoming their initial shock and hitting the parachute switch in time. In practice you have about 1-3 seconds to do that. Also the demonstrations of the systems show parachutes launched just as the rotors cut out so the drone is in an ideal position. Drones don’t glide, so as soon as they lose power they are likely to tumble in a fall meaning that the parachute launcher could be pointing towards the ground when deployed.
Even when you consider systems with propeller redundancy and battery redundancy they can still crash due to the drone’s flight controller failing, bird strike, or operator error. Bearing this in mind it’s safest to work on the principle that the drone may crash, so you might want to consider a cheaper option than £35,000+.
The best value, most cost-effective drones are without doubt those manufactured by DJI. They are the most popular drone manufacturer in the world and their recent exponential growth has seen them pushing the boundaries of aerial systems much further and faster than anyone else.
Typically a DJI system will cost between £1,000 – £5,000 and suits most general purposes. If you need to have FLIR capabilities that adds on another £5,000 – £10,000, although the effectiveness of these systems in practice is somewhat uncertain. The demonstration videos of drone FLIR systems often show very close up operations, so don’t imagine it will be anything comparable to the FLIR turrets on helicopters – they’re light years apart.
The main benefit of DJI drones, other than their comparatively low cost, centres around their popularity. When buying a new model you can be certain that there will be lots of other users out there commenting on it and posting videos of it in operation on YouTube. This enables you to make a clearer, more realistic assessment prior to purchase.
Pretty much every drone manufacturer stretches the truth in their write ups which are accompanied by slick photos showing carbon fibre weaves, smoke, and dramatic lighting. The drones are designed to look impressive, but you need to know the reality beyond the marketing and that’s where the crowd help.
The more people who use a drone, the higher the probability of its weaknesses being exposed, and with DJI they have the highest number of users throughout the world so you can leverage this to your advantage.
This also helps when it comes to the dreaded update process. Each pilot’s flight operations manual will specify that they’ll always fly the drone with the latest updates in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions. If they don’t regularly update the drone they’re in breach of the flight operations manual and are no longer flying with any commercial permission.
However, if they update the drone’s software within a reasonable time-frame to ensure safe operations, they’ll be legal. In practical terms this means that when a new update becomes available they can wait for a week or two before committing to carry out that update. Within that period other users will have performed the update and tested it, so if there are any bugs in it there’s a better chance of exposing them.
If one manufacturer has 1,000,000 users worldwide as opposed to 10,000 users then there is more likelihood that flaws in the update will be revealed before you install it yourself.
When is a DJI drone not a DJI drone?
The simple answer to this question is when someone puts a different label on it, which happens far more regularly than you might have guessed. Whilst there are lots of different drone manufacturers to choose from, a lot of them rely heavily upon DJI software and hardware.
Going back to the European police at PAvCon they showed a screenshot from one of their exercises. It showed the flight path of their drone as seen on the pilot’s monitor. It was immediately apparent that the user interface for the drone was a DJI one, but without the DJI logo.
The reason for this is because DJI are the market leaders not just in ‘Ready To Fly’ (RTF) drones, but also in drone components, data-links, and software. Other manufacturers do exist who produce their own proprietary components and systems, but they are a lot harder to find than you may think.
For instance one manufacturer, Acecore, who produce the very attractive looking Neo and Zoe drones use the DJI A3 flight controller.
The flight controller is the very heart of the drone. It manages the GPS system, the batteries, motors, and both the control and data downlinks. Not knowing this you may purchase an Acecore drone thinking that it’s separate from DJI, but in reality you’re flying a drone with a DJI brain.
This becomes an issue specifically for law enforcement and security agencies who may be worried about the rumours of data sharing with China. DJI are a Chinese company and there are very credible reports that during the update process some data from the drone is shared with DJI.
Exactly what data is shared and how that might find its way into the hands of the Chinese intelligence community no-one is quite clear at the moment, but there is a question mark hanging over DJI products in this respect.
If your drone is manufactured by DJI you’ll naturally be careful with sensitive data. However, if you believe your drone is manufactured by Acecore for instance you might think you’re safe from such worries. Not so, because you’ll still have to connect with DJI to update your flight controller, you just might not be aware that it’s DJI you are updating with.
Other manufacturers don’t even say whether their flight controller is made by DJI or not, so always assume it is unless they can offer some form of proof it’s their own or another manufacturer’s flight controller. On a side note there is a perfectly safe way to update your DJI drone and ensure a physical barrier to prevent any data being sent to DJI – I’ll cover this in more depth in a future article, but if anyone has immediate concerns you can always get in touch and I’ll explain it.
Another key element in deciding a budget for drone procurement is the anticipated life span of the system. Although some people put this rather optimistically at around 5 years I’d say that realistically it’s between 2-3 years.
As mentioned before drone technology is very fast paced and shows no sign of slowing down. Within the space of 18-24 months the latest technology has been replaced and certainly after 3 years whilst the drone may still be operational it’s going to be out of date and facing problems with continued firmware updates and manufacturer support.
Take for example the Matrice systems developed by DJI. The Matrice 600 was launched to market in 2016.
This system was a step change for DJI because it featured both battery redundancy and propellor redundancy whilst also incorporating a gimbal compatible with Red Epic cameras. If your camera costs £40,000 you really want some redundancy before you’ll be happy flying it through the air, and the Matrice 600 checked all the boxes.
Now in 2017 DJI launch to market the Matrice 200 series which is another improvement on the model. Although it can’t support the Red Epic type cameras and doesn’t feature propellor redundancy, it does still have battery redundancy. The main added features are that it can be tethered with a power-line and data link and has an IP43 waterproof rating meaning it can be flown legally in wet weather conditions.
The IP43 rating is very important because in the UK you can only operate a drone within the manufacturer’s specified conditions. Even though it may be possible to fly a drone in light rain or snow unless it has an IP rating from the manufacturer that meets those criteria you can’t legally operate it in rain or snow. To do so would be in violation of the flight operations manual, so the pilot would not only be operating illegally, they would also have invalidated their insurance.
The Matrice is just one example but it’s symptomatic of the way drones change. They are becoming much more capable, faster, more agile and more tailored to specific industries. In order to harness this pace of development it’s best to try to keep hardware budgets low, bearing in mind that you’ll want to replace or expand your fleet every 24-36 months.
If you’re buying drones that cost £35,000 – £65,000 that doesn’t represent best-value. You’ll be tied to a system that becomes outdated and outpaced which starts to have an impact on its operational effectiveness when going up against newer technology.
To date, despite their flaws (terrible customer support being one of them), DJI continue to offer the best value and (usually) most advanced technology on the drone market that I’ve seen.
They’re continuing to drive the pace of innovation in the marketplace as shown by their recent launch of a goggle viewing system that adjusts the drones camera position according to your head position.
In my opinion the main benefit of DJI systems for the emergency services are that they provide a low cost entry to the technology which makes maintenance budgets practically pointless.
If for example you purchased an Inspire series drone your cost is around £4,000. If it had a life span of 3 years with a maintenance budget of £6,000 you could afford to crash it a few times and still be left with a perfectly functional Inspire at the end of the 3 years.
On that basis the total cost would be £10,000. That’s still less than half the cost of the Acecore Neo, and the more expensive the drone costs to buy the more expensive it is to repair.
For most emergency service deployments DJI equipment will provide the best value and most reliable technology. It’s backed by crowd-sourced information which is immensely beneficial when it comes to avoiding update problems and glitches.
The other key advantage of DJI products is that you know what you’re getting and can take that into account when dealing with data protection and sensitive intelligence issues. With some other manufacturers you may still be using a drone completely unaware that its heart and soul is made by DJI.