Flying with DroneSense Pilot: Considerations for Tablets and Cables

Selecting a tablet is one of the most important equipment choices you’ll make for your drone program. With DroneSense, the flight control tablet is not just a situational awareness lifeline to the drone, it is also responsible for a tremendous amount of processing and communication. It’s important to use a device that has plenty of computing power and will deliver a responsive and reliable experience.

iPads

The DroneSense Pilot app is currently available for the iPad. We are actively working on making Pilot available on Android devices as well (including the CrystalSky and Smart Controller) and expect to make those options available soon.

The newest version of the iPad Pro is the most powerful device available and is the optimal tablet choice if your budget allows for it. Either the 11 or 12.9 inch sizes will work well, but be sure to consider the added bulk and weight of the larger device.

The next best options are the newest iPad Air and iPad Mini 5. These devices have similar specs to the iPad Pro but at a significantly lower price point. For newer programs, this might be the best choice – especially in hot, sunny climates where it can be valuable to have backup tablets available in the event of overheating. The newest “generic” iPad has specs just slightly below the Air and Mini 5 and should provide good performance as well.

DroneSense uses very little storage on the iPad, so feel free to choose a less expensive model with minimal storage. Of course, if you need extra storage for other applications you’re running on your iPad, a larger capacity iPad will work just fine too.

WiFi/WiFi+Cellular

Another important decision to make when selecting flight control tablets is whether to choose Wi-Fi only or Wi-Fi+Cellular iPads. We strongly recommend purchasing a WiFi + Cellular iPad. WiFi-only iPads don’t have built-in GPS and will consequently have issues reporting an accurate GPS location of the tablet (and therefore, the pilot). This can lead to the drone bearing indicator reporting incorrect information.

One option to consider if your organization is on a tight budget is to skip setting up data plans for each Wi-Fi+Cellular iPad device and use a mobile hotspot for internet connectivity instead. While this approach may add some complexity to your network setup, it does afford you multiple connectivity options and still allows you to take advantage of the internal GPS on the iPad for accurate reporting of the tablet/pilot location.

Heat Mitigation

iPads are susceptible to overheating in high temperatures. The DroneSense Support site has detailed information about ways to mitigate overheating so that you can stay in the air longer with optimal performance.

When purchasing iPads, avoid darker color devices (such as space gray), as the black border will tend to absorb more heat energy from sunlight. Every little bit of heat mitigation helps!

Android Tablets

DroneSense is actively working on a native Android version of the Pilot app that will be compatible with most Android tablets, including the CrystalSky and Smart Controller from DJI.

The CrystalSky is purpose-built for use with DJI drones and the Cendence controller, and its bright screen and resistance to overheating can make it very attractive for many public safety UAS missions. However, agencies should keep in mind that the CrystalSky is an older device built on a custom version of Android that is not up to date (and therefore carries potential data security risks, among other concerns).

DroneSense will support the CrystalSky, but in some scenarios, performance of certain compute-heavy features might be sub-optimal due to the limitations of the hardware and the version of Android running on the device. We recommend making sure you have other types of tablets available to fly with in addition to the CrystalSky to ensure you always have access to the features your mission requires.

The DJI Smart Controller contains an integrated Android-based tablet and is likely an excellent solution for agencies needing quick deployments for their Mavic 2 Enterprise aircraft. DroneSense is working to complete its native Android app and that will support the Smart Controller when it is released.

Other currently available Android tablets, such as the Samsung Galaxy Tab series, are designed primarily for the consumer market and generally lack the desired screen brightness, form factor, and durability required for the rigors of public safety UAS operations.

Cables

Proper cables can play a surprisingly significant role in the success of your operations. Cables are a small expense, but many devices will respond poorly to nonstandard or cheap cables. The symptoms of a poor connection can be unpredictable and hard to diagnose. We’ve seen poor tablet-to-controller connections result in lost connection to the drone, camera functions not loading or buttons missing, unreliable video streaming, and even application crashes.

For best results with an iPad, use a Lightning-to-USB cable specifically listed as compatible with Apple devices, as generic or inexpensive cables can cause issues on some devices. For the iPad Pro models with a USB-C connector, we also recommend sticking with explicitly Apple-compatible cables.

DJI also sells cables that support iPad devices that have been shown to be reliable replacements for Apple-manufactured cables when connecting between the controller and the iPad.

If you choose a third-party cable, it is best to avoid thickly insulated, stiff, or inflexible cables. Sideways tension on the cable can cause a poor connection between the tablet and drone controller, which can result in poor or lost communication with the drone as well as other unpredictable behavior. This sideways tension issue is particularly problematic with the iPad Pro models that have a USB-C port.

Finally, frayed or damaged cables and loose USB or Lightning connectors can cause unpredictable issues with connectivity and application stability. Be sure to include cable inspection as part of your regular maintenance schedules. Whenever possible, have extra cables on hand!

Our Recommendation

With any tablet, the latest hardware is always going to be the best bet. The iPad Pro provides better overall performance, but the iPad Air and iPad Mini 5 have very similar specs for considerably less money. You can also save money by choosing models with less storage. Because Wi-Fi only iPads don’t have built-in GPS, we recommend Wi-Fi + Cellular devices – with or without a data plan.

For Android, we are cautious to recommend new purchases of the CrystalSky tablet until DJI updates the hardware and software. However, we recognize that there are certain missions where the CrystalSky will be the best option, particularly in hot and sunny environments.

The DJI Smart Controller is a good option for agencies using the Mavic 2 Enterprise aircraft who want to be able to get it in the air at a moment’s notice. Its small size and all-in-one design makes it very simple for pilots to deploy quickly.

Unfortunately, there is simply no perfect flight control tablet for public safety operations available today. There are pros and cons to each of the options we covered in this post, and the tablet that’s best for one mission may not be appropriate for another.

Someday soon, we hope to see a tablet on the market that checks all the boxes that public safety UAS teams need. Until that tablet materializes, we recommend having a mix available to your pilots to make sure you have the best possible hardware for the mission at hand.

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