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Understanding SD Cards for Drones (Explained For Beginners)

Commercial and recreational drone pilots alike can whip themselves into a frenzy, capturing snapshot after snapshot or long stretches of video.

Understanding SD Cards for Drones (In Detail)

It’s easy to get carried away, whether for enjoyment or work, until you’re hit with a brutal reality. The drone has run out of storage.

Enter SD cards.

What is an SD card, and how does it work in a drone? Drone SD cards provide additional storage between 32 gigabytes and 1 terabyte, allowing pilots more space for recording and saving photos and videos.

It’s simple enough on the surface, but I plan on digging as deep into drone SD cards as you can go, so join me!

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What are SD cards, and why do drones need them?

Let’s get underway by expanding on the definition of SD cards from the intro.

An SD card is called a Secure Digital card in full. It’s a type of flash memory card created for all sorts of devices, drones included.

You can also use SD cards for computers, laptops, music players, digital cameras, and smartphones.

Unlike most of those devices, which offer gigabytes and gigabytes of storage space, a drone does not.

It varies by model, but most are limited to 8 gigabytes of internal storage space.

You know how little 8 gigabytes is if you own a personal computer or smartphone. That can go very fast.

Running out of storage space is not an option when you’re out in the field.

Recreationally, it’s a bummer, but it’s even more damning professionally. You might not be able to finish your project, putting you behind on your deadlines and possibly costing you the gig and that client.

It’s not as easy as going back home (or to the office), dumping your footage on your computer, and coming back.

That takes time, and if you’re in an unprecise location, finding it again and returning to your exact spot so your footage has continuity can be difficult.

An SD card has your back.

After you inevitably chew through the 8 gigabytes of storage space your drone allots you (especially if you’re recording or photographing in the highest quality available in your drone), the SD card will continue storing your footage so you don’t have to miss a beat.

» MORE: SD Cards for DJI Drones (What You Need to Know)

What type of SD cards do drones use?

Drones often use microSD cards, a miniaturized version of traditional SD cards. The micro version can fit into small electronics, a category many drone models fit.

Since they’re so much smaller, microSD cards can’t hold as much storage as a traditional large SD card.

The limit is currently 1 terabyte but will likely increase to 2 terabytes soon.

Honestly, for most drone applications, 1 TB of space is more than enough. The equivalent of 1 TB is 1,000 gigabytes, so it’s quite a lot of storage space.

When microSD cards eventually store up to 2 TB, those cards will be capable of containing the equivalent of 2,000 MB.          

If your drone has a standard SD slot, you can use a microSD card in its place with an adapter. The adapter allows the drone to read and write to the microSD card as though it were larger.

» MORE: Best SD Cards for DJI Mavic 3 (Class/Pro/Cine)

What format of SD cards do drones use, FAT32 or exFAT?

Next, let’s discuss SD card format, including exFAT and FAT32.

You must know the difference when shopping for SD or microSD cards.

FAT32 SD card format

FAT32 is not the OG, as that’s technically 8-bit FAT. Then we got FAT12, then FAT16, and next, FAT32.

This file system has a greater volume size limit than FAT16 but not a bigger limit than exFAT.

Its max volume size is 8 TB, still more than enough for most drone operations, but a great deal less than exFAT (as you’ll see).

» MORE: DJI Avata – How to View and Transfer Video

exFAT SD card format

Extensible File Allocation Table or exFAT is one of two SD card file systems. This format is also applicable for flash memory drives, including USB drives.

Microsoft debuted the exFAT format in 2006, making it the newer version of FAT32.

It offers a larger file limit size of 16 exabytes, with one EB the equivalent of a million GB.

You can use exFAT SD and microSD cards on Windows and Apple devices.

The switch to exFAT also improved card formatting, such as introducing templated metadata, using checksums for better metadata integrity, increasing the cluster size to 32 GB, using two lengths fields for pre-allocating valid data length, and TexFAT support.

TexFAT is short for Transaction-Safe Extended FAT File System and relies on the same file system the exFAT format utilizes.  

» MORE: DJI Mini 3/Pro – How to Transfer Videos/Photos to a Windows PC (Video)

FAT32 or exFAT, which should your drone use?

As the successor to FAT32, exFAT has phenomenal advantages.

Its minimum cluster count is 232 versus FAT32’s 228, its max cluster size is 32 MB compared to 32 KB for FAT32, and exFAT has a much higher max file size and volume size.

However, FAT32 is often the more compatible system. Some devices have exFAT support, but not all.

Formatting an SD or microSD card to FAT32, in that case, is the safer bet.

» MORE: How to Format SD Cards in DJI Drones (Quick Steps with Photos)

What is the best SD card capacity for your drone?

You don’t necessarily need the greatest SD card capacity for a drone.

It depends on several factors, including the length of the footage, the quality, and the drone manufacturer’s specifications.

For example, DJI recommends drone pilots use a microSD or SD card with at least 128 GB of storage.

The card should have a UHS bus for 4K videos shot at 60 to 120 frames per second and UHS-I Speed Grade 3 when shooting in 1080p.

» MORE: Best SD Cards for DJI Mini 2 SE

What if your SD card has less storage capacity than that? That’s more likely with a microSD card.

You can use an SD card with less storage, but you should expect lower footage quality.

For non-DJI drones, here’s a good rule of thumb. Use a card with UHS-1 Video Speed Class V30 and a write speed of up to 70 MB a second when taking 4K UHD or HD video footage.

If you’re taking high-res images or videos in 4K or 8K quality, use an SD card with UHS-II Video Speed Class V90 and 165 MB per second of write speed.

SD cards for DJI drones

Next, let’s get into SD card specifics so you can start shopping.

I’ll look at three major drone manufacturers and several drone models, with recommended SD cards for each, beginning with DJI.

DJI Air 3

The DJI Air 3 is one of the latest and greatest creations from DJI. It includes a dual-camera system with a wide-angle and medium tele-camera and a 1/1.3-inch CMOS sensor.

The cameras can shoot videos in 4K at 60 fps HDR and 48 MP for images.

This DJI drone also boasts the O4 HD video transmission system, omnidirectional obstacle sensing, and a flight time of over 45 minutes.

DJI recommends the following SD cards for the Air 3:

Drone Specific
Kingston 256GB Canvas Go Plus MicroSD Memory Card with Adapter
$30.05
  • Fast read speed up to 170MB/s and write speed up to 70MB/s 
  • Speed Class 10, UHS-I, V30, A2 for high-performance and full HD video recording
  • Water proof, magnet proof, temperature proof, and x-ray proof
Buy from Amazon
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03/07/2024 11:16 am GMT
Samsung EVO Select 256GB V30 A2 microSDXC
$24.99
  • Superfast U3, class 10 rated transfer speeds of up to 130MB/s¹,²and UHS-I Interface
  • Available in 64GB, 128GB, 256GB, and 512GB
  • Complete with water⁴, temperature⁵, X-ray⁶, ⁷magnet, drop⁸, and wears⁹ out protection; Backed by a 10-year limited warranty
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03/06/2024 04:46 pm GMT
Lexar Professional 1066x 256GB microSDXC UHS-I Card
$34.99 $22.99
  • Professional-level performance for action cameras, drones, or Android smartphones
  • Leverages UHS-I technology to deliver read speeds up to 160MB/s (1066x)
  • Designed for durability in harsh conditions
Buy from Amazon
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03/07/2024 11:01 am GMT
Recommended
SanDisk 256GB Extreme PRO microSD
$29.40
  • Write Speeds of up to 140MB/s: Capture fast-action photos or shoot 4K UHD video with write speeds of up to 140MB/s.
  • Load Apps Faster with A2
  • This card is shockproof, temperature-proof, waterproof, and X-ray-proof
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03/06/2024 06:37 pm GMT
Our Pick
SanDisk Extreme 256GB V30 A2 microSDXC
$26.75
  • Up to 130MB/s write speeds for fast shooting
  • 4K and 5K UHD-ready with UHS Speed Class 3 (U3) and Video Speed Class 30 (V30)
  • Rated A2 for faster loading and in-app performance
Buy from Amazon
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03/06/2024 04:06 pm GMT

» MORE: Best SD Cards for DJI Air 3

DJI Avata

Fly free with the DJI Avata, one of DJI’s first FPV drones.

Avata has low-latency video transmission at 10 KM in 1080p quality, prop guards, video stabilization, and motion controls.

It also weighs 410 grams, which is light for an FPV drone.

Avata shoots in 4K at 60 fps, capturing super-wide 155-degree FOV video footage. So, what SD cards does it use? I’m glad you asked! Here’s a list to get you started.

Samsung PRO Plus 256GB V30 A2 microSDXC
$49.90
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03/06/2024 04:51 pm GMT
Kingston Canvas React Plus 128GB V90 A1 microSDXC
$21.99 $10.81
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03/06/2024 04:36 pm GMT
Kingston Canvas Go!Plus 64GB V30 A2 microSDXC
$11.99 $10.37
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03/06/2024 04:22 pm GMT
SanDisk Extreme Pro 32GB V30 A1 microSDXC
$12.75
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03/06/2024 03:57 pm GMT
SanDisk Extreme 32GB V30 A1 microSDXC
$10.99 $9.15
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03/08/2024 01:16 am GMT

» MORE: Best SD Cards for DJI Avata

DJI Inspire 2

A classic DJI drone, the Inspire 2 features high-quality image processing at 5.2K in Apple ProRes and CinemaDNG RAW.

It has two batteries for a moderate flight time of 27 minutes and can reach top speeds of 58 miles per hour. It even includes self-heating technology.

Use the SanDisk Extreme PLUS 64GB for the Inspire 2, with storage space up to 128 GB if you need more.

SanDisk Extreme PLUS 64 GB
$53.00 $44.99
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03/07/2024 01:16 am GMT

» MORE: What SD Card Do I Need for DJI Inspire 2?

SD cards for Autel drones

Perhaps you prefer Autel drones like the EVO series.

Let’s review which SD cards are recommended for the top drone models from this manufacturer.

EVO II

The EVO II is a foldable drone capable of recording in 7680×4320 resolution and 8K quality, producing 33 million pixels.

Its 48-MP Sony sensor is one of the best aerial cameras on the market.

Autel equipped the EVO II with single-frame merged exposures that combine short-, medium-, and long-term exposures.

The 10-bit color depth enriches all your footage.

Try these SD cards for the EVO II:

Recommended
SanDisk 256GB Extreme PRO microSD
$29.40
  • Write Speeds of up to 140MB/s: Capture fast-action photos or shoot 4K UHD video with write speeds of up to 140MB/s.
  • Load Apps Faster with A2
  • This card is shockproof, temperature-proof, waterproof, and X-ray-proof
Buy from Amazon
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03/06/2024 06:37 pm GMT
Lexar Professional 1066x 256GB microSDXC UHS-I Card
$34.99 $22.99
  • Professional-level performance for action cameras, drones, or Android smartphones
  • Leverages UHS-I technology to deliver read speeds up to 160MB/s (1066x)
  • Designed for durability in harsh conditions
Buy from Amazon
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03/07/2024 11:01 am GMT

EVO Nano+

The ultra-popular EVO Nano+ from Autel is the successor of the original Nano.

This 249-gram drone includes features like a 64GB SD storage card, three-way obstacle avoidance, a three-axis gimbal, CDAF and PDAF focusing, and a 4K RYYB camera.

This drone is also available in a bundle with plenty of features and accessories, making it a cost-effective choice for any drone pilot.

You can upgrade to a 128GB card with some Nano+ bundles, but if that still isn’t enough storage, try the following SD and microSD cards:

Lexar Professional 1066x 256GB microSDXC UHS-I Card
$34.99 $22.99
  • Professional-level performance for action cameras, drones, or Android smartphones
  • Leverages UHS-I technology to deliver read speeds up to 160MB/s (1066x)
  • Designed for durability in harsh conditions
Buy from Amazon
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03/07/2024 11:01 am GMT
Recommended
SanDisk 256GB Extreme PRO microSD
$29.40
  • Write Speeds of up to 140MB/s: Capture fast-action photos or shoot 4K UHD video with write speeds of up to 140MB/s.
  • Load Apps Faster with A2
  • This card is shockproof, temperature-proof, waterproof, and X-ray-proof
Buy from Amazon
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03/06/2024 06:37 pm GMT

SD cards for Holy Stone drones

Inexpensive and beginner-friendly, Holy Stone drones are popular with pilots of all ages.

Let’s explore several top Holy Stone drone models and their recommended SD and microSD cards.

HS720R

A more intermediate drone appropriate for commercial applications, the HS720R includes a three-axis gimbal and a Sony sensor camera that can shoot in 4K at 30 fps.

The camera has time-lapse and wide-angle capabilities, able to shoot at 140-degree angles.

The HS720R also includes a transmission range of 3 KM, electronic image stabilization, and 26 minutes of flight time.

Try these SD cards for your Holy Stone drone:

SAMSUNG: EVO Select 128GB MicroSDXC UHS-I U3
$47.76 $40.47
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03/07/2024 09:06 am GMT
Lexar E-Series Plus 128GB Micro SD Card
$14.70

MicroSDXC UHS-I Flash Memory Card with Adapter, 160MB/s, C10, U3, A2, V30, Full HD, 4K UHD, High Speed TF Card for Phones, Tablets, Drones, Dash Cam

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03/07/2024 01:51 pm GMT

HS110G

The HS110G is a kid-friendly GPS drone capable of shooting in 1080p HD quality and taking FPV live video.

It weighs 176 grams, and its two batteries allow it to fly for almost 30 minutes. GPS modes like follow-me and RTH make it easy and safe to use.

Consider these SD cards for this drone:

ARCANITE 128GB microSDXC Memory Card with Adapter
$20.99

– A1, UHS-I U3, V30, 4K, C10, Micro SD, Optimal Read speeds up to 90 MB/s

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03/07/2024 01:36 pm GMT
SanDisk Extreme Pro 128 GB
$25.00 $19.41
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03/07/2024 07:31 pm GMT

HS720E

One of Holy Stone’s biggest sellers is the HS720E, which captures footage in 4K UHD quality and can transmit footage in 5G.

Its anti-shake and EIS stabilize your footage, while the dual batteries enable this drone to fly for more than 45 minutes.

The HS720 also includes a Sony sensor for videography and photography, GPS features like auto-RTH, and intelligent flight options.

You can use these SD cards for the HS720E:

SanDisk Extreme Pro 128 GB
$25.00 $19.41
Buy from Amazon
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03/07/2024 07:31 pm GMT
SAMSUNG: EVO Select 128GB MicroSDXC UHS-I U3
$47.76 $40.47
Buy from Amazon
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03/07/2024 09:06 am GMT
Lexar E-Series Plus 128GB Micro SD Card
$14.70

MicroSDXC UHS-I Flash Memory Card with Adapter, 160MB/s, C10, U3, A2, V30, Full HD, 4K UHD, High Speed TF Card for Phones, Tablets, Drones, Dash Cam

Buy from Amazon
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03/07/2024 01:51 pm GMT

» MORE: Holy Stone HS720E vs. HS175D (Here’s my Choice)

Do you need an SD card for your drone remote controller?

You’ve stocked up on SD cards for your drone, but are you done shopping yet? Do you also need a microSD or SD card for your remote controller?

Sometimes, but it depends on the model.

Most screen recordings that drone remotes are capable of is not of the same quality as the drone camera.

You should be able to generate a lot of footage without overloading the remote controller storage.

It’s a different story with some DJI drones. The DJI RC should use a microSD card for screen recording and holding on to the recording cache.

SD card technical data

Let’s delve a little deeper into the technical specifications and data of SD cards.

An SD card will have a U on the front, usually accompanied by a number between 1 and 3. The U and number refer to the card’s speed class rating.

A speed class rating determines the card’s write speed, which I’ll talk more about in the next section. A U1, sometimes called a Class 10, can write at a speed of 10 MB a second.

A U3 card writes at a speed of at least 30 MB a second. However, U1 and Class 10 SD cards are different. Cards marked with a U1 or U3 use UHS-I or UHS-II buses.

What if your SD card is a non-UHS? Its reading speeds are about 25 MB a second.

By comparison, a UHS-I card has a speed of 104 MB a second, and UHS-II cards 312 MB a second.

If you see digits like 4, 6, or 10 on the label of the SD card, this refers to the card’s sustained write speed. The higher the number, the faster the speed.

» MORE: All About SD Cards for DJI Mavic Mini and Mini 2 Drones

SD card writing speed for a drone

So, what in the world is an SD card write and read speed, anyway?

The SD card’s write speed is how quickly it can write to the card or transfer the data you’re recording to the card.

If your SD card lacks a good write speed, you will notice frame drops, stuttering, and other problems with your drone footage.

This can ruin the continuity of a video, forcing you to retake it. I already talked about how difficult that can be and how you risk disappointing clients if you habitually do this.

SD card write speed might have a Speed Class, UHS Speed Class, or Video Speed Class mark on the front label.

These will typically look like symbols with an accompanying number.

The number represents the minimum writing speed of the card.

The selected bus mode must not interfere with the write speed, so select C10 for High-Speed Mode, SDR50 or DDR50 in U1 and U3, and V60 or V90 in UHS-II.

An SD card can also read data, with that speed denoted as the App Performance Class, A1 or A2.

The write speed of AI is 500 to 1500 input/output operations per second or IOPS, and A2 is 2000 to 4000 IOPS.

» MORE: How to Download from DJI Air 3

I have issues with my SD card (What to do)

An average SD card should be operable for 10 years.

If you’re having issues with yours, here’s how to troubleshoot.

» MORE: How to Fix My Drone Memory Card Problem? (Solved!)

Try your card in a different slot

The issue could be the drone’s SD card slot. The only way to be sure is to plug the card into another slot. Does it work?

I recommend contacting the drone manufacturer if yours is still under warranty. They can hopefully replace the slot so you can use SD cards.

Reformat the card

Hopefully, your SD card didn’t become corrupted since reformatting will wipe it clean.

If you can access the contents on your card, back them up elsewhere, then reformat. Make sure you got all your files because there is no going back after reformatting.

You can reformat the SD card by plugging it into the computer and using the File Explorer in Windows or Finder in Mac.

Update drone firmware

Missing a firmware update could explain why the SD card has failed when it worked fine the other day.

You might also notice other performance issues, so prioritize the update ASAP and see if that fixed your issue.

Use Check Disk to fix corruption

If you’ve determined your SD card has corrupted, you don’t always have to replace it.

You can repair it by inserting the card into your computer and then navigating to the SD card on the drive.

Open the command prompt, accept the administrator responsibilities, and input chkdsk into the prompt. Type in the letter of the drive associated with the SD card, such as E or F.

Typing chkdsk isn’t word vomit. It’s a Check Disk command. The computer will review the SD card corruption and fix it.

Try your card after the Check Disk process, and it should work fine.

Replace it

Hopefully, it won’t come to this, but if your SD card is physically damaged beyond the point of repair (as in, you can’t even insert it into your drone anymore) or its corruption is so severe that the Check Disk prompt didn’t help, you must consider buying a new card.

» MORE: DJI Air 3 vs. Mavic 3 (Here’s my Choice)

SD cards for drones – FAQ

Do you still have a few lingering questions about drone SD cards? Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered! Check out these FAQs.

Is one SD card enough, or do I need several?

That depends on the volume and quality of footage you plan to take. I would recommend bringing four to five microSD cards if you plan on spending hours at a site.

It’s always better to have more than what you need than not have enough.

Can you use any SD card in a drone?

Drone SD and microSD cards don’t have a standard, but they’re not necessarily interchangeable.

As mentioned, some manufacturers will recommend following SD card parameters to support high performance.

» MORE: What Are Downward Vision Sensors in Drones? (Explained for Beginners)