The best fixed-wing drones for serious mapping projects—2023

A fixed-wing drone surveying a Canyon to produce a map

Rights-free image as long as you credit wingtra.com

We are moving toward an increasingly digitized world. Drones are proving critical to this evolution, because they swiftly gather location data and life-like maps of any assets at a fraction of the cost of previous methods.

As the technology advances, stakeholders benefit from knowing which systems lead the pack, for which kinds of projects and why. This page drills down into fixed-wing drone tech. 

It specifically details why a fixed-wing drone is the only option for large projects, plus why fixed-wing hybrid VTOL drones are the best fixed-wing drones for mapping.

Fixed-wing drones

What is a fixed-wing drone?

As UAVs have proven themselves capable data gatherers and ideal tools for vertical visual inspections, professionals across all sectors have been using them for larger, more complex projects.

At first, the only way this could happen was if drone pilots flew many multirotor flights or drones on a single project. So a demand opened up for more efficient, wider coverage. And engineers filled that demand with various forms of fixed-wing UAV drone technology.

Similar to a passenger aircraft, a fixed-wing drone relies on its long titled wings to create a lift effect while cruising

By definition, fixed-wing drones are long range and energy efficient. I.e., they use less battery power since their lift is generated passively (see illustration further down for more details). 

In this way, fixed-wing UAVs cover significantly more ground and can carry heavier payloads. Additionally, fixed-wing drones are considered a better option in windy environments.

What is the difference between a fixed-wing and rotary-wing drone?

  1. Rotary-wing drones rely 100 percent on battery power to generate lift and to propel flight
  2. Fixed-wing drones rely partly on passive lift due to their design
  3. Fixed-wing drones cover more area, because they don’t use so much battery staying aloft
  4. Both types are impacted by weight, but rotary-wing drones are always severely limited in their flight time just to carry batteries and a payload
  5. Fixed-wing drones can carry higher-quality heavier payloads and still cover significantly more ground
  6. All rotary-wing drones are VTOL, and only some fixed-wing drones are VTOL

Animated video comparing passive lift of a VTOL fixed-wing, WingtraOne, with the active lift of a popular rotary-wing DJI Phantom model.

While larger DJI quadcopters, like the Matrice 600, and other hexacopters, octocopters, etc., have a slightly longer flight time, we can apply the logic above to see why they will always be limited. 

Namely, the longer the flight time, the larger and heavier the battery. And while you can make the drone larger to accommodate, there will always be a compromise between these weights. Then you must factor in a payload.

In short, copters use the battery for 100 percent of their lift, so their efficiency will always hit a glass ceiling compared to fixed-wing UAVs.

Maximum coverage with one flight 
at 1.9 cm/px (0.75 in/px) GSD

Mapping drone wingtraone illustration
WingtraOne
RGB61

61 MP camera
310 ha (766 ac)
Fixed-wing drone illustration
Other fixed-wing drones
20 MP camera
170 ha (420 ac)
Multicopter illustration
Multicopter
drones
20 MP camera
29 ha (71 ac)

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Toys vs. tools: What do you need a fixed-wing for?

Just like motor vehicles, the field of UAVs can be broken down into drone types—i.e., fixed-wing—and drone subtypes—i.e., military or commercial. In the commercial subtype, we’ll find a clear distinction between mapping and hobby drones, because the users have radically different needs and expectations from the tech at this point!

Hobby and video fixed wings
No camera or camera specs in p units for video scanning
Focus on flight range and time
Typically shorter flight times, around a half hour
Range of construction qualities
Mapping and survey fixed wings
Camera is the heart of the platform, and evaluated by MP resolution
Focus on coverage at different altitudes
Longer flight times, from an hour up
Serious quality since these are needed to fly over assets and sometimes people

More and more fixed-wings are popping up on the market today. Many of them, however, are designed for videography or hobby flying.

For example, the XK A1200 3D6G, is a fixed-wing with an 800 meter range and 30 minute flight time, designed for videography and listed as good for beginners.

The Xcraft XPlusOne Quadcopter is a hybrid fixed-wing VTOL with a 1000 meter range and 20 meter flight time but no camera at all.

The Parrot Swing has a seven minute flight time and 30 meter range, plus the option to buy an add-on camera for videography.

While the Parrot Disco FPV has the longest flight time of any of these, it’s truly recreational and designed for videography and VR experience of flight.

For hobbyists and videographers, the range, flight time, flight stability and cost-for-quality will be big considerations. Additionally, post-processing is not a factor.

For mapping and surveying with fixed-wing drones, we enter an entire new technology ecosystem. The world of GIS is less forgiving about the details, so every part of the drone will make a big difference in the value it adds to a project. 

What to consider when buying a fixed-wing drone for serious projects

WingtraOne and eBee X fixed-wing drones comparison

Project efficiency (vs. flight time)

The whole point of fixed-wing technology is to maximize the flight range. But when you are talking about serious mapping projects, you need to factor in the resolution and flight height to see the amount of a project you can cover on a single battery. Additionally, you will need to know how the fixed-wing takes off and lands so that you can factor in where flights will begin and end. 

When we look at today’s leading fixed-wing mapping drones—like the WingtraOne GEN II and the AgEagle eBee X—some key design differences either limit or enhance the efficiency of the systems. Namely, VTOL, detailed in the next section, will dramatically enhance the efficiency and quality of data capture for a fixed-wing camera drone. In other words, longer fixed-wing flight times do not fully reflect the impact on job time.

WingtraOne + Sony RX1R II


GSD: 0.8 cm (0.3 in)/px
Real resolution: 0.9 cm (0.4 in)/px

eBee X + Aeria X


GSD: 1.4 cm (0.6 in)/px
Real resolution: 1.7 cm (0.7 in)/px

Image quality

Although the quality of the payload is an obvious factor in how good the images will be from a fixed-wing drone, the design of the drone is just as critical. Let’s take eBee vs. WingtraOne GEN II for example.  

Because eBee is a belly-landing, hand-launch fixed-wing drone, it needs to stay under a certain weight to be launchable and to land without destroying itself under its own weight. For this reason, its payload is limited to an entry-level resolution. This also creates an efficiency ceiling since higher resolution would enable higher flight heights and wider coverage per flight.

Accuracy

When measuring assets; construction as-built vs. as-designed; land parcels; contracted work, and more, the data captured by a UAV for mapping needs to be verifiably accurate. This involves both a high-quality sensor and a real-time or post-process location correction system to bring the accuracy down to centimeters from satellite accuracy, which is more than a meter. 

You also need to know that even in moderate wind, the fixed-wing camera drone will hold steady and capture reliable images every time.

Ease of use illustration for the best fixed-wing drone
While ease-of-use feels straightforward in the field, it is achieved through a complex combination of engineering feats that result in less guesswork, more pilot confidence, reduced field time and a general sense of reliability when using a fixed-wing system.

Ease of use

Is the fixed-wing a hybrid VTOL or is it a belly-landing, hand-launch UAV? How much automation is at play? How intuitive are the in-flight controls? Is there a foolproof pre-flight checklist to ensure safe and successful operation, every time? All of the answers to these questions will determine how easy a fixed-wing drone is to use. 

Surveyors and mappers not only need to learn to use it, they also need to feel confident that they can hop in a truck, pull up to a site and grab data when the opportunities strike!

Country of origin

Today, for geopolitical reasons, more and more sensitivity exists around GIS information and the digitization of classified visual information. For example, the US government now keeps a Blue UAS Cleared List of UAVs that are pre-approved to use on projects. A common qualification involves none of the components of any of the platforms being sourced in China.

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WingtraOne GEN II is on the Blue UAS Cleared List due to its points of production, parts sourcing, reliability, high performance and security features. 

With this clearance, government agencies in the US enjoy Department of Defense pre-approval to gather data over areas that otherwise require applications for exception to policy.

Wingtra gen II drone BLUE UAS certification

The changing conversation: From fixed-wing to VTOL

As early as 2013, hybrid VTOL technology was impressing researchers who saw it as the next step in commercial UAV solutions. By 2017, VTOL began to pick up traction on the market as a solution that offered users the coverage of a fixed-wing drone plus the controlled vertical take-off and landing of a multirotor. This signified two important breakthroughs: 

First, operators no longer had to search for massive, soft areas to belly land. The VTOL fixed-wing can touch down in a smaller area, and some, such as WingtraOne, can even rise up and lower down around high tree stands, proving a benefit to environmental research.

Second, the payload quality is no longer limited to 20 MP since the passive lift of fixed-wing flight can keep heavier cameras in the air longer. This means you can gather data at a much higher—even survey-grade—accuracy and better resolution.

Let’s get specific: Compare the VTOL hybrid Wingtra with eBee

WingtraOne

Other fixed-wing drones

Space needed for take-off and landing

Very little space is needed

Large area for take-off and landing is needed

Durability during take-off and landing on a difficult terrain 

Each landing is safe even on gravel over many landings

Drone deteriorates with each landing and risks being broken on rocky terrain

Safety at take-off and landing

Always safe distance

Operator and environment in danger 

Manual adjustments

Easy like with a multicopter

Fixed-wing piloting skills needed

Ability to carry heavier payloads with higher MP
High accuracy 61 MP payload
Entry-level 20 MP camera

The difference between VTOL hybrid fixed-wing drones and classical fixed-wing UAVs is clear. So if we compare the two leading fixed-wing systems on the market, it should come as no surprise that the WingtraOne VTOL system offers the following significant advantages over the eBee:

  1. Controlled and tight take-off and landing spot for improved safety, way more flight planning options and sustainability of the drone
  2. More than twice the payload quality and accuracy potential without sacrificing coverage
  3. Automated launch and land from a distance improves safety
  4. Lower overhead in terms of repair time lost and replacement costs since WingtraOne will not require as much

A full, in-depth drone comparison featuring the advantages and disadvantages of both systems breaks down image quality, coverage and ease-of-use. 

Advantages and disadvantages of different systems

This article is based on the assumption that fixed-wings offer more coverage and are generally more efficient than other types of commercial mapping UAVs. Just to make sure this is well understood, let’s look a bit closer into why different types of drones present different advantages and disadvantages that make them good for capturing supplemental information, or for using on other use cases altogether.

Multirotors in general

Multirotor drones operate based on lift powered by a number of rotor-mounted propellers. Quadcopters, hexacopters and octocopters are examples of these. They range in size—from hobby versions that fit in the palm of your hand, to large copters that span meters in diameter. Multirotors have been around for a while, so their pros and cons are quite clear. 

Their most notorious pro is probably ease of use. Because they are inherently VTOL and intuitive to control remotely as they hover through the air, these kinds of drones are recommended for beginners. Many models also feature obstacle avoidance since they can slow down, change course and hover mid-air.

Saying this, the fine level of control mid-air makes these drones well-suited for any applications requiring hovering and controlled motion and pausing, at any speed and in any direction.

The most outstanding con of any multirotor is limited flight time. This is, as mentioned above, a hard limit on their efficiency because their battery always powers their lift, which is against the weight of their battery, payload and body.

In the end, multirotor drones can be excellent for a range of applications, including videography, inspection of vertical assets, dispersal of seeds, crop dusting, first response use cases, and delivery of goods.

Single-rotor drones

The most popular example of a single-rotor drone is a helicopter. Unmanned models will resemble this. Helicopters can travers a long distance, at high speeds. But they’re not super ideal for capturing meticulous detail over large areas because they are, again, powered by lift alone.  They’re also not as strong at inspecting vertical assets as they are not as nimble or maneuverable as multirotors.

Single-rotor drones are great for search and rescue, transportation of goods, carrying heavy payloads and limited surveillance. A last consideration is their noise level, since they can be considerably louder than multirotors.

Fixed-wing drone case studies

WingtraOne GEN II Treasure Island San Francisco

“That’s why I like Wingtra and promote it. It’s super hard to make a fixed-wing or VTOL drone that provides accurate data. Because a lot of time when you have the fixed-wing in the air, the camera is moving a little bit and that’s the issue of design and the way it’s manufactured. And with Wingtra, the data that we have from the camera is consistently really good.”

Explore the case study and learn why the data we provide is unmatched

WingtraOne at Chennault International Airport

“You would not be able to get this level of detail on this elevation model any other way, with any other UAS, except WingtraOne. Could you have flown this with a big multirotor? Possibly, but it would have taken longer. Certainly no other fixed-wing; it was too windy.”

Read the full article to see exactly how WingtraOne manoeuvres surveying environments

Bringing a massive drone construction survey in-house for a low-cost, high-quality solution

Heritage City planning map from WingtraOne data

GeoNel received a quote to map the city project from a consultancy firm employing a DJI Phantom 4. Instead, they purchased a hexacopter for less, but with its short flight time and lack of built-in PPK, the system was unable to deliver. So the 66k loss for hardware is a conservative estimate because they lost time. Wingtra delivered the results in two days. 

Get the full story on how GeoNel Holding Company reaches their business objectives faster with WingtraOne

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