Heliguy's Guide to Drone Sensors Part 1

Heliguy's Guide to Drone Sensors Part 1

In part one of this series, Heliguy will be discussing the basics used to ensure your drone operates correctly, as well as looking at the most widely used sensors for commercial applications. Part 1: Introduction & Commonly Used Sensors Over the past few weeks, Heliguy have been testing out DJI’s Zenmuse XT FLIR Thermal solution... Read More

Last updated: Mar 03, 2021

7 minute read

Sensors Banner In part one of this series, heliguy™ will be discussing the basics used to ensure your drone operates correctly, as well as looking at the most widely used sensors for commercial applications.

Part 1: Introduction & Commonly Used Sensors

Over the past few weeks, heliguy™ have been testing out DJI’s Zenmuse XT FLIR Thermal solution and have written about the many uses for this impressive thermal sensor. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg, with so many options currently available to those looking to put their drones to practical, commercial use. One of the main uses for unmanned aircraft is to take high quality footage and imagery which can be used for various purposes including commercial aerial photography, professional filmmaking or alternatively gathering visual data from hard-to-reach perspectives. In the case of the latter option, this data can be processed to offer insights into everything from energy usage and structural soundness to agricultural management and offshore maintenance. The increasingly diverse range of sensors which are now available on the market can sometimes seem overwhelming. Varying in weight, size, cost and most importantly, quality, it’s important that you know which is right for your business model before diving right in. Without further ado, here is Heliguy’s guide on everything you need to know about making your drone a data crunching commercial asset.

What You Need to Know

Every drone requires sensors to ensure that it works the way it’s supposed to. They monitor the craft’s speed, bearing and location ensuring that you’re able to remain in full control. It’s important to be familiar with the basics, see below for a rundown of the most common sensors you’ll encounter. The-Basics

Accelerometer & Gyroscope

The accelerometer monitors the craft’s acceleration via two differing units: metres per second squared (mps2) or alternatively when acceleration is measured in weight, G-force. If you look inside the accelerometer, you’ll see a small system which is designed to bend when momentum or G-force are applied to it. The output signal is dependent on the amount of bend which is applied to the system in-flight. A gyroscope is used to measure the angular velocity of a craft to ensure that it remains balanced in the air. Used to ensure stability and send corrections to the craft’s motors if any issues present themselves, the gyroscopic sensor makes use of a disc with a heavy outer rim to resist unwanted movements when spinning on its axis.

Inertial Measurement Unit

The Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU) measures and reports the specific force, angular rate, and in some cases, the magnetic field surrounding a craft. This is accomplished by a grouping of accelerometers, gyroscopes and sometimes magnetometers. The data from these components is collected by the IMU and returned to the drone’s main processor. There are also GPS devices which are IMU-enabled which allow the craft’s receiver to work, even when a signal is unavailable, for example inside buildings or when electronic interference is an issue.


Allowing for satellite-powered positioning, GPS sensors ensure that a drone knows its position in relation to the pilot amongst other locational information. Many drones also have access to the Russian equivalent, GLONASS. There are currently interesting discussions taking place on the subject of GPS, with calls for increased controls to be put on drones via this pervasive locational sensor technology. The most popular of which is known as ‘geo-fencing’, restricting a craft to within a certain distance of its owner and potentially blocking drones from entering no-fly-zones such as busy airspace.

Proximity Detection

Drones are increasingly using sensors to detect hazards and terrain, giving pilots one less thing to worry about during flights. This basic concept is being transformed into an increasingly advanced feature suite, with the progress led by companies such as DJI. A recent example of this is the groundbreaking Obstacle Avoidance present within the Phantom 4. There’s also the Vision Positioning System present in the Inspire 1 which allows it to function when no GPS signal is available.

Existing Commercial Sensor Solutions  

We’ve all viewed the impressive videos and images posted across the web from drone pilots (both professional and vocational) and it’s easy to see the appeal. Some however, take this as a sign that drones are merely extensions of a camera operator’s gear which couldn’t be further from the truth. Industrial-Application-Sensors There are a huge range of possibilities offered by sensor technology, with the emerging commercial drone market being valued at a staggering $127bn by a recent PwC report. Read on for information regarding the most prevalent sensors currently used alongside UAVs:

Visual Imaging Sensors

The huge range of cameras and gimbal technology available to drone users offer a range of prospects to those wanting to make money as a commercial pilot. Many people purchase drones with the sole desire to capture stunning aerial footage and take photographs from perspectives not previously available to them. Popular models include the Canon 5D, Sony Alpha 7s, the Black Magic Pocket Cinema Camera and the mighty RED EPIC. The use of visual imaging sensors doesn’t begin and end with filmmaking and photography.  As well the ability to produce aesthetically impressive work, there are a growing number of alternative business use cases for aerial imagery which are becoming increasingly prevalent. With a high quality camera, the commercial possibilities of its usage span industries ranging from archaeology and forestry to mining and structural surveys. Using available software, it’s even possible to create detailed 2D or 3D maps of areas covering huge spans of land which is set to have a massive impact on sectors such as agricultural management. Visual-Imaging-Sensors Buying Through Heliguy See below for our available cameras and click through for further information about each model:
  • DJI Zenmuse X5 DJI’s X5 has the ability to take 16-megapixel photos and record 4K video at up to 30fps, at 4096×2160 (24fps) or 3840×2160 (30/25fps).
  • DJI Zenmuse X5R The X5R is capable of recording lossless 4K videos in RAW. With a framerate of up to 30fps, you’re able to capture awesome professional quality footage. You can also take crystal clear 16-megapixel stills.
  • Panasonic GH4 A powerful, flexible camera with a highly impressive still performance as well as the ability to shoot 4K video.

Thermal Sensors

Most of the buzz around drone sensors currently centres on the rapid advances in thermal technology. Models such as DJI’s Zenmuse XT powered by FLIR’s thermal camera expertise have captured the imagination of the drone market and opened up countless commercial possibilities. Drones are becoming a huge force for change in the agricultural sector, but few sensors have made as much impact as thermal solutions. Effectively neutralising issues that plagued the industry in the past, these sensors are able to provide detailed reports on everything from managing irrigation to early detection of pests and crop deficiencies. Thermal isn’t just for agriculture however, here at heliguy™ we’ve spoken to a number of emergency service departments who are beginning to use the technology such as fire and rescue teams utilising thermal imaging to provide a detailed overview of active scenes, and police forces looking for more practical methods of aerial tracking. Within the category of thermal solutions there are options which offer up more precision. Radiometric cameras provide accurate temperature readings for each visible pixel onscreen. This pinpointed data is well-suited to tasks such as monitoring the effectiveness of solar panels or searching for hotspots on pylons, streamlining the processes involved in energy management. DJI have recently announced an Advanced Radiometry Version of their Zenmuse XT to address the need for increased precision in thermal solutions. This level of detail isn’t always necessary however, it may be that you don’t need to fork out for the more expensive radiometric kit. The majority of existing thermal solutions used for surveillance and at night are standard versions which are more than capable of the task at hand. Thermal-Sensors-Image1 Current uses of thermal technology include structural inspections, search and rescue, live incident reporting and energy monitoring. DJI Zenmuse Thermal XT & Advanced Radiometry Version To find out more about DJI and FLIR’s thermal solution, compatible with the Inspire 1, Matrice 100 and Matrice 600, you can browse our previous posts outlining the key features of each.  

Coming Soon

To find out more about the bright commercial future for drone sensors, check back soon for a look at how various industries are beginning to rely heavily on drones and the data offered by increasingly advanced sensor solutions.

Heliguy's Guide to Drone Sensors Part 2: The Commercial Future of Sensors

Find Out More

To find out more about our range of available sensors and how they could benefit your business, don’t hesitate to contact the heliguy™ team. Email: info@heliguy.com Call Us: UK: 0845 838 8652 Int: +44 (0)191 296 1024   Keep checking back to heliguy™ Insider for information about the growing market for aerial data capture and, of course, the latest news from the drone industry.

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