Drones come in many sizes, from the sub 250 gram models up to heavy-lift systems such as the Vulcan Airlift. There are different levels of drones, from consumer to prosumer to enterprise. Choosing one for yourself or your company can be quite difficult if you don’t understand your needs and what you need in the drone’s abilities. You could make a bad decision that can be costly and affect the success of your company’s drone program or your new budding drone services business.
Two of the best professional-grade drones on the market today are the DJI Phantom 4 Pro and Mavic 2 Pro. Other good options, depending on your intended use, include the Autel EVO II, the Yuneec H520, or the DJI Matrice series of drones.
What makes the best professional drone for you depends on the industry you’re working in, and what you need to do with your drone. Let’s look at some of the factors to look for in a commercial drone, and then some of the best options on the market.
What does the current industry like in a commercial drone?
Currently, there is an industry-wide standard that is being used. The drone system you’re employing should, at the minimum have a 15MP camera, with 20MP preferred, with a 1” lens. Now that’s not to say that the realtor or friend you took photos for, with say your Mavic Mini 2 won’t get you paid – it will.
However, if you want to fly for most pilot networks, such as Dronebase, Droneup, Dronegenuity, and others, these companies will require the above or higher in the imaging system.
You’ll also find that some will request different formats, mostly 4.3. Some do request 3.2. on the image size, and although I have never been asked for 16:9, having the option doesn’t hurt. So having a system that can switch from one or the other would be best.
You will also be asked to shoot in RAW format sometimes, so having a drone with that capability is a must. Now even though that is what pilot networks require, you will find that other companies you may work for have adopted much of the same.
What makes a drone consumer, professional or commercial?
Any drone used to provide a service for payment is a commercial drone! That means that consumer-level drones can be used as commercial drones as well. Although using a consumer drone for work can get you started, it may not work for you in the long run.
So, the Mavic Mini is just as capable of being a commercial drone as say, Zipline’s delivery system or a Mavic 2 Pro. Where one is a consumer drone you were able to purchase and fly right out of the box, Zipline’s is designed specifically for delivery applications and requires training to operate. There is quite a bit of difference between the two.
Professional drones are sort of like that as well. The professional variation of most drones is usually built to a higher standard than their consumer version although they may look identical. There is a difference between the consumer drone model and the Professional grade model. Those differences usually are found in the model’s durability of the system and the sensor/imaging system. You will find that professional-grade drones have improvements that consumer-level drones don’t.
What’s the difference between consumer and professional drones?
Typically, consumer drones are built to a slightly lesser standard than their Professional counterpart. Professional drones are designed to have better durability, range, GPS, camera quality, and weatherproofing.
This is because it is understood that these systems will be in the air more often and for longer durations than their consumer counterparts. This means that the consumer drone will not last as long and may not meet the standard of the industry you want to employ it in.
What’s the difference between professional drones and enterprise drones?
Whereas the professional drone is only slightly different than the consumer drone, the next level of drone, the enterprise level is a whole different type of system. One of the biggest differences would be found in the cost and the other would be in the drone’s abilities.
With Enterprise-level drones, you will find that they can be built for specific industries such as law enforcement, utility, oil and gas, delivery. Enterprise drones usually will be able to take on different payloads or sensors.
For example, the Matrice 300 has multiple sensors available. Or like the H20 which has two variations, one of which offers a 20MP Zoom camera and the other a 12MP wide-angle camera and a 1200m LRF. Then there’s the H-20T which offers the same as the H20 with an additional 640 x 512px Radiometric Thermal Camera.
These systems are able to be used in more places for more different types of flights or can be designed for specific applications. Enterprise drones tend to be larger and have to ability to lift more weight. This can be handy in say the film industry where you may need to carry heavier cameras systems.
Things to look for in a commercial drone
When considering a drone for commercial use, there are some things to focus on. Foremost and primarily when shopping for any drone, FLIGHT TIME is one of the most important factors. The longer the Flight Time the longer you can take to set up your shot, or you can run a video sequence more than once to ensure you got it just right. Or you can fly further and cover more area if you’re mapping.
When drones were first introduced, the flight times were just abysmal. The best you could get out of a first-generation Phantom was around 12 minutes. Even though it was always claimed to be 18 minutes, you’ll find that those claimed times are usually in the best of conditions and only in a hover.
That is actually something that has remained true. The Flight Times given by the manufacturer are always for perfect weather conditions and the drone only staying in a hover. Your actual flight times will vary from that by the way you fly and the conditions you’re flying in.
Over time those durations have increased and today we see systems with flight times ranging from 30 to 50 minutes. With this increased amount of flyable time, you can really improve your performance and spend less time on a site doing battery swaps and setting up and taking down.
Another important consideration would be RANGE. This is the distance a drone can fly and maintain video connection to its base station, as well as how far a drone can fly and maintain the connection to the controller. The range can be just as important as the flight time, depending on your intended use.
The average range of today’s drones is from 5 mi to 9 mi (8 km – 15 km). This is important because if you fly out of the video transmission range which normally operates at 5.8Ghz, you still have control of the craft which is operating at 2.4Ghz. This means you will be able to guide it safely back to you or initiate the return to home function if so equipped. By being able to fly out further and still be in control you can take on larger types of projects, such as large lot realty shoots and larger mapping projects.
It is worth noting here, that due to FAA Line of Sight regulations, even if a drone is capable of flying out to say 6 mi (10 km), you need to maintain visual line of sight of the drone, as stipulated by that rule. So even though some drones are capable of long distances, you as a PIC (Pilot In Command) you are responsible for following FAA guidelines and regulations and flying your aircraft in compliance and a safe fashion.
GPS and safety systems
GPS and Safety Systems help you to maintain an accurate position or be able to trust your GPS lock in confined flying situations. The quality of these systems and having a quality connection here could be the difference between a crash and a safe flight.
GPS or Global Positioning System is a must-have for any professional drone. After all, you will have times where the client wants their flight flown by an autonomous flight program. When using these programs, they rely solely on the GPS system, and having a bad or weak connection here could easily lead to a crash, flyaway, or the data not being collected with the accuracy your client needs. So, it’s important that your GPS module is of the highest quality.
The drone’s safety/obstacle avoidance features tie into this as well. A system with complete 360-degree awareness is going to keep your equipment safer during flight, more so than a system that only has forward and downward obstacle avoidance.
These systems can be a blessing or a real pain in the, well you know. Either way you feel about them, these systems are there to protect your investment. After all, a crash can easily lead to business loss, major frustration, and just a bad time all around.
Most obstacle avoidance systems today are quite good at keeping you from flying into things you shouldn’t, although they are not perfect. They can also totally ruin that perfect shot you were getting if you forgot to turn it off and did want to get closer to an object. I know right, we’ve all been there.
You’re going to find nearly every drone has some sort of obstacle avoidance. The quality of that is something you would need to research per model since every drone’s system is different, with some being superior to others.
When you put these into a list, it’s really hard to say how they would rank. One of the biggest factors for a professional drone for commercial use, besides flight time, would have to be the camera or payload the drone has or is capable of carrying.
Camera quality varies from system to system and even though one drone may have similar specs, the quality of the image can differ quite a bit. As we’ve discussed above, there is an unspoken industry standard and anything below that could lead to your work not being accepted or not being what your client was hoping for. Happy clients will lead to success. Knowing your camera will also lead you there.
Nearly all drones out today have good- to high-quality cameras that share the same sizes and formats as their counterparts. Here it really comes down to your preference.
By DJI pairing up with Hasselblad, they have been using the Hasselblad Color Science Tech, which is an old-school photographer. Nothing beats a Hasselblad. That’s not to say that the drones using the Sony Color Tech aren’t just as good, and of course, there’s always what you can do in post with a program like Lightroom or Photoshop.
Having options in the camera gives you more options in the field. Things such as f-stops and aperture ranges can be a real determining factor in whether you go with one system over another.
Weatherproofing can also be important, not as much as the other topics above but should still be taken into account. Typically, an IP rating will only be found among the larger enterprise-level drones. Drones such as the Mavic and Phantom series do not have any IP rating, so flying in inclement weather would not be advisable.
As a Professional/Commercial pilot though, you may not always be able to wait out the weather. There may be times when you’re out on the job and weather comes your way out of the blue, in the form of a pop-up storm. Or you may need to fly at night where condensation is a concern.
Some professional drones and all enterprise drones will have an IP rating. The IP rating tells you just how far you can push your equipment in the event of rain or fog or some other weather-related event.
An IP rating is fairly easy to follow using the chart below. The first number represents the level of protection of the enclosure from solid foreign objects. The second number represents the protection of the enclosure from moisture.
An example of this would be the Matrice 210 with a rating of IP 43. You will also find that there are drones built for water situations, such as the Swellpro models of drones with their newest model being the Splash Drone 4 with a high IP rating of 67.
So even though weatherproofing is lower in the list of considerations it should still be something you keep in mind, especially if you intend on flying in or around water.
One of the last things to consider for a professional drone is its carrying capacity. Now, normally you wouldn’t be attaching things to your drone, depending on the model you have of course. There are, however, certain industries such as film-making that may require a drone that can have larger cameras attached to it. These systems are very specialized and costly and may not be appropriate for you depending on the industry you plan on working in.
Then there are those drone systems currently out that are designed for interchangeable payloads. With these systems, the weight of the payload may effect flight performance.
When considering a drone for professional and commercial use, you really want to focus on the one drone that will do what you need and do it the longest, as you don’t want to have to reinvest in your equipment every time a slightly improved version comes out. You want your equipment to pay for itself and turn a profit before needing to be replaced.
What are the top commercial drones?
Today there are many more drone manufacturers out there than in years past. One of the industry’s top leaders is of course DJI. DJI is a powerhouse in the drone market and it’s taken some time for any true competitors to pop up.
That was the past though. Today DJI is facing some new competition and the market is seeing more and more drones that can rival some of DJI’s models. Companies like Autel and Yuneec among others are starting to produce drones that are not only equal to but in some cases even perform better than DJI’s drones.
With that said, two of the best professional-grade drones on the market are still the DJI Phantom 4 Pro and Mavic 2 Pro. Only time will tell if this remains true.
DJI Phantom 4 Pro
|Price: $2,049||See current price on Amazon|
Introduced in the year 2016, it may be easy to consider this drone to be outdated. It’s not! It has earned its place in the hearts of the pilots that fly them and is the go-to drone for most commercial applications.
The Phantom 4 Pro is used in nearly every industry and has a track record of excellent performance. It was one of the first drones to offer 4K 60fps video and a 1” 20mp CMOS Sensor/Camera. It has fantastic flight capabilities and features some of DJI’s best autonomous flight modes. As well as a 7km range, it can easily handle nearly everything a professional pilot may come across.
So, as you can see, this drone has much of what we’re seeing today from other manufacturers in their newest offerings. So, let’s take a look at what else is out there.
DJI Mavic 2 Pro
|Price: $1,199||See current price on Amazon|
The Mavic Series is the current flagship of DJI, with the Mavic 2 Pro leading the way since its release in 2018 up till the recent release of its newest version, the Mavic 3 here in the later part of 2021.
It is a great, easily portable folding drone system, with its predecessor, the Mavic being one of the first drones to feature folding arms. It offers a 1” CMOS 20MP camera and a 30-minute flight time. The real difference between the Phantom 4 Pro and the Mavic besides the major design change, of course, was the change to the Glonass satellite system over Lightbridge.
It has 360-degree obstacle avoidance and includes the Hasselblad color science tech in their collaboration on the Mavic 2 Pro. The Mavic 2 Pro imaging system does set this drone apart from others and can be hard to beat.
DJI Air 2S
|Price: $999||See current price on Amazon|
The Air 2 S is a pleasant surprise and is really making its way into being used more and more commercially. Although not really a professional-grade drone, the Air 2S does need to be recognized as the up and comer it is, with many professional pilots adapting it into their operations due to its lower cost and full complement of features.
It offers a 1” CMOS 20MP camera and a 30-minute flight time. It is able to shoot video in 5.4K quality. It is easily compared to the two models above with many of the same functions and features shared among the 3 models.
It contains a relatively small amount of built-in storage at 8GB, which when recording in 5.4K that’s not much. So, using the onboard storage is limiting and a microSD card would be a needed add-on.
» MORE: To find out more about what SD card is best for your DJI drone read our article SD Cards for DJI Drones
Autel Evo 2
|Price: $1,799.99||See current price on Amazon|
The Autel Evo 2 has a high-quality 360 obstacle avoidance system and is offered with exceptionally high-quality video resolution. With the ability to record in 6K, it is one of the very first drones on the market to offer such high-resolution recording formats. The pro version has a 1” CMOS 20MP camera with an aperture range of f/2.8 – f/11 and a 40-minute flight time.
The Evo 2 also is offered in an Enterprise variation. These variations can be in one of two options and feature mountable attachments such as a spotlight or speaker. One of the variations includes a dual-camera system which includes a thermal camera that is a 640 x 512.
The Enterprise level Evo 2 also offers an optional RTK module. With the RTK or Real-Time Kinematic module, you can achieve centimeter accuracy, making a real winner for mapping and surveying.
Autel Evo Lite +
|Price: $1,349.00||See current price on Amazon|
Being new to the market, the Autel Evo Lite + hasn’t really had a chance yet to find its place in the industry. However, offering a 1” 20MP camera and 6K/30FPS video is certainly a good place to start. Though lacking a 360-obstacle avoidance system it does offer front, back, and downward avoidance and is similar in that regard to some other models we’ve already mentioned.
So, although we can’t say where this drone will be in a few months or next year, one thing is for sure – at its price point and with its built-in features it will be sure to become a drone that finds a place within the professional and commercial industry.
Yuneec H520 / H520 RTK
|H520 Price: $2,399.99||See current price on Amazon|
|H520 RTK Price: $5,299.00||See current price on Vertigo Drones|
Designed mainly for mapping, surveying, and inspections, the Yuneec H520 and the H520 RTK offer a variable payload that truly does extend its useability. It is also the first Hexacopter that we’re looking at.
Yuneec offers a variety of cameras for the H520 model with a Sony 1” CMOS 20MP RGB and a 30x Zoom camera. There is also an available Multispectral Camera and a dual RGB/Thermal camera. With this versatility, the H520 and the H520 RTK are able to do just about anything you could want.
It is limited by flight time though, with only a 28-minute flight time. It does offer a unique trait that the other drone systems above lack, and that is a 360-degree gimbal and retractable legs like we see in the DJI Inspire Series.
Although this system doesn’t offer any obstacle avoidance it does have a fail-safe system where it is able to return home even if losing a motor, which is one of the benefits of moving from a quadcopter to hexacopter or octocopter.
Released in 2020, this system has already proven to be reliable, stable, and accurate.
DJI Matrice Series
|M-300 Price: $13,700.00||See current price on DJI|
DJI’s Matrice series is the flagship of their industrial drones. They are large drone systems with the Matrice 600 being the largest among them.
The Matrice 100 was introduced as a customizable platform for developers with the ability to be fully programmable and carry multiple payloads. The M-100 is used mainly by researchers and is one of the few drones to be found that is programmable by the user.
The Matrice 200 and 210 series is a multiple payload-carrying system as well, with several camera options available from the 4xs to the 7sx, with multispectral and thermal cameras available as well. It also offers multiple payload configurations as a dual mount and top mount.
The newest version is the Matrice 300 which is the latest generation and is slowly phasing out the 200 and the 210 series. The M-300 has improved on what was already a good industrial platform and offers even more advanced camera systems than its predecessor, making it a drone that will cover your every need but at a substantial cost.
Swellpro Splash 4
|Price: $2,498.00||See current price on Amazon|
The Swellpro Splash 4 is by far the best drone if you’re flying in water situations. It is also one of the only drones on the market today that is built as a waterproof drone. It offers a 5km range and a 30-minute flight time and has an unheard-of IP rating of 67.
It’s unique in the fact that it is able to turtle like an FPV quad which Swellpro calls Power Flip. It is also a drone system that offers multiple payloads that are easily attached and also equally waterproofed.
With a 4k camera available as well as a night vision camera option, and a thermal camera option as well, the Splash does only offer a few limited autonomous flight modes compared to other drone models. It is the only drone you will find that is able to take off from water and is waterproofed even against seawater.
So if you are someone who will be mainly flying over or by water, this drone is certain to make your shortlist of drones to consider.
Know your needs, know your drone’s abilities
As you can see from the above sampling, investing in your professional commercial drone system can be a difficult decision to make. Knowing your needs and intentions will guide you.
If you’re planning on doing mainly realty projects, something like a Matrice would be unnecessary for that type of work and with its size would be somewhat limiting for your property shoots. No, something along the lines of the Air 2S or an Autel Evo II, would be more appropriate for that style of work and would produce excellent results.
Now, if you’re looking to do something more like inspection type of work, having the ability to zoom would be an ability to look for, as you may want to maintain some distance from the object being inspected. Some tower inspections can lead to damage to your drone if flown too close, so being able to get a closer look by a zoom feature would be best, without having to put the drone at risk.
If you intend to run thermograms on roofing systems, you should have a drone that is capable of thermal, whether it’s built-in like the Enterprise Mavic Dual or as an attachable payload like with the Matrice 300. It is a must and limits your drone options, as not all drones have that ability.
So, knowing your needs is crucial to purchasing the proper platform for your usage. You will find that most will share abilities and be able to perform more functions than you intended. That’s a good thing and will allow you to expand your skills and services over time. A system you can grow into.
Also, keep in mind that the Professional Version Model will usually be built to a higher standard than their consumer model brethren and may be well worth the extra cost to have the Professional version for that better build quality and the higher quality camera.
Fly Safe, Fly Always, Always Fly Safe!
Unsplash, Autel Robotics, Yuneec, DJI, Swell Pro