If you’ve had a freelancer flying drones over your construction projects, you know the advantages of regular aerial photography. As you increase the frequency of your drone flights, purchasing your own drone and having a licensed pilot on staff will make the most financial sense.
While you might think the best first step toward drone ownership is to start comparing drones, you really should assess your needs first and then pick your software before even looking at hardware. The data you get from your new drone and how you put it to use is the most valuable aspect of drone ownership. And, because the software you use will affect your choice of drone, you will need to have it picked out before you begin drone shopping.
We’ve put together this handy guide to cover “rent vs. lease vs. buy” questions. Included are three decision trees along with a recap of pros and cons of each option. How to Choose Between Rent vs. Buy. Download it now!
Whether you are buying your first drone, or looking to grow your current fleet, we outline 5 steps to purchasing a drone, and then provide you with our top 5 drone recommendations for the construction industry.
The 5 Steps to Purchasing a Construction Drone:
- Determine Your Needs
- Choose Your Software
- Choose Your Hardware
- Pick Your Price Range
- Avoid Common Drone Buying Mistakes
1. DETERMINE YOUR NEEDS
The first step to purchasing your drone is to determine how you’re going to use it. To get a better understanding of what you will want to do with your drone, ask yourself the following questions:
What climate will you be flying in?
Why it matters: Wind and rain are your two biggest enemies when trying to fly, and not for the reasons you might think. Most modern drones can remain stable in strong wind gusts, but low light and standing water can make capturing and stitching clear, accurate images difficult.
What you’ll need: If you often need to fly in stormy weather, you will want to make sure you have a high-quality camera and that your drone is rated to handle strong wind gusts. If your sites have mostly clear weather, you can afford to save some money here.
How modular do you need your drone to be?
Why it matters: A drone’s payload can be either fixed or modular, meaning that you can either swap out the camera or you can’t; some drones also offer multiple payloads. Additionally, if you like to tinker, you might want the ability to swap out drone parts.
What you’ll need: Decide if you want to capture specialty data like LIDAR or thermal imaging. If so, you will need a drone with a modular payload. The ability to swap out parts, such as propellers, legs, or inertial motion units, can help your drone adapt to different situations. If you plan on flying in varying environments, this could be a feature to look for.
Do you want to produce cinematic shots for marketing purposes?
Why it matters: Your drone can do a lot more than just take site surveys, they can also take gorgeous videos for marketing purposes and stakeholder updates.
What you’ll need: You’ll need a drone with a Gimbal stabilizer, a fixed camera will not work here. You’ll want to invest in a camera that can shoot video in 1080p, or 4k resolution if you really want to impress.
How often will you be flying the drone?
Why it matters: If you purchase a drone, you should fly on at least a monthly basis. Most likely, you’ll fly weekly or even daily. The more often you fly, the more you need to consider the ease of use of your drone, as well as its durability.
What you’ll need: A professional level drone that’s built to withstand the dust, debris, and abuse on a construction site. A drone that you can quickly and easily get off the ground and into the air.
How are you going to use your drone data?
Why it matters: This is the most important question. It determines how you’re going to get value from your drone. It will also frame your software purchasing decisions.
What you’ll need: Determine what are areas are going to be most useful for you:
- Marketing: Videos and photos to be used in promotional material
- Inspection: High-resolution imagery from multiple camera types for detailed observations
- Survey: GPS-enabled accurate project maps with elevation data
- Vertical Scan: 3D models of buildings and other vertical structures
Once you work your way through these questions, you should have a brief list of features and an idea of what you need in a drone. The next step is to stop thinking about buying a drone and start thinking about what you want to do with its data. This is where your software will make all the difference.
2. CHOOSE YOUR SOFTWARE
The data you gather is where the money is. Collecting and engaging with quality, accurate data requires good software. Many people who set out to employ drones on their sites neglect this fact and end up wasting money.
Purpose: Data management software is where the real value of your drone will be realized, so you need to choose this first and choose it carefully.
Features: Data Management software can offer a variety of features, making it critical to carefully compare options before settling on one that fits your needs. Any option you choose should contain the following:
- The ability to download and stitch aerial images into a base map
- Measurement tools for analyzing your data
- Secure cloud storage
- A collaboration platform to share your insights
Mission Planning: Plot, Upload, and Fly
For high-quality images you can use reliably, we highly recommend your drone flies on a computer controlled, pre-programmed path. Manual flight is possible, but it makes accurately overlapping and stitching the images difficult.
Most mission planning software is only compatible with certain types of drones, and some drone makers have their own software, so your choice here will directly affect which drones you can purchase.
Features: Good mission planning software will keep your drone flying safely and accurately. Look for your choice to have the following:
- Waypoint Missions
- Flight Logging
- Pre-flight checks
- In-flight checks
Airspace: Situational Awareness
Purpose: Airspace apps are meant to help you monitor weather, fly and no-fly zones, and flight logs. They will help you make sure you’re flying legally and safely, as well as track your flight history.
They are most helpful for people who are flying in frequently changing conditions and locations, or those who must fly close to airports.
Look for the following features:
- Flight Logs
- Instant Notifications
- Flight Indicators
Insurance: Protect Yourself
Purpose: You need insurance when you’re flying a drone. Drones can cause extensive damage by hitting power lines, equipment, or people, and you should be covered in case anything goes wrong.
While you may not think that insurance falls under software, there is one company that has merged the two into an impressive product.
Look for the following features:
- GPS drone tracking
- High coverage limits
- On-demand coverage
The only on-demand insurance app we have found so far is below. If you know of any others, please reach out to us!
3. KNOW WHAT MAKES A GOOD CONSTRUCTION DRONE
There are four main factors to consider when looking to purchase a construction drone:
Why it matters: In short, the higher the quality of your camera, the easier your drone flights and the better your imaging results. Whether you’re relying on your drone for aerial marketing footage or detailed site analysis, the quality of your camera will have a huge impact on your results.
How it’s measured: There are two important factors to account for when judging camera quality:
- Sensor Size
Most people just look to megapixels to determine how a camera will perform. But, think about comparing the image quality between a phone camera and a DSLR with the same number of MP. The contrast is striking. It’s the size of their sensors that makes the difference. A larger sensor can capture more light and therefore render a higher quality image. The key is finding a balance between sensor size, megapixels, and price.
What to look for:
- Minimum sensor size: For quality images, we would recommend not going smaller than 23.7×15.6mm
- Minimum megapixel count: 10 MP
Why it matters: If your drone is going to stay on one site for the entire duration of a project, then portability is likely not going to be a top concern. However, if you plan on frequently transporting your drone between sites, or taking it with you on a plane, portability is going to be crucial.
How it’s measured: Portability is a bit subjective, but in general you should ask yourself a couple questions:
- Does the drone fold into a more compact form?
- Can it fit in a backpack case?
- How many batteries do I need to carry with me?
What to look for:
- Drone weight: This really comes down to personal preference. What’s your threshold for something being too heavy to easily carry? If you’re going to be transporting it a lot, we recommend no more than 6 lbs.
- Drone dimensions: Again, this is a matter of preference, but we find that anything larger than 20″ x 20″ starts to interfere with portability.
Durability and Stability
Why it matters: Flying a construction drone means you don’t have much choice about the timing and conditions in which you fly; you have to get your images and you have to get them regularly. Your drone has to be able to stand up to dust, dirt, wind, rain, and the occasional collision.
If you don’t have a durable, stable drone, it’s not going to last very long.
How it’s measured:
- Stability is measured in wind speed resistance, the higher this number, the more stable your drone will be in rough flight conditions.
- Durability is a more subjective measure; the best way to get an idea of this quality is to read customer reviews on the web.
What to look for: Minimum wind speed resistance: If you’re consistently flying in stormy weather, we recommend finding a drone with a wind speed resistance of 20 MPH.
Ease of Use
Why it matters: How simple is it to get your drone out of the box and into the air? You may not think this matters since you have to have a licensed pilot operating the drone, but the ease with which you can get your drone flying will make a difference in how quickly you can capture data and how much time your employees spend in the process of flying.
How it’s measured: Every time you go out and fly you have to do a couple things: make sure everything’s charged (remote control, drone, and tablet/phone), check for firmware updates, and perform calibrations (GPS, Compass, Inertia).
What to look for: There are a number of factors to account for in ease-of-use. We found the best way to get a feel for this is to read online reviews from people who have purchased the drone. Additionally, ask yourself the following questions:
- Is the drone Ready-To-Fly? These drones simply require charging, propeller installation, and pairing with the controller
- Will you need to buy a third-party charger to keep up with your frequent flights?
- If you’re drone has a modular camera, is it simple to trade out and install?
4. PICK A PRICE RANGE
Drones are incredibly inexpensive compared to when they initially hit the market, and especially relative to things like survey crews. Drones also break and become outdated quickly. You need to find the ultimate balance of bang for your buck.
Toy (Up to $300)
Pros: Fun to fly
Cons: Cannot be used professionally
Pros: Cheap, replaceable, good choice if you just want to test out drone capabilities
Cons: Low image quality, poor durability
Pros: Good balance of performance and affordability
Cons: May not have the stability and image quality needed for more difficult sites
Pros: Best performance for the money, high-quality imaging
Cons: Expensive to replace/repair in the event of damage
Pros: Cutting edge technology
Cons: Can be fragile, tend to come down quickly in price
5. AVOID COMMON DRONE BUYING MISTAKES
There are a few cautions to keep in mind when purchasing a construction drone:
- Beware of buying the newest, most expensive drone. Drones are always evolving, and they are prone to getting damaged. This means the latest and greatest technology will quickly come down in price, and there is likely a cheaper option that will still fit your needs.
- Buy a drone meant for commercial use, don’t try and get by with a hobbyist drone. Hobby drones may be cheaper (and fun to fly), but they are not designed to be the reliable workhorse you need. You should definitely avoid using consumer drones for professional purposes. That’s not to say however, that a “pro-sumer” drone can’t get the job done. These drones sit on the low end of the higher price range and usually offer the oomph necessary for construction jobs.
- Don’t spring for a fixed-wing drone. There’s a reason most of the drones you see in use are quadcopters. Fixed-wing drones have specific scenarios where they are superior, mainly with regards to flight endurance and range. Unfortunately, these benefits are null as regulations require that you maintain visual contact with your drone. (What good is a range of several miles if you can’t use it?) And, in general, fixed wing drones are more difficult to maintain, launch, and land.
- Make sure your drone automatically inserts geolocation data into each photo. Geo-reffing sucks. It involves combing through thousands of photographs and matching drone GPS data to the timestamps on your individual photographs. If your drone isn’t automatically inserting geo-location data into each photo, there better be a damn good reason.
- Buy on track record, not on hype. This goes along with our advice of not buying the latest and greatest technology. A number of drone makers have come and gone over the years, and very few have demonstrated staying power. Hype around a new product doesn’t mean you should buy it. Remember, what you need in a construction drone is the reliability to accurately gather your data every time it flies.
- Make sure your drone is compliant. Drone regulation is still in its infancy, and some manufacturers are pushing the boundaries of what is technically legal to fly. If you’re looking at purchasing a newer drone, be sure to check with the manufacturer as to how their drone fits into the regulatory framework.
The Top 5 Drones for Construction
Best All-Around Drone– DJI Phantom 4 Pro, $1,499
This is our number one recommendation for an all-around drone. You’ll get the best combination of reliability, durability, image quality, and portability. If you simply want a drone that will get your shit done every time, look no further.
Best Drone for Portability– DJI Mavic Pro, $999
The Mavic Pro is an incredible piece of technology. DJI has managed to fit a fully functioning, high-quality drone in a tiny package. If you’re going to be traveling frequently with your drone, this option is a no brainer.
Best Drone for Durability and Stability– DJI Phantom 3 Standard, $499
If durability and stability are your chief concerns, you should consider going with the older, reliable model Phantom 3 Standard. It’s got proven technology at a price that makes replacing them pain free. Drone technology has yet to reach the point of being ultra-rugged, so when you know durability is a primary concern, what you really need is a drone that’s cost-effective to replace.
Best Drone for Image Quality– DJI Inspire 2, $2,999
The Inspire 2 is the gold standard of video drones. Realistically, unless you are planning on producing a lot of high-quality marketing footage, then this drone is probably not for you. However, if you already own a drone for your site surveys, and are looking to add a cinematic drone to your arsenal, then this is your best bet.
Best Drone for Ease of Use– Kespry 2S, (Ask for price at kespry.com)
We chose Kespry here because they truly have created a unique “drone-in-a-box” product. They’ve gone to great lengths to make it as simple as possible. However, because there is no remote control, it only uses automated flight paths, we’re not sure if it will pass regulatory standards. The lack of controller and the fixed camera also make this drone an option only for those looking to strictly do site surveys.
That should cover everything you need to get started. If you’re interested in more information, be sure to check out our piece at “How to Get Started With Drones in Construction.”
If you have any other questions, post them in the comments below or reach out to us at email@example.com.
Editor’s note: This guest blog was provided by Nick Hertzman of Unearth Technologies.