When people talk about the equipment they need to conduct a drone mission, the first thing that comes to mind is the drone itself. While having the UAS with the appropriate sensor and physical characteristics is critical, there is more to a successful mission than just the drone. In this post, I want to highlight other essential equipment and materials for a successful mission. So let’s get started with my top 17 Things to Pack Before Conducting a Drone Mission.
#1 Cones. A set of 6 or more cones are an invaluable tool for your mission. I typically mark out my landing zone with four cones and then another of two for where I will be operating the controls. There are several benefits of doing this. First, outlining your work area sends a clear message to pedestrians that this is a work zone and to keep their distance. Drones are exciting, and people who are less busy than you will want to ask about them. Not only does this make your mission take longer, it creates unnecessary risk by distracting you from the mission.
#2 Landing Pad. A land pad is a brightly colored horizontal surface to launch and land a drone. I generally don't bother with a landing pad if I have a hard concrete or asphalt surface to launch from. However, they can be beneficial if you’re launching/recovering in dusty or vegetative areas. Having the prop wash hit the landing pad first won’t kick up as much dust that can dirty the sensor and get into the motors. The landing pads also provide a hard flat surface to land on. That’s essential if you’re landing in a grassy area. The landing struts will sink to the bare earth, but the grass blades will stick up and interfere with the camera or props. Similar situation if you’re launching/recovering on uneven surfaces. You can buy flexible landing pads that fold up on Amazon for around $20. In my experience, I like a simple 2’x2’ piece of plywood. The plywood is heavy enough not to blow away in the wind. Plus, if my truck gets stuck in the mud, I can wedge it under a tire to get out!
#3 PPE. Personal Protective Equipment, or PPE, was an expression used long before it went mainstream with COVID. For droning, this includes long pants, boots, and safety vests. Depending on the mission, you may need to go to a construction site with sharp debris or uneven surfaces. Or, you may need to go into some dense vegetation filled with bugs, snakes, poison ivy, or any number of other things that can ruin your day. If and when this happens, you’ll be glad for the long pants and boots. A safety vest has two benefits. First, it makes you more visible to cars reducing the risk of being struck. Second, it is another indicator to pedestrians that you are working and that they should keep their distance. A safety vest that says “Part 107 Pilot – Keep Back” doesn’t hurt either.
#4 Sun protection. Depending on the season, you may be in the hot sun for hours. Dehydration is no joke and can not only scrub a mission but could have some significant health consequences. In many ways, summer missions should be prepared for is a similar was as you would a trip to the beach. Apply sunscreen, light cotton clothes, wear a hat and pack lots of water. I personally like to use a bright orange wide-brim boonie hat with a neck flap. It reinforces the image that you are a professional, increases your visibility for safety, protects your neck from sunburn, and has the added advantage of embarrassing your teenage children when you chauffeur them around with their friends.
#5 Sunglasses. Again, it can get bright out there, so protect your eyes. I like the ANSI Z87 safety glasses available from your local hardware store. Others like polarized glasses to protect against glair.
#6 First Aid Kit. You never want to use this, but it's better to have it than not. Being able to patch yourself up not only reduces the chance of infection and provides some immediate relief but may also keep you from having to scrub the mission.
#7 Cleaning Supplies. If you’re in a dusty environment, giving your drone a quick wipe down before you put it back in the case. I keep a clean rag and a couple of cotton balls for the lens in my drone bag. I avoid liquid cleaners unless I really need them. Be very careful when using them around the sensors, especially thermal imagers. Ammonia can seriously damage the germanium lens of a thermal camera. Always close your case when you’re not using it. You want your case to be as sterile as possible.
#8 Extra props. There isn’t a lot of maintenance you’ll do with your off-the-shelf drone. The one exception is that you should regularly replace the props. Check with the drone manufacturer, but as a rule of thumb, you should replace them after 200 flight hours. That can be significantly reduced if they get chipped from contact with grass blades, twigs, or flying insects. (Carpenter bees are the worst!!!) Having an extra set of props can keep you from scrubbing a mission if a blade gets damaged.
#9 Aeronautical Radio. Investing a few hundred dollars into a radio that can receive air traffic chatter isn’t a terrible idea if your missions are near airports. I have found them particularly useful around untowered airports that don’t have much traffic. I basically use it as a poor man’s radar. I tune it to the CTAF and don't hear anything 99% of the time. However, as soon as I hear any squawking, I start looking up for the aircraft. It doesn’t really matter what they said. If I hear anything, there must be someone around I need to watch out for.
#10 Digital Sling Psychrometer. This is just a fancy name for a device that measures temperature and humidity. When doing thermal inspections, you’ll want to record the mission site's dry bulb, wet bulb, and relative humidity. You’ll need that information to explain your images and if you tune your images with software.
#11 Manometer. This is a device that records wind speed. Again, this is very important to record when doing a thermal inspection; however, it’s good information to record in your log for any UAS mission. The weather report is also good information to record, but the local airspeed could be significantly different depending on the specific objects and micro-environment you’re operating in.
#12 Pack Your Data. Depending on your mission site, you may be unable to connect to the internet. Before heading to the site, you should download the maps, firmware updates, and any other information needed for the mission.
#13 Cables. Don’t forget all of the cables and power cords. Sounds silly, but this is the one I stub my toe on the most. I go to the site and realize I forgot the Apple lightning cable to connect my tablet to the controller. Or, I accidentally had the phone flashlight on in my pocket and it drained the battery. It’s the little things you don't expect that are most likely to scrub the mission.
#14 Laptop. Having your laptop in the truck is a great safety net. You never know when your drone has a random error message, and you need to do some emergency Google searching to find the fix. Doing that on a laptop is much easier than your phone. It’s also not a bad idea to review the data you collected on your computer to ensure you have everything you need before packing up for the day.
#15 Table and Chairs. I take a cheap card table and two chairs to almost every mission. Setting that up in the shade to fill out my logs, check drone data on my laptop, or simply to eat lunch is such a luxury. For longer missions a tail gate tent is also very nice.
#16 Can of Spray Paint. If you’re setting out GCPs it’s very important to label them. It is a miserable experience trying to determine what GCP is what just from looking at the surrounding area. Painting the GCP numbers on the ground that can be seen from the air can save you hours of frustration at the office. It doesn’t have to be GCPs, though. Sometimes you want to mark out your drone launch area or mark items of interest in the photos for later review.
#17 Generator and Extension Cord. If you are doing a long mission, you will need power to recharge your drone batteries or to power peripheral devices such as laptops or tablets. It's possible your car has a AC power plug but be mindful of your amerage. A single battery can draw 2 amps. You might be able to charge two batteries at a time but it's unlikely you can do more than that. Odds are you'll need a generator if you don’t have access to power on-site. However, even with power on-site, it may not be where you need it. You’ll be glad to have an extension cord to bring the power to that shady spot you found to charge the batteries or work on your laptop.
Bonus #18 Tape. Bring a roll of duct tape with you because you never know! Duct tape has provided emergency fixes to many problems since World War 2. Just buy a roll and throw it in your drone bag. You never know when it will come in handy to get you out of a pinch.