The ABC's of Starting a Drone Program: Selecting the Right Equipment

Our last blog introduced you to the process of getting your drone program legal. This blog will cover the best way to determine the right equipment for your department.

There are lots of opinions on selecting the right type of equipment for your department, and many of them come from personal experiences, brand preferences, and sales pitches from drone company-men.

It’s hard to say exactly what the right drone will be for you, and if one drone will even cover all of those needs, so here’s a lay of the land in terms of what many of the available models can do for you. It’ll be up to you to select the best piece or pieces of equipment, using all available information.

The large majority of public safety agencies in the country are using DJI products, for several reasons. First, they are the most ubiquitous, and readily available drones on the market. Second, being a consumer drone company first, parts are easy to come by, repair times are improving, and they’ve been tested by tens of thousands of consumers before you.

DJI makes one of everything, from the tiny Spark to the behemoth Matrice 600, and everything in between. The most popular model has been the Inspire 1.

When it came out in December of 2015, it was leaps ahead of other consumer drones - retractable landing gear, a 4K camera, and transmission distances of over a mile. It also featured the ability to connect two controllers - one for flying, and one for controlling the camera.

DJI upped the ante in 2016 when they added the Zenmuse XT camera, powered by FLIR technology, to the Inspire 1 arena. This camera is still the only fully-integrated thermal imaging camera on a consumer UAV platform, and works seamlessly within the DJI app universe.

Retractable landing gear means no legs in your shot, but it also means the ability to drop a payload with the optional Skyzimir Stork system - a $125 add-on that uses the retractable arms to open a claw. The Inspire 1 will take a payload of 4-5 pounds, allowing you to easily drop a life jacket, a radio, or even pull a tag-line across a raging river.

The drone itself retails for $1999, the Z3 goes for $899, and the Zenmuse XT ranges from $5700 - $14,000 depending on which of the 32 configurations you choose.

Now a two-year-old drone, there are some new players in the market that may start to have agencies converting to new technology.

The Matrice 200 series is the shiniest one in the bunch, and features dual batteries (40 minutes of flying time), an on-board FPV camera, forward, downward and upward-facing obstacle avoidance, and an IP43 weather resistant rating.

Step up to the Matrice 210, and you’ll be able to put two cameras on simultaneously, including the X4S daylight camera, Z30 zoom camera (30x optical, 6x digital, 180x total zoom), and the Zenmuse XT FLIR camera. The 210 model also adds an ADS-B IN transponder system, which will alert you to aircraft in the area that are broadcasting an ADS-B signal.

The Matrice 600 - the 200’s bigger cousin - will allow you to carry up to a 20 pound payload, and features six redundant batteries and motors; and features a much larger deck for adding other types of sensors and payloads.

But big drones aren’t having all the fun - the DJI Mavic Pro could be the right tool for your job. The Mavic is DJI’s first completely foldable UAV, so when four legs tucked in underneath the drone’s body, it’s actually tiny enough to fit in a cargo pocket. Weighing in at just 1.62 pounds, the Mavic features a 4K camera, forward and downward-facing obstacle avoidance, and a 25-minute battery life.

But by far the most exciting thing about the Mavic is the ability to put propellor cages on it. Unlike propellor guards which protect the high-speed pieces of plastic from hitting a wall head-on, the cages protect it from all sides: up, down and sideways. This means you can fly the Mavic directly into a person, up to a ceiling, or into a tree branch, and it won’t take the bird down.

For law enforcement and HAZMAT teams, this opens some huge possibilities for operational efficiency. Have a remote HAZMAT source inside a building? Need to clear an area before putting a SWAT team in harm's way? Put the prop cages on, breach the door, and in goes the drone.

Finally if you’re a fan of the Phantom line of UAVs, the Phantom 4 Pro features a lot of things that make it well suited for public safety. First, it has a battery life of nearly 38 minutes, almost double that of its predecessors. It also features 360 degree obstacle avoidance, and a 20 megapixel camera, with a 1” sensor. At $1499, it’s an incredible drone in a very small package.

For a look at other specialized, and non-DJI aircraft, check out this infographic.