I have spent 7 years messing with drones. I've used them from a 500lb UAV down to 55g of weight. I know how to design them and conduct operations from mapping to SAR. I'm more than knee deep in this stuff. In all this time I've yet to see a camera that does it all. I also know that there are people out there working on this problem and I also acknowledge whole-heartedly that I don't know everything.
In that spirit I'd like to describe what my version of the perfect camera would be and maybe have the community here chime in and make a better description. The ultimate goal here would be for someone to build one of these at a cost that would be reasonable. I'll be as descriptive as possible.
1. Onboard GPS - Having the ability to connect your own GPS receiver (like Red Edge has) allows the user to use their own accurate GPS antenna instead of relying on one that is out of date and impossible to remove from the camera. This also removes manufacturing cost and size of the camera while allowing the user to place the GPS receiver in a much better location for reception.
2. Size - Obviously the smaller the better, but a form factor of the Parrot Sequoia or GoPro would be ideal, the max size would be around the Canon S100 (roughly 4x2x3 inches). This allows fixed wing operators to place payloads in an already cramped fuselage. Multi rotor types have plenty of room due to "external" mounting of the camera.
3. Weight - Obviously, the lighter the better, but let's define light. 100g without sensors (GPS etc.) would be ideal. Given the current Commercial Off the Shelf (COTS) airframes that most of us must use I can't see a camera weighing more than .7 pounds being easily carried by fixed wing and still have a useful flight time. Multi rotors can carry a heavier payload but pay the same price as far as flight times. A typical multirotor can only fly for 15-25 minutes so the lighter the payload the better for them as well.
4. Shape - This is perhaps the biggest overlooked factor. Make it a simple shape, for example the A6000 is hard to mount due to all of the curved surfaces while the GoPro is perhaps the easiest to mount. Most of us have to figure out a way to mount a payload by using tools you would find at home in order to carve fitting foam blocks or hacksaw a screw to "just the right size". Simple shapes are best.
5. Mounting options - What would be counter productive is to have a bunch of mounting options that are excessive in the bulkiness department and even worse they would unnecessarily increase the weight of the payload. Perhaps a novel way to provide an easy and SECURE way to mount the payload needs to be thought of.
6. MegaPixels - If Real Estate is all about Location then cameras are all about RESOLUTION, as in pixels per inch. Resolution is accomplished mostly by having a high MP rating. Minimum would be 16mp in order to beat what I consider to be the baseline camera system, the Canon S100. Preferably it would be 20-25MP. Higher than this is ok but then you start to run into problems with having to transfer huge amounts of data over narrow bandwidths. Not too much, not too little.
7. NO MOVING PARTS - The AW120 is a good example of this. If your lens moves in and out then it will have a high chance of not surviving a crash. Shock proof as best as possible is the goal.
8. Ruggidizing - Difficult, yes, but I would want some water resistance and shock ratings if possible. It's bumpy in the sky and VERY bumpy on landing too! The casing does not need to be carbon fiber (please don't use carbon fiber) but something that is plastic is fine. Maybe you can just provide the circuits and leave the body up to those that have rapid prototype machines (PolyPrinters for example). That way we can share body designs and take the pressure off of the manufacturing process.
9. Lens must be cleanable - Most are, but to be thorough, the lens must be accessible while the camera is mounted in order to remove debris or water vapor by hand.
10. Battery Life - Very surprising here, don't make one with an on board battery! Make it so that i can use an EXTERNAL power supply! You will never be able to fit a big enough battery for the flight time of my drone (or yours). I can, however, tap the main power supply for my motor, step it down to the required voltage and power the camera for as long as the drone will fly. This way the payload and the airframe are perfectly matched.
11. Voltage - Put in reverse polarity protection and the ability to plug in up to a 6S LiHV (different than LiPo!). This means you are providing the BEC (step down voltage regulator).
12. Heat Sink - Nice to have, especially if you can make it modular and placeable in more than just one location on the camera. I need that flexibility because I don't know how I'm going to mount it so I need options for cooling the camera.
13. Shutter Speed - Nominal and useful is 1/2000th of a second, what I want is 1/4000.
14. ISO - up to 6400 is fine as most of us can not/would not fly in the dark.
15. WiFi - NOT NEEDED. It does not have the bandwidth to push the pictures to my laptop fast enough. It certainly wont beat an accessible SD card. There might be another purpose for Bluetooth or WiFi data connections to the camera but I can always transfer the data "manually" faster than WiFi ever will, so save the complexity, room, cost and weight for the other requirements please.
16. Multi spectral Ability - As it turns out you can get more data (including data gained by NIR, G, RG and UV bands) by putting a normal RGB photo through filters. While this is not as good or detailed as a dedicated camera it does serve the purpose (so far). I'd make this an option but not put into the first generation as it is too specific of a payload type. We won't even discuss an Infra Red Camera at all because that's a different beast altogether.
17. Autopilot Triggerable - BIG one here. I want my autopilot to be able to communicate to the camera in all respects. I want my GPS data that I already have the hardware to get to be able to be used by the camera to know when to be triggered. I expect a cable to run from the camera to the back of my autopilot to accomplish this. This would also eliminate a need for the camera to have its own GPS unit but having the option would be HUGE. It would also need a way to be triggered via IR or Hotshoe for those of us that don't want to use the autopilot to trigger it. The more options the better and remember, a companion computer is going to be the standard for autopilots very very soon.
18. 1080 at 30-60fps is fine. Most computers can't run 4K and anything above 2.7K tends to incur bandwidth issues. Also a Video Out so I can hook up an On Screen Display is also a must. You can also consider putting in your own OSD on the motherboard of the camera, I could live with that!
19. MAKE THE OPERATING SYSTEM OPEN SOURCE!!!! I want to be able to pluck from the world of programmers, not just from the one guy you hired at your company. He won't be able to keep up. Think of it like this, I want "sub programs" to be loadable, for example KAP UAV 3.6.
20. Mechanical links must be secure! Screwable connections (latching, etc) would be nice for cables to and from the camera.
21. The ability to take a picture WHILE recording video with no visible disruption of the video. Picture must be trigerable via an intervelometer system OR by the user remotely.
22. Field of View - I don't want to have to add an extra step in processing to get the fish-eye effect out of my image. Time is money. 90deg is probably good enough, 60deg is probably too low, 120deg or more is stupid. Variable would be impossible I think, but important if possible.
23. Format - RAW is needed by the few, most just need JPEG, please don't use anything anticipated to be "the next best thing coming up" as I need the operating system I have on my desktop to be able to use the photos immediately.
24. Ability to use high capacity SD cards - Not lower than 32Gigs for sure, prefer around 64-128gigs currently for a camera that can do all of these things
25. Lens quality - I know next to nothing about this aspect but I know that a cheap lens will negate all electronic efforts to get a good picture
26. Magnetometer - nice to have and I'd like to pull that data from my autopilot so I am not having to do a separate calibration on my camera after I JUST DID ONE FOR MY AIRCRAFT!
27. The little things: I want the ability to remotely turn the camera off and automatically collapse the lens if it is a moving lens type. This can help improve survivability of the camera if I know the bird is going to crash. It can also save precious power needed to keep the aircraft in the air.
28. Camera speed - HUGE HUGE HUGE. I need to be able to take a pic once every second or better so I can fly my missions at a safe speed and/or full speed. I need a full pic, not an unfocused "burst" that we have with normal cameras now. Fully balanced and focused please.
Things absolutely not needed:
1. Macros, for example: red eye reduction, panoramic and landscape macros. I can't think of any I would need to run while the camera was going 40mph in the air.
2. A lot of the control of standard camera settings in automatic modes tend to take good enough pics
3. view finder - I am not going to be using the camera in a manner that would need one, besides everyone uses the 3" LCD to frame pics now.
4. 3" LCD, don't need the weight or cost increase on the ones that swivel out for the user. Make this as big as possible but not mechanically complicated.
5. Zoom - electronic zoom is ok, but manual zoom is useless for mapping and requires additional servos or control inputs.
6. Flash - just flat out not needed for a lot of reasons
7. Manual focus - I can't ever use this feature as I can't fly up to my drone myself
I'll add things that are mentioned as this thread progresses. I'd love to know if anyone else wants something like this.
@Chad Frazer - I also wanted to write this post myself, so I am glad you did write it. I may have written a few less things than you did and a few of my needs are actually simpler than yours. One big example of the difference between us is that I only want visible light, but you mentioned other needs. I am a photographer. And actually my needs are for close range images such as any home inspector might want when inspecting a roof.
1) I would not use GPS the same way you describe it but I absolutely agree with your secs there. I do want the GPS location encoded into the EXIF data.
2) My specs on the camera size are even smaller than yours.... I want a camera that is about 2"x2"x2" or even smaller, but definitely symmetrical. It is not meant to ever be held in our hand to take a photograph. All we need is a size that holds the sensor, PCB and the lens.
3) 100 grams should be doable. I am right there with you.
4) My expectation of the shape may sound odd, but why not a sphere or a cylinder? Round holes are pretty easy to drill. But a 2"x2"x2" cube works as well.
5) Mounting options - a threaded hole on 5 faces all centers with the lens on the sixth face seems like a simple request. You can give me just about any size and thread pitch English or Metric.
6) 20-25 MP seems good. But my idea of a sensor is to make it a 1" SQUARE. And at that size, 16 megapixel would be perfect. I know it sounds odd, but it would be the most efficient for mapping as well. We can discuss my rational on the sensor in future comments. But ask yourself: "Why not a square sensor?"
7) No moving parts is exactly what I want. I also have another odd request for inspection work. Focus the lens at a shorter distance like 2 or 3 meters. I can work out the exact hyperfocal distance that works for inspections. I will never be shooting at a mountain a mile away.
8) Rugged will be pretty easy if the power and memory were outboard and all camera controls and data transfer are done by wire.
9) Yes, cleanable lens, but let's also ask for a quality glass lens.
10) Outboard power is the best solution. When you do not have the power to fly, you do not need the power to take photographs.
11) I disagree on voltage... 5v DC should be good enough. And, we should all be capable of getting the polarity right. But this was never a part of my wish list, so I am sure I can live with anything that works.
12) I never thought about cooling a camera. I figure the camera manufacturer should understand heat already.
13) I just want a shutter speed fast enough to not have blurred images with normal vibration of the drone. Too much shaking and I think it may be time to make improvements to the drone. Till now, I did not know there would be a need for more than about 1/2000.
14) ISO 6400 should be achievable
15) I do not know if WIFI is needed. I need to be able to get a live feed of modest resolution to my ground station in order to compose the shot. Give it to me in any reasonable way possible.
16) I just want visible light images. The thermal imaging people know what they are doing and already make good cameras. Just give me a good still image.
17) I do understand the potential advantage for autopilot trigger on the shutter, but I just need good access to the shutter so I can press the button without any delays.
18) I just want a quality still image. Video specs are for an entirely different set of pilots. Make the two different camera in the same shape and size and offer both. My needs are simpler. Let the videographers pay for their specs.
19) I never thought about the OS. But I am a champion of Open Source.
20) If the cable gets ripped out of the camera body, it took a hard landing. It may be time for a new camera anyway. Just solder the wires to the PCB and seal the hole that leaves the camera body to keep the dust out.
21) Just let me take a photograph within a few milliseconds of when I press the button.
22) My needs are for a "Normal" lens with a FOV that is around 40 degrees. A square sensor would make it easier for the lens makers to get good images.
23) JPEG will work for me, and RAW would be a bonus.
24) 64gig memory is just right, but I could actually live with 32gig. I would only take about 150 to 200 images per flight.
25) I want a quality multi-element coated lens that gives the sensor no less sharpness that it can use.
26) Cameras do not need a magnetometer
27) Maybe a lens cover and an off button, but I will be working on survivability with the drone and not worrying about the camera.
28) One shot per second would be nice, but I can live with 1 shot every 3 or 4 second if 1/s costs any extra, or uses more power.
29) Interchangeability with all other cameras. Every drone flyer wants thing his own way - give us choices in cameras.
30) Common EXIF data such as date and time and GPS location.
1) White Balance - just make it daylight
2) Video - just let me see what I am shooting
Nice post, I also worked for seven years with the aircraft and just now I am trying to solve the camera problem, I will add this feature:
- Global Shutter instead Rolling Shutter
I try some "interesting" cameras that are small, without moving parts, 16 MP, light, with trigger from autopilot, and many more of the features you list,but the rolling shutter effect make a very bad effect during processing.
The best camera today, I thing, is the senseFly S.O.D.A. (have all that we want) but I don't know if it´s possible to adapt to other autopilots different from eBee
I'm very excited about the mention of a global shutter, that's one I should have put in the original post for sure! The Parrot Sequoia has a HUGE rolling shutter problem...I mean it too, 3.5 THOUSAND DOLLARS and no image it takes with the RGB is without wave patterns!!
I hear both of you, anyone know of a camera genius with time on his/her hands? If so have them call me! Like NOW.
Lash a Phantom 4 Pro under your fixed wing!
Phantom 4 Pro camera is as good as senseFly S.O.D.A, 1 inch sensor, mechanical shutter, small and light, the problem I think is the same as sensFly S.O.D.A, there is no way to buy it alone and integrate with other autopilot. But 2 cameras in the market with this characteristics show a good scenario in the future to have some "no proprietary" camera
If you have one, would you like to share your UAV pictures on here?
I saw the new Sony RX0 (https://www.sony.com/electronics/cyber-shot-compact-cameras/dsc-rx0) and look great the Anti-distortion shutter of up to 1/32000 sec and 1" sensor, anyone know of its possible to shutter it from Pixhawk?
Super-speedy shutter reduces distortion in shots of fast-moving subjects.
 Conventional rolling shutter  RX0 anti-distortion shutter
Good post to read!
Yes "Multi/Micro USB Terminal" as stated in the spec sheet. Can be triggered by relay.