The Truth About UAVs: Is a Multirotor or Fixed-wing Drone best?

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Price isn’t the only consideration when determining whether a multirotor or fixed-wing drone is best for your farm operation!

Sep 5, 2016

When we started in this industry, there was a real push toward fixed-wing aircraft for professional use. Multirotors for the most part were considered niche aircraft for cinematographers and hobbyists. Given the numbers in a recent industry report from DroneDeploy, I’d say it’s safe to say those sentiments have flip-flopped. So is the wing -based drone platform dead? Everytime I talk to a customer, the question always comes up in one way, shape, or form: “Should I be flying a multirotor or fixed-wing drone?” Despite what the numbers are showing us right now, I’m not sure that the answer is all that cut-and dry.

Money is an object.

The cold, hard reality is that it’s cheaper to get into a useable, turn-key drone if it’s got more than one propeller. There may be rare exception (and if you got one, let’s hear about it!); but the economics of scale have driven many would-be operators to the multirotors.  Sure, I’ve seen some inexpensive, “flight-trainer” type fixed wing aircraft; but the fact of the matter is that the majority of these are merely enthusiast toys with no real economic payback. Is someone creating apps for it? Can you swap the sensor? Can it be programmed for semi-autonomous flight? If the answer to any or all of these is “no”, you’re better off looking at something else.

Many folks are inexperienced operators.

The statement above shouldn’t be considered a knock – it’s the truth. And because the need for drone-based data is purpose driven, you get professionals outside of aeronautics that [for better or worse] bring with their own ways of doing things. In the case of farming and ranching, there’s often a convention that you “drive it until it breaks” and then fix it in the field. This dogma totally flies in the face of how one should operate an aircraft. Unfortunately (mark me guilty too!), if an operator is most concerned with the data, the platform itself can tend to get neglected. Are you performing steps consistently from a checklist? If not, you may be at risk for a costly mistake! To that point, you can’t put a fixed-wing aircraft in park. Like a shark, the thing’s gotta keep moving to stay afloat. When coupled with GPS technology, a multirotor aircraft has the distinct benefit of being able to hover in mid-air, giving the operator to time to remember what it was they planned to do next.

When less props are better:

For the experienced operator, a fixed-wing aircraft can be ideal for a lot of different reasons. Chief among them is airtime. You wanna fly high? Great. You wanna fly far and for a long time while carrying relatively heavy sensors? Can-do. That said, many of these advantages are going to be difficult to obtain with “vanilla” Part 107. Specifically, I’m thinking about the flight ceiling and flying beyond visual line-of-sight (VLOS).  To take full-advantage of all that fixed-wing drones can offer, some waivers will have to be filed to comply with Part 107. One could chalk this up to the “professional cost of admission;” that is to say that if you’re asking for special treatment, you’re probably smart enough to not abuse the privilege. In the context of flight safety, it’s not out-of-line to say that most aircraft take their licks on takeoff and landings. Big, long flights allow the aircraft to conduct multiple missions aloft; safely moving from field to field to cover substantial acres. This is the ideal for fixed wing aircraft operation.

What’s an RPIC to do?

As it stands, multirotors almost always win where cost and ease-of-use are concerned; and let’s face it, that’s what most growers and ranchers are looking at. All the same, there are some very specific use cases in the fly-for-service arena that are compelling to the would-be fixed-wing remote pilot in command. Do yourself a favor: If you consider yourself a drone greenhorn, get an inexpensive multirotor, learn the rules of the skies, and get your part 107 first before considering a more expensive platform (whether that be a multirotor or fixed-wing drone!). You’re gonna make mistakes and you’re gonna crash. When the inevitable rookie mistake happens, one less zero at the end of the sticker price of what’s lying in the field in pieces is gonna go down a lot easier with your accountant. As your piloting skills improve down the road, you’ll want to reexamine the “multirotor or fixed-wing drone?” question; as case-specific operational benefits have the potential to be significant for a veteran remote pilot.
Care to share your own fixed-wing triumphs or multirotor tragedies? Be sure to post ‘em to the forum via the link below!

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