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How drone flight time impacts job time, and why it matters to your bottom line

Professional survey and mapping drones are increasingly disrupting a range of industries due to their ability to gather rich location information much faster than terrestrial methods. However, because this is a new field of technology, it can be hard to judge the performance of a drone based on simplified tech specs. One of the most confusing of these is flight time, because it’s often considered as an independent factor, when really—if your aim is to capture high-quality data fast—it’s not.

Breaking down the drone flight-time matrix

Looking at the flight time of a drone by itself is kind of like looking at the battery life of a phone without knowing whether it is a new-generation smartphone or a flip phone. In both cases, the question begs: beyond battery life, what technological features do you need to take care of business smoothly and at a quality level that meets both current and future demands?

Even if the flight time is “the longest around,” can the drone collect reliable, high-accuracy data in a single, or just a few flights with minimal set-up time expense?

In fact, a lot of companies are finding out that once they start using drones, more opportunities and more project offers featuring both large areas and challenging conditions emerge. For anyone serious about the benefits of drone surveying and mapping, the right choice of technology brings a competitive business advantage amidst rising drone data demands.

Drone flight time in context

When gathering data with a professional mapping drone, a range of details must all be factored in to assess the maximum flight time of any mission. Once these are considered, it becomes more obvious why it’s important to consider flight time in context when choosing which drone and payload to invest in.

Payload

Using a heavier payload reduces flight time. However, even though the flight time is shorter with a heavier payload, the quality of that payload might allow you to fly higher for the same resolution and accuracy. So you would capture more ground per image and get your job done faster.

For example, WingtraOne can carry a range of different payloads, and according to the payload weight, the flight time varies slightly. However, even if you fly with a heavier RX1R II camera, the coverage you get might be larger depending on the mission. At 3 cm (1.2 in) / px GSD with the RX1R II, you get up to 52 min flight time compared to 59 min with the QX1, but you can cover 400 ha (988 ac), compared to 310 ha (766 ac) with QX1.

Flight time and coverage: different payloads, same 3 cm (1.2 in) GSD*

WingtraOne + RX1R II & PPK

52 minutes covers 400 ha (990 ac)

WingtraOne + QX1

Wingtra QX1 coverage illustration

59 minutes covers 310 ha (760 ac)

Altitude above sea level

With altitude increase comes thinner air, which requires more force and power to generate lift. Drones typically don’t fly at super high (> 5000 m/ 16,000 ft above mean sea level), altitudes because it’s so expensive for the battery. Add to this that the speed at which they must fly increases, and typical payloads can’t handle this. For a payload that can, the coverage per shot compensates for the lost flight time and, note that (!) this even allows more coverage than at sea level with a capable payload. In other words, speed compensates for some part of the extra battery expense, so you will still cover a good amount of ground.

Flight time and altitude: different altitudes, same GSD, who covers more?*

WingtraOne + RX1R II & PPK
2000 m (6560 ft) AMSL

2000 amsl Wingtra Sony RX1R II and PPK coverage illustration
35 minutes covers 350 ha (860 ac)

WingtraOne + QX1
Sea level

Wingtra QX1 coverage illustration
59 minutes covers 310 ha (760 ac)

Vertical hover vs. cruise mode

If we take the WingtraOne as an example again, we know that this VTOL drone uses significantly more energy while hovering, thus the more you hover, the less battery you have for the actual mission. This means that the transition altitude significantly affects flight time: higher transition altitude equals reduced flight time.

drone hover vs. cruise flight illustration
In hover mode, the battery powers the lift via propellers. In cruise mode, passive air flow across the craft produces a lift effect, which requires less battery power.

Wind

Wind is also an influential factor when estimating drone flight time. In stronger winds, drones consume more energy while flying and landing, which means missions will end up with shorter flight times.
illustration of wind and drones
All types of drones are affected by stronger winds and will face compromised flight time and even data capture in higher wind speeds.

Temperature

As temperature changes air density, it also affects flight time directly. Higher temperatures mean lower flight times, thus in hot environments and climates, temperature should be factored in to expect a realistic flight time.
Thermometer and clock illustration
Temperature affects air density and impacts flight time for all drones. Higher temps result in lower flight times.

A better question: What's the coverage per flight?

When you look at real-life examples, it becomes clear that for most applications, coverage per flight is much more important than flight time. In the world of drone photogrammetry, coverage per flight depends on accuracy requirements, flight height, sensor size and side overlap.

Flight height

same payload different flight height illustration
The higher you fly, the more you can cover. At the same time your resolution and accuracy are reduced when flying higher with the same payload.

Sensor size

sensor comparison illustration
A larger sensor can capture more ground with every picture taken. For this reason, you can fly higher and cover more while maintaining a high accuracy, even if the flight time is slightly reduced.

Side overlap

drone flight overlap illustration
Decreasing side overlap gives you more coverage per flight. However, excessively low overlaps can result in failed map reconstruction.

In the end, more important than just looking at flight time is making sure you select the right camera configuration. In many cases, the right camera and settings can get your data captured faster even if the flight time might seem shorter!

Getting the job done

At the end of the day, it is not just about flight time, but rather about how fast you can get the required data for a given area. Beyond flight time, the keys to reducing your overall drone mapping job time are reliability over repeat surveys, and overall ease-of-use in the field.

For large areas, you need a drone that can fly time after time and require minimal maintenance or technical support, as highlighted in this case study. A VTOL design can also offer a lot of time saved looking for a large area to launch and land a fixed-wing, with 14x faster data capture than a quadcopter. Plus a well-integrated PPK system will reduce massive time expense laying ground control points over larger areas. Finally, the setup needs to be intuitive, taking just minutes and requiring minimal training.

Beyond flight time, these are the considerations that will get your job done fast, at the quality you need, with the fewest headaches possible. 

*Flight time calculations based on optimal conditions: 20 m (65 ft) transition altitude, 1 m/s wind, 15 C air temp, 60% side overlap.

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Wingtra
Wingtra

Wingtra develops, produces and commercializes high precision VTOL drones that collect survey-grade aerial data.

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