Building a Drone for ecology work.

Does anyone have any experience / tips for building and using a drone for ecological work? I'm looking to use it ideally for the following; tree surveys, wetland identifications (potential delineation), elevation mapping etc...I assume I would need it to lift ~5 to 10lbs of sensors and fly for about 20minutes or more if possible. I would like it to be somewhat modular in the sense that I could swap out cameras for lidar fairly easily.Drone frame suggestions and motors would be greatly appreciated and I think get the ball rollig for me. I'm hesitant to buy a those parts without suggestions myself because I feel that's the backbone of a proper field drone.Thanks in advance!

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  • Moderator
    It certainly was David, thanks for bringing it to our attention.
  • 100KM

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  • When we are thinking of taking on a new challenge, we often engage in a fact finding mission. You could do the same by joining one of our teams in operating drones for conservation or counter poaching.

  • Get a hold of @dronecology on Twitter.

  • If you want to get the personal satisfaction and have the time and money, I would suggest you build both a multi and a fixed wing.You will have fun, you will learn a lot and you might even survive.

    Having said that, my personal opinion is that by and large, building fixed wings gives you better results in terms of bang for your buck. This is because multis totally dominate the market and there are huge amounts of very well thought out, very well constructed and competitively priced ready made systems which cover most of the obvious use cases far better than you could as a noob designer / builder.

    Another point is that crashes are generally milder on fixed wings (and as a noob designer/builder you 're likely get plenty of those). A blown ESC on a plane is a nuisance but you can still glide down more or less in control (in fact I just did last week, blown motor) and even if you do crash, the electronics are cocooned in the fuselage. In a quad, you get an angry spinning mess with exposed crunchy expensive bits crashing randomly.

  • You can follow my design if you like.

  • Richard-

    You should try to figure out what sensor loadout you need and then try to build a vehicle around that. Fixed wings can and do work well in wind, as David says above. Rotary wing craft are very nice because as you know, they can take off and land vertically, with minimal landing space (compared to a fixed wing).

    Decide what payload you have to carry, then decided if you want or need a fixed wing or rotary wing aircraft. If you decide that you need a rotary wing with a large payload with 20+min flight times, then you will wind up with a large multicopter similar to what we build for aerial spraying.

    Once you get to that scale of vehicle, it becomes more cost effective to buy a ready made product unless you have extensive experience designing and building this type of equipment. For example, we looked at the Foxtech D130 frame, Aerial Pixels FX8 frame, and the Monster X frame. After looking at all the options and seeing how expensive everything was (and still did not meet our requirements), we decided to go with the machined body you saw (which actually turned out to be quite a bit cheaper than the frames mentioned above).

    One last thought, if you are using this equipment out in the wildlands, you will definitely want something that is waterproof. I can't tell you how many times our equipment has been rained on, splashed by sprinklers, dropped in puddles, etc where if the vehicle wasn't waterproof we would be in trouble.

    Good luck with your project

  • 100KM


    Fixed wing drones do work well with winds.   They cruise at about 12 meters per second.  They can fly for more than an hour.   You get nice evenly timed photos with the survey pattern setup to fly across wind and always turning up wind.   Typical altitudes are from 70 to 100 meters.   You also need an area to land and takeoff.      Most of my experience is with aerial photography of golf courses along the coast.    With a plane I can do all 18 holes twice in a morning.   

    I have found that the quadcopters to be great for small areas and for low altitude high resolution photos.   You can fly them along a low altitude and 5 meters per second and get great high resolution photos for constructing orthophotos and 3d models.  They only require a small landing area which can be important in the city.  You can get close to the area you are going to photograph put the quadcopter up, grab the photos and land.

    For larger areas I have found the planes to be quite reliable.     I have never lost a plane.     On one golf course I did last year, the E384 did all 18 holes twice.  Once at 70 meters and once at 100 meters.  I was done by noon.  I had not thought the wind was much of a problem but both quadcopter pilots, that were flying the same job doing small area aerial photography, had crashes.   They were flying lower than I was though and there were a lot of low altitude obstacles.   

  • In re choice of multirotor v fixed wing airframe, I think your primary consideration has to do with the scope of your intended remote sensing project. Multirotors are best suited generally for smaller sites (tens of acres per flight) whereas fixed wing uav's are better suited for large areas (potentially hundreds of acres/flight). Consider your needs in re take-off and recovery. Multirotors ascend/descent vertically and require just a few feet of open space. Fixed wing need a much larger flat, smooth area for takeoff and recovery (generally). 

  • Apologies for the delayed response. I was out of town for work and I appreciate everyone's feed back. 

    @OG - I definitely wont be using the drone for spraying or anything agricultural/food. So i'm not worried about poisons but the waterproofing might be something to consider.  

    @Brian - That is a very impressive drone you all build. I cant imagine the cost for that machined casing...

    @Andreas - The desire to build on from scratch is part personal satisfaction and also the ability to fix things on the drone while on site in the field vs. if i have one from a manufacturer then typically they don't want you working on the drone less you void the warranty. I believe the hands on experience and knowledge you can get for troubleshooting can be invaluable. Budget wise I ideally don't want to spend more than 3000.00 on the drone itself. Instrumentation for data collection I know will cost a nice sum. 

    Overall, this drone would be used for inland tree and wetland surveys, maybe some phase one assessments and recon work of hard to reach areas. There are surprisingly many of these in the southeastern United States.

    I was doing some reading over the weekend and stumbled upon an article noting that rotary copters/drones are great for inland work and fixed wing drones should be preferably using for coastal/high wind work. Does anyone have any input on this?

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