Flying In A Desert Environment With The DJI M600 Pro

Flying In A Desert Environment With The DJI M600 Pro

The drone, custom-built by Heliguy, performed well in Saudi Arabia amid scorching heat and dust. CG Labs discusses the mission, post-flight tips, and obtaining permissions.

Last updated: Apr 28, 2021

8 minute read

  • Global drone services provider CG Labs successfully completed a challenging mission in the Middle Eastern desert using the DJI M600 Pro. The drone was flown for image collection and mapping;
  • The drone stood up to scorching heat, and sand and dust, and outperformed a fixed-wing model;
  • Heliguy’s in-house technical team integrated the drone with a Canon EOS 5DS DSLR, as well as building a GPS module on top of the aircraft to allow full GPS tagging;
  • Find out how CG Labs operated in Saudi Arabia, including securing the necessary permissions, carrying out rigorous pre and post-flight checks, and dealing with cabling which overheated;
  • CG Labs praises Heliguy's customer service for dealing with a tech support call – more than 3,000 miles away and on a Sunday.

When it comes to difficult drone missions, flying in the uncompromising environment of the Middle Eastern desert is up there with the most challenging.

Having to battle scorching heat, endure a barrage of sand and dust, and overcome legal permissions make UAS operations in this part of the world a daunting assignment.

The DJI M600 Pro with Canon camera.

But, with the right equipment, and the correct procedures, it is possible.

A case in point is heliguy™ client CG Labs, who successfully flew the DJI M600 Pro in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Amid the unrelenting conditions of the Arabian Peninsula’s hot desert climate, the drone stood up to the task; in fact it outperformed a popular fixed-wing model which did not handle the heat and the mission had to be aborted.

Of course, operating the M600 in the Middle East – with the heat peaking at around 50°C – wasn’t easy. At times, the aircraft’s arms were almost too hot to handle, a HDMI cable needed to be stuffed into air-conditioning vents of a pick-up truck to be cooled down, and the drone required a deep clean at the end of each day.

heliguy™ stocks the DJI M600 Pro.

But it worked, and equipped with a Canon EOS 5DS DSLR and GPS module – integrated by Heliguy’s technical team – the drone captured useful aerial data, including imagery of landmarks, for the Ministry of Municipalities and Rural Affairs. The drone was also used for mapping.

The conditions were tough. It is a very dry heat and daytime temperatures were scorching.

Mike Hibberd - CG Labs

It showed what is possible – even in extreme conditions – and once again proved the reliability, robustness and versatility of DJI technology.

With this in mind, heliguy™ Insider caught up with Mike Hibberd, Services & Middle Eastern Manager for CG Labs, to discuss the mission in more detail and to highlight what you need to know when it comes to flying in desert environments.

Sand, Dust And Scorching Heat – Flying In The Desert

The hostility of the desert made drone operations a unique and challenging experience.

Mike said: “The conditions were tough. It is a very dry heat and daytime temperatures were up to 50°C and the arms of the M600 were sometimes almost too hot to handle.”

Conditions were unrelenting, with dust and scorching heat.

To ensure the kit performed to the best of its abilities, Mike and his team went through rigorous procedures, before and after each flight.

He said: “The pre-flight checks were as per our Operations Manual, but we generally doubled up as an extra precaution. On top of this, we always travelled with the large hard case for the M600, so it was always well protected.

“We tried to keep the dust and sand to a minimum by flying from paved areas, but that wasn’t always possible, and the M600 did get into some awful states by the end of the day. Fortunately, the camera is water and dust resistant.

The GPC case kept the drone secure. The amount of dust on the box shows how tough the conditions were.

“We made sure that the drone was cooled down every night, along with the batteries. We were charging in the field via a petrol generator so the batteries had a hard life too.

“Once cooled down it was a detailed clean down with a compressed air duster and a clean paintbrush every night.”

Following these procedures ensured that the M600 could complete the mission at hand; not an easy task – especially when other drones have failed in such environments.

Mike said: “I’ve flown another popular fixed-wing in Saudi Arabia and it did not handle the heat well at all resulting in the mission being cut short.”

The DJI M600 Pro outperformed a fixed-wing alternative.

The job wasn’t without its issues though. Indeed, the M600 did suffer one problem due to the heat – but heliguy™ was on hand to help, even though the office was some 3,000 miles away.

Mike said: “The only problem the M600 suffered was an issue with the HDMI cable. A problem arose whereby we couldn’t get a picture from the camera on the CrystalSky.

"However, I managed to put a call into Kevin Morton – the Head of Tech at heliguy™ – who diagnosed the issue. It seemed that the cable was getting too hot and the signal was then dropping off somehow.

“The solution was to jam both ends of the HDMI cable into our vehicle’s air vents and crank up the aircon to cool the cable.

“Importantly, and what sets heliguy™ apart from the competition, was being able to speak to Kevin on a Sunday morning from the middle of some remote village to resolve the HDMI cable issue. This, for us, is what sets heliguy™ apart. The level of customer service is fantastic.”

Choosing The Right Equipment For The Job

The DJI M600 Pro has become a key tool for professional aerial photography and industrial applications.

It benefits from triple modular redundancy, dustproof propulsion systems, actively cooled motors, high loading capacity and can be integrated with a range of Zenmuse cameras and third-party hardware and software.

The mission brief for CG Labs was to collect images of landmarks in several small towns outside Riyadh, so a quality camera, like the Canon EOS 5DS DSLR, was needed.

The DJI M600 Pro can carry large payloads. It is the ideal heavy-lift drone.

That the M600 Pro can carry additional modules made it an attractive proposition for the crew.

Mike said: “The driving factor for choosing the M600 was the payload. The project called for hi-res imagery and we chose a Canon EOS 5DS DSLR with a 17-40mm L series lens which gives outstanding results. This dictated the choice of aircraft.”

Custom Sensor Integration With Heliguy

Some modifications were needed before Mike and his team could utilise the M600 Pro and Canon camera, so CG Labs turned to heliguy™ for some R&D assistance.

heliguy™ created a bespoke solution for CG Labs.

Mike said: “The mission was built around the camera. However, there is no native option to geotag images so, as well as the build, heliguy™ integrated a Canon GPS module on to the top of the aircraft via an off-camera hot shoe to allow full GPS tagging.

"We knew that heliguy™ could carry out the work having used them before on other projects.

"They fully understood the brief and delivered a product that we required.”

Heliguy’s in-house technical department has established a reputation for carrying out bespoke builds and custom sensor integration. Previous jobs have included integrating a Sony RX1R II sensor with a DJI M600 Pro for world-renowned engineering and design company Atkins.

The custom-built drone for Atkins.

heliguy™ has also created bespoke solutions for the likes of the James Hutton Institute, Bridgeway Consulting, and Newcastle University.

Securing Permissions

Before Mike and his team could take to the skies, they had to secure the relevant permissions to fly.

Operating commercially in Saudi Arabia is dependent on numerous factors, such as the weight of your drone, securing clearance through the GACA Aviation Security Division, and obtaining a license to operate your aircraft, among other things.

Mike said: “I had to have a security clearance to fly, the M600 had to be identified and registered to fly in the Kingdom beforehand.

A flight plan of one of the missions.

“We had permission from the Ministry of Municipalities and Rural Affairs as well as from the General Authority for Civil Aviation. And we had to have an Observer from the Military Survey Dept with us at all times.

“Despite all these permissions and letters of authority we still had some occasions where extra explanation was required to the local police and other authorities.”

Mike added: “People are very surprised when you tell them you are travelling to Saudi Arabia, but I find it an amazing place. The people are friendly and the scenery is amazing.

"Just be respectful of their rules and customs and you won’t go far wrong. It is a very safe country.

“We have a sister company, Al-Laith, which builds structures for sporting events and expositions. They are based in Dubai but have expanded rapidly in Saudi Arabia as more public events are organised. Hopefully, this will give me a further opportunity to travel there.”

The mission in Saudi Arabia wasn’t the first time that CG Labs has worked with heliguy™.

Indeed, the global drone services provider – which has bases in the UK, Dubai, Norway, South Africa and Saudi Arabia – has signed up to Heliguy’s rental programme to flexibly scale its fleet. Find out how renting is benefiting CG Labs by clicking here.

Recently, CG Labs attended the UMEX 2020 show in Abu Dhabi, to demonstrate a Heliguy-supplied DJI M200 Series drone integrated with a Lorenz AI-Link® via onboard SDK – allowing for pilots to pre-programme flights, use drones to conduct automated missions, and increase data security.

heliguy™ is a DJI Gold Partner headquartered in the UK, as well as having a base in Texas, U.S. With more than 10 years of experience in the industry and serving major enterprise clients across a range of industry verticals, heliguy™ can start, support and scale your enterprise drone programme. Drones can boost your ROI, increase efficiency and improve safety. To find out how heliguy™ can help you, give us a call or send us an email.

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