It's a conflict for the modern age. An intrepid drone goes up against an artificial lightning strike. Will it live to fly another day?
There's a magical place at the University of Manchester in the UK. It's called the High Voltage Laboratory and it's home to a massive impulse generator that can essentially emit up to a 2-million-volt lightning strike on demand. YouTube entertainer Tom Scott visited the lab to see what happens when a DJI Phantom 3 drone gets smacked by a massive electrical impulse.
Scott and the lab team flew the drone on a tether, charged up the machine and blasted the drone with the strike. It makes a loud bang and the drone drops out of the air. The slowed-down footage is a spectacle to behold.
"Surprisingly there were no visible marks on the outside of the drone, but that doesn't mean that the insides got away unscathed; as it turns out, the electricity took the path of least resistance and fried all the sensitive internal electronics," notes a blog post Monday from the High Voltage Lab.
The lab tried a second test with a backup drone equipped with copper tape, which was meant to act like a lightning rod. Spoiler alert: The impulse generator fried that drone, too.
The drones' failure to survive the experiment should act as a warning to drone operators: It's probably not a great idea to fly your expensive gear in a lightning storm. In a battle between a drone and a lightning strike, the lightning will win.
Drone flight in bad weather conditions
As it is known, the group of meteorological adverse phenomena for flight more relevant present variations according to technical and operational characteristics.
Although there are drones that weigh more than 1 tonne and can fly above 60,000 feet, most operations involve small aircraft flying close to the ground and thus are more vulnerable to adverse weather conditions that occur at low altitudes.
Before commencing a flight, in addition to knowing the operating manual of the equipment, the remote pilot must be aware of all the information necessary for the flight planning.
One of the necessary information for the flight is the careful evaluation of the weather conditions.
Weather conditions are ideal for safe drone operation. Sunny days with calm or weak wind offer less risk to the safety of the operations of this type of equipment.
However, it may be necessary to operate a RPAS in weather conditions that do not always fit the ideal operating profile. In this situation, care must be taken not to compromise the safety of the operation and to avoid damaging the equipment and, in particular, the risk of collision with objects, persons and aircraft.
To avoid RPA flight in adverse weather conditions, it is recommended that the remote pilot is aware of pre-flight weather information and knows the risks that certain phenomena may offer for this type of operation. Such care will help increase your situational awareness.
In addition, the remote pilot must know the operational limits of the equipment as regards the weather conditions. Wind speed above 20 kt, snow, rain and fog are adverse weather conditions for the operation of some models, such as Phantom 4 and Mavic .
The rains are formed by drops of water with a diameter of more than 0.5 mm visibly separated that fall from the clouds. They are usually caused by the encounter between two air masses (a mass of cold air and a mass of warm air), due to a front or an elevation of a cloud by ascending currents.
Flying during rainfall can cause equipment to be destroyed because most drones are not waterproof or waterproof. Rainwater, even in light rainfall conditions, can come in contact with hot batteries and motors and cause breakdowns in electronic systems.
In addition, this weather condition may cause greater difficulty for operation of drones that use cameras for stability and navigation, as rain can reduce the contrast required for the camera to discern movement.
Rainwater action can degrade control and control link performance and can result in a significant reduction in radio range. In addition, excess moisture can cause temporary equipment failure.
Another danger that can be encountered during the operation of a RPAS under rainfall condition is the difficulty of viewing the drone either by a remote observer / pilot - something critical in VLOS operations - or by another aircraft. Rainwater can also greatly reduce the view of the front camera - on aircraft equipped with this equipment.
One way to avoid the risk of rains for drone flight is to check available weather information before starting the operation and review the latest weather reports and weather forecasts. Such planning requires adequate anticipation of the take-off time of the equipment.
Wind gusts and wind shear
The winds become strong whenever there is a large pressure difference between two points. In this situation, the air will move from the point of greatest pressure to the point of least pressure in the horizontal direction.
In regions where stronger winds are frequent, drone flight can become potentially dangerous, because under wind and wind shear conditions, correcting RPA piloting may not be sufficient to ensure safe operation.
Each RPA has a strong wind tolerance, which is reported by the manufacturer. Flying outside the tolerance limits can cause navigation problems as the equipment may not have the strength to overcome wind resistance or can acquire extreme speeds very quickly.
Above this speed, the resistance level of the equipment to the effects of the wind will vary according to the size of the propellers, motor spin and equipment weight. A drone like Phantom 3 should not fly with winds above 36 km / h. Have a higher drone as a 6SGEO of Mikrokopter can fly in windy conditions up to 49 km / h.
It is possible to use speed measurement sensors that can be installed on fixed-wing drones. In the case of multidrive drones, the installation of these sensors becomes a little more difficult, since the sensor must be fixed in a place that is not influenced by the wind of the drone propellers themselves.
This is the case, for example, when the remote pilot decides to fly at a height higher than allowed by the equipment manual. In this situation, the RPA may face difficulties to overcome wind resistance. It is important to note that at higher levels, the wind speed can vary more rapidly due to the decrease in atmospheric pressure, which requires greater care with the parameter wind speed during the operation.
Another potentially dangerous situation is operation under the effect of lateral wind - when the wind is in the direction towards the side of the RPA.
If the side wind is at high speed, the remote pilot may be surprised. In this situation, the equipment can exit its line of sight and lose the signal of the radio, entering FailSafe mode. If the height set for the return is not sufficient, the equipment may collide with vegetation or with obstacles in the ground.
Another care the remote pilot needs to have in relation to the wind is to know his direction before starting the operation of the RPA so that the planning of the operation is compatible with the battery life of the equipment.
If the operation is started in favor of the direction of the wind and the flight of the return stretch to the base is carried out against the direction of the wind, there will certainly be greater use of the battery in the return section. This detail must be taken into account when planning the operation.
It is also essential that the remote pilot knows all the limits of autonomy of his equipment to avoid descents with very high speed, which can potentiate the wind gradient and cause risk of collision with ground, obstacles and people.
Danger of wind in areas with obstacles
If the operation is carried out near areas that have large buildings, artificial shelters or natural obstructions, such as large trees, it is necessary to have extra attention. Obstacles in the soil affect the flow of wind. For this reason, it is recommended, before starting the operation in these places, to know the different wind patterns of the locality.
A lot of people want to know what the best drone is, but that is actually a very difficult question. My favorite drone is the Mavic2Zoom, but I wouldn’t recommend that drone to everyone. I don’t think the best drones of 2020 are here yet as Skydio and DJI have some drones in the works. There are still some excellent options out there, though.
Your purpose and budget are two hugely important factors when looking for a drone. If your goal is to have fun, then I would recommend one of the inexpensive drones on my list. If aerial photography is your focus, then the best beginner drone has been the DJI Spark, but it isn’t one I’d recommend to professional or semi-professional pilots. I’ll take a look at the entry-level competition as well as some of the higher-performing birds, like the Mavic 2 Pro.
Unlike most authors of “best drone” lists out there, I have actually flown all of these drones. I have flown hundreds of other drones as well, so you know these drones actually are great picks.
Best Drone Under $25: Eachine E010
The Eachine E010 is the “gateway drone” to kick off your addiction to flying. For the price of a few pumpkin lattes, you can buy a tiny ducted drone that is a blast to fly.
The E010 is an excellent beginner drone and a solid option for kids as well. It is a no-camera, no-frills quadcopter, but sometimes simple is better. It can be safely flown indoors or outside. Those who enjoy DIY projects can convert it into a mini FPV race quad. Learn more or Buy One. Don’t forget the extra batteries.
Best Drone Under $100: Ryze Tello
This palm-sized drone is a technological marvel. Ryze, a small startup company, teamed up with Intel and DJI to give us an excellent beginner drone. The Tello has a 5 MP camera that shoots electronically-stabilized video. It has built-in sensors to help keep it stable and make it super easy to fly. The Tello even has built-in flight modes so you can take unique videos or killer selfies. Learn more or Buy One. Amazon has some great package deals as well.
Best Drone Under $200: Eachine Cinecam
The Eachine Cinecam is one of my favorite drones. It is a unique two-camera drone that fits in the palm of your hand. It is a Cinewhoop style drone that is typically flown using FPV goggles. It can capture 4K video in ways that really no DJI drone can. There are no frills with this little quad. In order to fly it, you’ll need your own FPV goggles and FrSky compatible remote. Cinewhoop style footage is unique and I highly recommend you check it out. Learn more or Order One.
Best Drone Under $300: Parrot Bebop 2
If you are looking for a little more range and flight time from your drone then you might want to consider the Parrot Bebop 2. The Bebop will give you 25 minutes of flight time and a range of up to 2000 meters. Its 14 MP camera will stabilize your video electronically for smooth footage. The Bebop also includes a handful of intelligent flight modes like “return-to-home,” “follow me,” and waypoints. The video and picture quality can’t compete with the drones further down the list, but this drone is a steal at its current price. Learn more or Buy One.
We’ve heard a lot about the Xiaomi Fimi A3. This drone checks in at $259 and has some solid features. Its HD camera on a mechanical two-axis gimbal put it firmly ahead of the Parrot Bebop abut not quite DJI Spark territory in terms of quality. We are waiting to get our hands on one to put it to the test. Stay tuned. Learn more or Order One.
Best Drone Under $400: DJI Spark
The Spark is the first drone on this list that we would recommend to anyone who wants to use their drone for high-quality aerial photography. It uses a two-axis gimbal to stabilize the 12 MP camera. The Spark is surprisingly stable and has some excellent intelligent flight modes. It has a range of up to 2,000 meters and a flight time of 16 minutes. The DJI Spark is a great drone for people getting into aerial photography. Once you get comfortable with the Spark you will probably want something a bit more capable. Learn more or Buy One. I strongly recommend the Fly More Package.
For a long time, the DJI Spark was the only drone I would recommend for anyone that wanted to get into aerial photography for less than $500. With the previously mentioned Xiaomi FiMi and now the Hubsan Zino, the Spark has some serious competition. The Hubsan Zino features a full 3-axis gimbal and the ability to shoot 4K video for $399. We are waiting to get our hands on one to do a full test, but the initial reports on the Zino are promising. Learn more or Buy one.
Best Drone Under $700: Parrot Anafi
Unfortunately, there isn’t much available in the $500-700 range, unless you are looking for a used drone or you can snag a flash sale. The Parrot Anafi is a step above the DJI Spark and adds two unique elements that you won’t find on many other drones — a 180° gimbal and 3X zoom. The Anafi offers a range of creative shots that no other drone can provide thanks to its innovative 180° camera gimbal that can look up, down, and all directions in between. It also is the first consumer drone under $1,000 with the ability to zoom, albeit digitally. With a solid flight time of 25 minutes and a 4,000-meter range, you can do a lot with the Anafi. The 21 MP camera of the Anafi can shoot 4K video. This is the time to buy, as for a limited time Parrot has dropped the price $100 and is offering an extra battery for free. Learn more or Buy One.
Best Drone Under $800: DJI Mavic Air
The Mavic Air is a super-compact drone with some impressive capabilities. With both front and rear obstacle avoidance you get peace of mind when you fly. The impressive camera sits on a full three-axis gimbal and is capable of 4K video. Whether you are a pro or an amateur, this is the perfect drone to throw in your backpack or suitcase. You’ll get some great intelligent flight modes, a decent 20 minutes of flight time, and a 4,000-meter range with the Mavic Air. Learn more or Buy One. The Fly More Package is a great deal.
Best Drone Under $1,000: Autel Evo
You can get a few really good drones under $1,000. The original Phantom 4 and the original Mavic Pro are two that you can’t go wrong with. However, for the money, the Autel Evo might just be the best buy. It folds up like a DJI Mavic and has an excellent 4K camera. In fact, it might just shoot better 4K footage than the Mavic 2 drones. Learn more. Order One.
Bad as they are, the wildfires now raging in southern California aren't exactly unprecedented. Wildfires in the U.S. were brutal last summer too, scorching more than 8.8 million acres and cloaking the Pacific Northwest in smoke and ash. In California alone last year, more than 40 people died and 8,400 buildings were destroyed in the deadliest wildfires in the state’s history.
Things may only get worse in years to come. Climate change is lengthening fire seasons and triggering more and larger blazes.
But aerial drones may help save the day. In fact, the Los Angeles Fire Department today said it would use firefighting drones for the first time in its history to coordinate the effort to help extinguish a pair of fires threatening homes in the city.
From tiny quadcopters to big fixed-wing aircraft, drones are showing that they can detect, contain and even extinguish fires faster and with greater safety. They give firefighters a bird’s-eye view of the terrain and help them determine where a fire will spread — so they can make swift decisions about where fire crews should go and which residents need to be evacuated.
Safer and more versatile
Drones have key advantages over conventional aircraft.
For one thing, the airplanes and helicopters used to survey wildfires and drop retardant can’t fly in poor conditions — and they’re often in short supply. “The sheer cost of operating, maintaining, and training is huge, so we run out of aircraft real quick,” says Chad Runyan, acting manager of the U.S. Forest Service’s unmanned aircraft systems program.
And flying over raging fires puts pilots and crew at risk. Plane and helicopter crashes accounted for 24 percent of wildland firefighter deaths between 2006 and 2016, according to the Forest Service.
Drones can be equipped with infrared cameras that peer through smoke, as well as sensors for wind direction and other weather variables that affect how wildfires spread. They can whiz through canyons and other cramped spaces where helicopters can’t fly and glide low enough to capture high-resolution footage
Drones can fly in conditions that helicopters and airplanes aren’t equipped for. Department of the Interior
And if a fire starts to close in on a crew, drones can identify a quick escape route. “If we have a group of firefighters trapped we can easily send three or four drones up there,” Runyan says.
Proving their mettle
These nimble aircraft have already begun to show their mettle. As fires raged across California last summer, dozens of helicopters were grounded. “The smoke was too thick for them to fly for days, sometimes weeks,” says Brad Koeckeritz, chief of the Interior Department’s unmanned aircraft systems division. “The drones provided an opportunity to gather intelligence at a time when we wouldn’t be able to gather it any other way.”
In California and Oregon, drones flew through thick smoke to find small fires that otherwise probably wouldn’t have been detected until they had become much larger and harder to contain, Koeckeritz says.
High-flying drones and drone swarms
Going forward, wildfire experts intend to deploy high-altitude drones to cruise over fires and send back a continuous stream of video. “You’re talking about an aircraft that can cover a massive amount of land at 65,000 feet…We can loiter one above a fire for hours or days on end,” Runyan says. “It’s ever vigilant, and that’s an ability we’ve never had.”
Unmanned helicopters could also carry in supplies and help tame wildfires. These oversized drones will dump buckets of water on a blaze long after sunset, when manned helicopters have landed for the night
Drones can help establish firebreaks to keep wildfires from spreading. Firefighters often set small, controlled fires by dropping flammable balls from helicopters. The balls ignite on the ground and burn up vegetation lying in the wildfire’s path; when the wildfire arrives.
But the low-altitude flights required to make these drops put pilots and crew at risk. Engineers at the University of Nebraska are testing drones that could drop these balls instead.
Someday entire swarms of firefighting drones may be launched over wildfires. These would be programmed to fly autonomously — no need for drone pilots on the ground below — and share information with each other and with firefighters on the ground, says Dr. Hung La, director of the advanced robotics and automation laboratory at the University of Nevada, Reno and a leader in the development of autonomous drone swarms.
Drones won’t stamp out fires completely — and since wildfires play an important role in many ecosystems, we wouldn’t want them to. But already drones are helping prevent the loss of lives and property — with greater capabilities in the works. As Runyan puts it, “The opportunities are endless.”