Many businesses are considering the purchase of drones in 2017. With commercial drone legislation being introduced around the world, it’s quickly becoming possible for today’s companies to integrate these powerful tools into their existing workflows.
Drones allow businesses to make sense of the physical world by capturing aerial data to generate accurate maps and 3D models of their surroundings. By analyzing drone maps and models, companies are enabling faster, more informed decisions that increase efficiency, improve safety, and drive ROI. With benefits like these, it’s no surprise that drone use is on the rise across industries including construction, agriculture, surveying, mining, and more.
Businesses just getting started with drones often ask us what drone they should buy. While there is no simple answer, we can help you better understand what you should consider before making a purchase.
In this post, we will help you navigate the different options available in the market and decide which drone model — multi-rotor or fixed wing — is the right choice for your business. Let’s dig in.
Multi-Rotor vs. Fixed Wing Aircraft
When choosing a drone, one of the first questions you should ask yourself is whether you need a multi-rotor or fixed wing aircraft. They each have advantages and disadvantages that make them better suited for certain uses, so it’s important to understand the key differences between both types.
Multi-rotor aircraft are the most commonly used drone models for making maps and models with DroneDeploy. In fact, they make up 97% of the drones mapping on our platform. Learn more about the breakdown in our recent report on 2017 Commercial Drone Industry Trends.
Multi-rotor drones are made of a central body and multiple rotors that power propellers to take flight and maneuver the aircraft. These usually have four rotors (quadcopter), but can have as many six or eight (hexacopter and octocopter). Once in the air, a multi-rotor drone uses fixed-pitch propeller blades to control the vehicle motion by varying the relative speed of each rotor to change the thrust and torque produced, allowing a unique range of movement. This presents some advantages when used for commercial mapping.
- Greater maneuverability: Unlike fixed wings, multi-rotor aircraft can perform vertical takeoffs and landings. They also require less space to take flight, can hover mid-flight, and maneuver up and around objects for easy inspection, mapping, and modeling. This makes them ideal for area mapping due to the number of flight legs often required to get sufficient overlap to make high quality maps.
- Lower price: In the current market, multi-rotor vehicles come with a lower price tag than their fixed wing counterparts. There is a wide price range, but you can purchase a professional quadcopter for as low as $1,500, whereas a professional fixed wing drone of similar quality can easily be 7–10x as much — or more.
- More compact: Multi-rotor vehicles don’t require the surface area or wingspan that fixed wing aircraft do because they use multiple propellers to maneuver. They are designed to fold down and pack up into smaller cases — making them easier to transport. Even the larger hexacopters and octocopters fold down to a portable size.
- Ease-of-use: Multi-rotor aircraft are easier to fly for both humans and autopilots. Quick to maneuver, and capable of making movements in any direction, copters have a shorter learning curve for beginners taking flight for the first time.
- Higher payload capacity: Multi-rotor vehicles generally support more weight due to their design. However, this means that you will need a larger, more expensive drone if you intend to carry significant payloads such as large DSLR or other camera rigs
- Shorter range: One limitation of multi-rotor craft is the flight range on a single battery. Most multi-rotor drones can fly for about 30 minutes in ideal weather conditions before returning home for battery replacement. You can offset this downside by purchasing additional batteries.
- Less stable in the wind: The aerodynamics of multi-rotor aircraft leaves them more vulnerable to wind. This means that for use cases where high winds are expected, you may have to purchase a heavier, more stable, and more expensive multi-rotor vehicle.
Fixed Wing Aircraft
Fixed wing drones are designed like more traditional types of aircraft — which look similar to an airplane. They are made of a central body that has two wings and a single propeller. Once in the air, the two wings generate lift that compensates for its weight — allowing the aircraft to remain in flight. While this type of aircraft is less common in drone mapping outside of agriculture and oil & gas applications, they present some unique advantages.
- Significant range: Fixed wing aircraft can fly longer than multi-rotor drones on a single battery cycle. This makes them ideal for mapping very large or linear areas because they do not have to fly home for a battery replacement as often during a single mission.
- Greater stability: The airframe design of fixed wing aircraft give them greater stability in high winds over multi-rotor aircraft. This is important for flying in environments where higher winds are expected or frequent.
- Safer recovery from motor power loss: If a fixed wing aircraft loses motor power, in theory it is able to glide down to safety — giving the aircraft a better chance of surviving a fall.
- Linear flight advantage: Fixed wing aircraft are ideal for long-distance flights, such as pipeline inspections. However, this capability is currently limited to line-of-sight (LOS) regulatory requirements in the US and other countries where LOS regulations have been put into place.
- Larger takeoff/landing zone required: Fixed wing aircraft require a larger take off and landing zone for flight, which can make them ill-suited for some use cases. This can also lead to more time required for setup, takeoff, and landing.
- Higher price: In the current state of the market, fixed wing aircraft tend to cost more than their multi-rotor counterparts. While this could change in the future, it can impact overall ROI.
- Challenging to fly: Fixed wing aircraft are harder to fly, both for humans and autopilots, especially in an evolving sense-and-avoid landscape.
- Less compact: The range advantage of fixed wing aircraft comes directly from a larger lifting surface, meaning they are harder to pack away, and often require assembly before flights.
- Less efficient for area mapping: Fixed wing aircraft are not as well suited for area mapping. This is because many turns are needed to fly a grid pattern and get sufficient overlap of a target area. Fixed wing vehicles require larger area for turning, and do not possess the maneuverability of a multi-rotor vehicle.
To make things easier, we prepared this summary table so that you can compare the two types of drones side-by-side.
Conclusion: Taking it to the Skies
Ultimately, you’ll need to decide which drone is best for your business needs. We’ve given you the information and tools to make an informed decision when you choose your next drone for mapping. Before you take the next step and make a purchasing decision, we have some final thoughts to share.
Choose a Drone That Supports Your Use Case
Consider your industry use case, average flying conditions (e.g. high winds), and mapping subject before you buy. If you plan to map smaller areas, make 3D models of structures, or conduct site inspections that require maneuvering up and around buildings, then a multi-rotor drone model is the right choice. If you are mapping larger areas (hundreds or thousands of acres at a time) or flying long, linear flight plans such as pipelines or roadways, you may want to consider a fixed wing drone.
Keep Your Budget in Mind
You’ll also want to keep your budget in mind. In the current market, there is a significant price gap between multi-rotor and fixed wing drone models. If you’re looking to get a greater ROI, an affordable, multi-use quadcopter model is your best bet. However, you may need a fixed-wing to meet the specific demands of your business use case — it all depends.
Newer is Usually Better
When it comes to purchasing business technology solutions, buying the latest product usually results in a smoother experience and greater feature set. Drones are no different. Choosing the latest drone model over its predecessor is a smarter investment for your business. Not only will they have improved hardware, but software solutions will also work more effectively with the latest integrations and support. While some older models are solid products, we recommend you invest in the newer model for a longer shelf life and better experience. You don’t want buyer’s remorse, or be faced with an early upgrade down the line.
There is no one-size fits all drone solution that will suit every use case. In fact, more than 20% of pilots on the DroneDeploy platform fly multiple drones. This number is increasing every year as companies expand the use of drones for commercial applications. So, you should remain flexible. Your businesses may need to invest in more than one drone model to accomplish all of its goals. If your budget doesn’t allow for several drones, pick a model that has wide range of applications.
Where to Learn More
Download the complete 2017 DroneDeploy DroneBuyer’s Guide today
You can also stay tuned to our blog for the next part in this series, which will cover cameras and imaging solutions for commercial drone mapping.
If you plan to use DroneDeploy as your drone mapping solution, review some of our support docs for more information about supported drones and read through our frequently asked questions.