Identifying the right drones for a public safety drone program can be a daunting task. In this fast-moving industry, it is often difficult to stay up-to-date with all the latest technology. This is especially tough when you’re sifting through the features designed for other use cases like photography and agriculture to find the information that will be relevant to the success of your missions.
When setting up your drone program and considering how to build out your fleet, we recommend considering the following:
Features vs. Cost
Because public safety missions can occur in challenging environments, there is often a temptation to choose higher end equipment. For newer programs, especially those on a budget, this can lead to problems.
Drone operations are not without risk – some reports suggest the average lifespan of a drone can be as short as a year. Losing an expensive drone after a crash or because of other hardware issues can be a huge blow to a program’s ability to respond to incidents and consequently their ability to deliver value to the community.
Often, new programs can be better off starting off with multiple less expensive drones that balance operational requirements with other demands such as low complexity, ease and speed of deployment, and lower initial expense. When in doubt, it is wise to err on the side of redundancy. The ability to spin up more pilots or swap out hardware quickly after an incident can make all the difference.
For example, a single M210, along with a Z30 and an XT2 gimbal, Cendence controller, an iPad Pro, extra batteries, props, cables, and other accessories can consume the majority of the hardware budget for a small public safety drone program. In contrast, if you choose two Mavic 2 Zooms and two Mavic 2 Enterprise Duals, along with several iPads or iPad Minis, extra props and batteries, you should still have several thousand dollars available for training and additional supporting equipment and subscriptions.
Of course, there are cases where more robust drones like the M210 are going to be the best solution for a given scenario, especially in poor weather conditions or where dedicated, feature-rich sensors such as the Z30 or XT2 are needed. New drone programs will need to balance the need to respond to these situations with their pilots’ qualifications and availability when such situations arise. It is often a better time to invest in more complex and expensive hardware after your program has had a few successes and is ready to expand.
Finally, be sure to consider adding training drones to your fleet. Less expensive drones like the Mavic Air and Spark are great devices for learning how to pilot an aircraft or testing out new tactics and procedures. By using dedicated training drones for these test scenarios, you greatly reduce the risk of damage to an operational asset. One thing to be aware of is that DJI does not currently enable third-party flight control applications to fly the Tello or Mavic Mini, which means you can’t fly those models with DroneSense Pilot.
Leasing vs Purchasing
More and more agencies are considering leasing drones to support their growing programs. While it can be more expensive in the long run, lease options can provide more flexibility and lower upfront costs. Leasing also allows an organization to minimize future risk should the US government become even more strict regarding the purchase and operation of Chinese-made drones.
With any lease agreement, you will need to be mindful of the specifics:
- How long is the commitment?
- What risks do you assume should the drone get damaged?
- Equipment refresh intervals
- Operational limitations potentially imposed on lessee
In general, new public safety drone programs are better off with a larger fleet of devices available at the ready. Therefore, we recommend starting a new program with the Mavic 2 series of aircraft and particularly the Mavic 2 Enterprise Dual (for thermal capabilities).
When deciding on the best drones for your public safety drone program, it’s most important to keep in mind the tactical situations and environments you’ll need to be prepared for. If you will likely need to fly operations in more demanding situations or weather conditions, a DJI Matrice series aircraft is going to be a good choice. However, if you do not need the more expensive hardware at the outset of your program, you should strongly consider deferring those purchases until you’re ready to expand your fleet.